Saturday, December 21, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Robert Reich laments the indecency of gross inequality (and the economic policies designed to exacerbate it):
(F)or more than three decades we’ve been going backwards. It’s far more difficult today for a child from a poor family to become a middle-class or wealthy adult. Or even for a middle-class child to become wealthy.

The major reason is widening inequality. The longer the ladder, the harder the climb. America is now more unequal that it’s been for eighty or more years, with the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of all developed nations. Equal opportunity has become a pipe dream.

Rather than respond with policies to reverse the trend and get us back on the road to equal opportunity and widely-shared prosperity, we’ve spent much of the last three decades doing the opposite.
(T)he underlying issue is a moral one: What do we owe one another as members of the same society?

Conservatives answer that question by saying it’s a matter of personal choice – of charitable works, philanthropy, and individual acts of kindness joined in “a thousand points of light.”

But that leaves out what we could and should seek to accomplish together as a society. It neglects the organization of our economy, and its social consequences. It minimizes the potential role of democracy in determining the rules of the game, as well as the corruption of democracy by big money. It overlooks our strivings for social justice.

In short, it ducks the meaning of a decent society.
- And Ian Welsh points out that an economy built around unnecessary scarcity only facilitates negative outcomes in both absolute and relative terms:
We, in the West, live in scarcity economies.  The key bottleneck resources are scarce, and the decision has been made to keep them scarce.  Our entire economic policy from about 1979 can be summarized as follows: ordinary people cannot be allowed to have a real raise which translates into spending on oil.
When you live in a scarcity society, it’s almost impossible to receive permission to do anything real, and you have to put up with how your boss treats you, unless you have a very in-demand skillset, because the next job isn’t a sure thing.  Infrastructure isn’t maintained, new institutions aren’t built, and every old institution tries to create a rental stream (thus the huge increases in tuition and the huge decreases in grants.)  You can’t build high-speed rail, heck you can’t even maintain the freeways properly.  Bridges start collapsing, and so on.

This isn’t just about resource shortages.  A resource shortage may start the sequence, but it is the deliberate refusal to deal with the resource shortage which turns it from a challenge into an era, which turns a rich society into a scarcity society.
- Meanwhile, Alison's latest Dilbit takes a look at the lack of thinking behind the NEB's Gateway approval. And David Suzuki points out the lunacy of approving a pipeline based on future research to figure out exactly what harm it figures to cause:
"Spills will happen, there is no question about that," the Vancouver-based broadcaster and scientist told The Vancouver Sun. "The question, is what do you do about it?"
Among the panel's 209 conditions recommended Thursday, Enbridge should: research programs into oil-spill cleanup and the varying physical and chemical properties of the oil intended to be shipped, including studies into dispersion and remediation; conduct pre-operations emergency response exercises and develop an emergency preparedness and response exercise and training program.

"It's absurd to say we have to do state-of-the-art research and all that after the pipeline is allowed to go through," Suzuki continued. "There is no known technology that can clean up the mess once it occurs. They can't sop up most of the oil; it's simply dispersed into the atmosphere, water or land."
- Finally, both Andrew Coyne and Stephen Maher discuss the Supreme Court's ruling striking several Criminal Code provisions related to prostitution.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Musical interlude

Athenaeum - Flat Tire

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Don Lenihan is the latest to highlight the difference between citizens and consumers - as well as why we should want to act as the former:
In the old view, public debate is all about defining the public interest by establishing collective needs. This requires a very different view of public debate. Rather than seeing it as a chance to advance my wants, it asks me, as a citizen, to consider the needs of the community. This means I must listen to others, weigh their claims, examine the evidence, and make trade-offs and compromises.

When Delacourt talks about citizens having once had a sense of the common good or being willing to make sacrifices for it, we don’t need to believe there was once a golden age of civic participation to agree with her.

The real point is that, not so long ago, citizens had a much clearer sense of their responsibility—as citizens—to balance their personal wants against the public good. Rob Ford’s proclivity to treat citizens first and foremost as taxpayers—and Ford Nation’s inclination to respond—shows just how far we have strayed from this vision.
- Andrew Leach offers his take on what the National Energy Board's rubber-stamping of Northern Gateway means. And Stephen Hume points out the absurdity of the Cons' carefully-scripted process.

- Meanwhile, having managed to eliminate environmental considerations from the Gateway's environmental review process, Stephen Harper has once again kicked any possible greenhouse gas emission regulations past the next federal election. That may break the streak of consecutive "next year!" promises before it reaches an even ten - but it also seems to leave no room for any pretense that a Con government will ever regulate the oil sector.

- Andrew Jackson calls out the Cons' doublespeak on the affordability of a secure pension system. And John Geddes identifies Stephen Harper's pension rhetoric as yet another example of the Cons' beggar-thy-neighbour, every-man-for-himself philosophy.

- Finally, CAUT finds that a strong majority of Canadians both support and recognize the need for unions - while only the predictable 28% would rather see unions and workers silenced.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reconciliation fail

Shorter Joe Oliver:
We Conservatives are so committed to building trust and relationships with First Nations, we feel we can safely ignore a report saying we're failing miserably on all fronts and instead claim all the necessary work is done. So who wants to partner up with us?

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Ed Broadbent comments on Parliament's review of inequality in Canada:
In a more encouraging vein, the majority report cautiously endorses some positive proposals. Given stated support from both of the opposition parties, these could, and should, move to the top of the government agenda as we approach the 2014 federal Budget and the 2015 federal election.

The Broadbent Institute and other witnesses highlighted the need to increase the Working Income Tax Benefit (WITB) which supplements the incomes of working poor families, thus raising earned income from low wage jobs and helping offset unnecessary barriers to moving from welfare to work.

The majority report calls on the federal government to “formally review the WITB to determine how it could be expanded or modified to further benefit Canadians.”

The majority report, again accompanied by stronger statements from the opposition parties, further calls on the federal government “to make early childhood education and child care more accessible and affordable in all areas of the country, including through increased support for affordable early childhood and education and care programs.”

Such programs are key to removing barriers to work by single parents, mainly women, and are also important to expanding lifetime opportunities for low income children. However, the key question to ask of the Conservatives is whether they are actually prepared to fund income supports for the working poor and early childhood programs. After all, their stated priorities, following elimination of the deficit, are to cut income taxes by introducing family income splitting and by raising contribution limits for Tax Free Savings Accounts.
- Meanwhile, Martin Regg Cohn notes that Jim Flaherty is standing in the way of a secure retirement for a substantial number of Canadians while being able to look forward to multiple political pensions himself.  And Lawrence Martin looks at Peter Kent's brief stay as a Harper cabinet member - but finds that Kent himself is far more critical of the media than of the government which ignored his own recommendations.

- Dene Moore reports on the imminent release of the NEB's Northern Gateway review. But I'll offer a reminder of the reality which has largely been edited out of coverage of the NEB's hearings: rather than representing a "yea or nay" evaluation, the entire process was set up by the Cons to prohibit a "nay" conclusion.

- Frances Russell discusses the spread of low-paying work in the service sector - with a particular focus on how some employers are going out of their way to force workers to work multiple McJobs rather than receiving overtime or benefits through a single workplace.

- Finally, Heather Mallick points out the importance of tax revenue to build a functional society:
I am a tax eccentric. I like taxes and frequently rejoice at what they give me: highways, air traffic control, emergency rooms, the tracking of the emerald ash borer, abortion rights, traffic lights, schools, food safety, the RCMP’s terrific boots, policing, regulating, licensing, autopsies, compassion, all the things that make us an organized and rational nation that is a pleasure to live in. I don’t trip over small corpses on the way home. It’s rather nice.

Conservatives, on the other hand, enjoy these services while abusing taxes as the necrotizing flesh disease of Canadian life.
(T)axing is more complicated than that, as essayist Jim Stanford says. “Governments decide, in the context of the conflicting and contradictory political pressures they face, what programs they will provide. Then they figure out how to fund those programs.”

Neo-liberals cut taxes first, Stanford says, while the programs exist, thus creating a deficit that is used to justify further cuts. We are manipulated. For example, we are told that we can’t afford pensions. Neither can we raise payroll taxes to raise CPP benefits for the future.

But we can pay them if we choose to.

New column day

Here, on how James Moore's disinclination to care about his neighbours is par for the course from the Harper Cons - and how we should learn the lesson about caring and compassion that Moore and his party are so studiously avoiding.

For further reading...
- Again, Sara Norman's original story is here, while PressProgress and Laura Payton both helped to put it in context.
- My recap of Moore's other events from the week is drawn from his activity in Monday's Hansard, as well as his office's most recent statements as of the time the column was written.
- Thomas Walkom highlights the Cons' general antipathy toward the idea of social responsibility. And Andrew Coyne tries to stand up for Moore - though I don't see how a word of his defence would apply with any less force to Ebenezer Scrooge if one was motivated to treat "are there no prisons? are there no workhouses?" as an appeal to alternate means of palliating poverty.
- Finally, Bill Tieleman looks at the facts about child poverty in Canada.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Scott Doherty recognizes that Saskatchewan's failure to collect a reasonable royalty rate for potash and other natural resources is directly responsible for the province crying poor when workers are laid off. And Alex Himelfarb points out that the magical theory behind perpetual tax cuts is purely a matter of illusion rather than reality.
We are more than just consumers and taxpayers. We are citizens with responsibilities for one another; we undertake to do some things together, things that we could never do alone or that we can do much better collectively. Taxes are the way we pay for those things. They’re the price of living in Canada and the opportunities that provides.  Indeed, those opportunities exist because of the sacrifices and taxes of previous generations to build the Canada we inherited.
We demand of our leaders to explain how they are going to pay for new services but, equally, we need to demand that they explain the COSTS of their promised tax cuts ­–­­­ to our quality of life, to our democracy, to our economy.  Would we be so pleased with the next tax cuts if we knew they came with worsening traffic congestion, increased risks to food safety, longer wait times for health care, less help for the jobless and needy, rising inequality and environmental degradation?

We seem only to talk about what government costs and not about what it gives.  Too much is at stake to let our identities as “consumers” and “taxpayers” supplant our citizenship and commitment to the common good.
- Meanwhile, the Star Phoenix discusses Station 20 West - which has become a source of food, health services and community for Saskatoon's Pleasant Hill neighbourhood despite the best efforts of the Wall government to stop it.

- And on the subject of governments with absolutely no clue about the realities facing people living in poverty, Peter MacKay believes that even homeless people should have no trouble whatsoever selling some unspecified property to pay mandatory fines.

- Armine Yalnizyan questions the rationale behind the Cons' cuts to Canada Post. And Duncan Cameron expands on the postal bank option as an alternative to the Cons' slash-and-burn approach.

- Finally, Elizabeth Thompson describes Hugh Segal's philosophy of political bridge-building - which of course couldn't be much more out of place in the current Conservative Party.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Lined-up cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Bill Tieleman tears into James Moore for his callous disregard for child hunger, while PressProgress reminds us that plenty of the Cons' policy choices reflect Moore's complete lack of concern for his neighbours' children. And Polly Toynbee looks in detail at the UK Cons' attempts to turn support for needy children into a perceived political weakness rather than a matter of basic empathy and compassion:
The dirty war has begun; the early signs are that this will be the most poisonous, socially damaging election campaign for many a long year. Corrosive malice will be poured over anyone on any benefit. The Conservatives are convinced they are laying a killer trap by branding Labour as "the welfare party".
The language used by Zahawi captures a swelling theme of the election – dividing the "taxpayer" from the "benefit taker" – with this: "Many couples take the decision to delay having a third or fourth child until they are sure they can afford it." The comments that followed were heavily anti-child: "If you can't afford kids why expect the state to keep them?" and "It's a parent's responsibility to provide, not the government". There lies the great dividing line: why should the state support children at all?

As the Child Poverty Action Group eloquently argues, benefits for children not only spread the cost of living between richer and poorer, but also smooth the bumps in everyone's life cycle. When children are born costs are highest and earnings meagre, but later many will earn more, pay more tax and get less out. The banal moral truth is that children are the future, paying for the care of the childless. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says this government's legacy will be a steep rise in child poverty by 2015: a monumental £12bn benefit cut is in George Osborne's post-2015 plan.
Cameron bets the screw can be turned twice as hard, as Osborne enters the election with huge cuts to meet his impossible deficit targets. Labour has no intention of matching his plan. The only way to avoid the Tory "trap" is to tell the truth of where incomes are heading, how child poverty is soaring. Rachel Reeves lays out her policy for the first time in January. Ed Miliband has already said he'd shrink the housing benefit bill by building homes, and the dole with guaranteed jobs for the unemployed and a living wage to ease the cost of tax credits. Labour can never out-nasty the Tories, so nice is the only way to be.
- Elizabeth Benzetti highlights the absurdity of wealthy and privileged scions of the right like Conrad Black and Rob Ford putting on a "woe is us!" routine while calling for life to be worse for mere ordinary citizens. And Andrew Coyne similarly laments the infantilism and lack of principle which form the basis of the right in Canada - though he's too quick to try to distance that impulse from conservative politics.

- Anna Mehler Paperny reports on the state of minimum wage laws in Canada - with not a single jurisdiction providing for the minimum wage above the poverty line. Andrew Jackson takes a look at the composition of Canada's workforce and notes that a majority of workers may have trouble reaching what would generally be seen as a middle class lifestyle. And the Globe and Mail rightly slams Jim Flaherty for positioning himself as the primary obstacle barring the way to a sufficient Canada Pension Plan.

- David McLaren comments on the Cons' decision to restore a colonial philosophy to Canada's foreign policy. And John Baird's spin on the Cons' international priorities is accurate only to the extent that their sole concern is with profits rather than jobs.

- Finally, Sandra Azocar and Noel Somerville take a look at Alberta's experience to make the case against for-profit seniors care:
The inconvenient reality is that, because of acute staff shortages, seniors are not being fed properly and medications are not being administered properly.

The magnitude of the current staffing problem has been well documented in a recent study done by the Parkland Institute. This study, entitled From Bad to Worse — Residential Elder Care in Alberta, demonstrates the deterioration that has occurred in Alberta from 1999 to 2009.

The Parkland study quantifies the differences in care provided in public, not-for-profit and private for-profit facilities. The hours of care per patient in not-for-profit facilities was 83 per cent of that provided in publicly operated facilities. The hours of care per patient in private for-profit facilities was only 71 per cent of that provided in the publicly operated facilities.
(T)he availability of long-term care beds in Alberta, relative to the age 75-plus population, has slipped by 20 per cent and is now the second lowest of any Canadian province. This decline is on top of the 40 per cent cut in long-term care beds per capita that occurred in the 1990s. Further, over the study period, the number of assisted living beds which provide much lower level of care, has grown by 187 per cent.

All of these realities suggest that the government is pursuing a continuing care strategy that serves to divest itself of responsibility for providing care to seniors. When it comes to expanding seniors care in this province, this government has opted to give massive public handouts primarily to corporations seeking to profit from the health needs of seniors.

Ironically, Premier Alison Redford won the Tory leadership race in large part by claiming to be devoted to our public health-care system. Yet this government continues its ideologically driven efforts to shift costs and responsibility from the government to individual health care users and to promote increased private-sector participation. Sadly, this is why we are now more than ever hearing heartbreaking stories from seniors and their families that attest to the shabby state of elderly care in our province.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Heather Mallick discusses what Canada stands to lose as Canada Post is made both more expensive and less functional. Ethan Cox suggests that what's missing from Canada Post is a postal bank - which makes postal services elsewhere both more profitable, and more valuable for citizens. And the Star points out that the Cons have stood idly by while allowing the institution to fall apart.

- But then, post offices are the least of what the Cons have gone out of their way to portray as beneath them - as made clear by James Moore's rightfully-skewered declaration that he doesn't see why he should care about - or do anything to help - hungry children. 

- Meanwhile, Paul Krugman reminds us why inequality matters both economically and politically:
It’s now widely accepted that rising household debt helped set the stage for our economic crisis; this debt surge coincided with rising inequality, and the two are probably related (although the case isn’t ironclad). After the crisis struck, the continuing shift of income away from the middle class toward a small elite was a drag on consumer demand, so that inequality is linked to both the economic crisis and the weakness of the recovery that followed.

In my view, however, the really crucial role of inequality in economic calamity has been political.

In the years before the crisis, there was a remarkable bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of financial deregulation — a consensus justified by neither theory nor history. When crisis struck, there was a rush to rescue the banks. But as soon as that was done, a new consensus emerged, one that involved turning away from job creation and focusing on the alleged threat from budget deficits.

What do the pre- and postcrisis consensuses have in common? Both were economically destructive: Deregulation helped make the crisis possible, and the premature turn to fiscal austerity has done more than anything else to hobble recovery. Both consensuses, however, corresponded to the interests and prejudices of an economic elite whose political influence had surged along with its wealth.
Surveys of the very wealthy have, however, shown that they — unlike the general public — consider budget deficits a crucial issue and favor big cuts in safety-net programs. And sure enough, those elite priorities took over our policy discourse.

 Which brings me to my final point. Underlying some of the backlash against inequality talk, I believe, is the desire of some pundits to depoliticize our economic discourse, to make it technocratic and nonpartisan. But that’s a pipe dream. Even on what may look like purely technocratic issues, class and inequality end up shaping — and distorting — the debate.

So the president was right. Inequality is, indeed, the defining challenge of our time. Will we do anything to meet that challenge?
- And Michael Valpy discusses the plight of the precariat who have been so deliberately excluded from the Cons' political calculations (other than as a source of cheap labour for their corporate benefactors).

- Fortunately, the continued efforts of the Cons and their provincial counterparts to silence the general public are only giving rise to more creative ways to influence the shape of our society. On that front, Lloyd Maybaum suggests that employees who have been arbitrarily denied the right to strike should focus their efforts and their dollars on the political system. And Ashley Renders reports on Unifor's steps to include workers who can't organize through traditional workplace union structures.

- Finally, Mariana Mazzucato makes the case for governments to serve as generators and incubators of big ideas, rather than pools of funding to be exploited for corporate benefit:
(T)he point of public policy is to make big things happen that would not have happened anyway. To do this, big budgets are not enough: big thinking and big brains are key.

While economists usually talk about things that are not done at all (or done inadequately) by the private sector as "public goods", investments in "big" public goods like the UK national health service, or the investments that led to new technologies behind putting a "man on the moon", required even more than fixing the "public good" problem. They required the willingness and ability to dream up big "missions". The current narrative we are being sold about the state as a "meddler" in capitalism is putting not only these missions under threat, but even more narrowly defined public goods.

Public goods are goods whose benefits are spread so widely that it is hard for business to profit from them (or stop others profiting from them). So they don't attract private investment. Examples include transport infrastructure, healthcare, research and education.

Even if you're an avid free-marketeer you can't avoid benefiting, directly and indirectly, from such public investments. You gain directly through the roads you drive down, the rules and policing which ensure their safety, the BBC radio you listen to, schools and universities that train the doctors and pilots you depend on, parks, theatre, films and museums that nurture our national identity. You also gain, indirectly, through enormous public subsidies without which private schools, hospitals and utility providers would never be able to deliver affordably and still make a profit. These are conferred as tax breaks, and provision of vital skills and infrastructure at state expense.
The public sector must produce public goods, and through the creation of new missions catalyse investment by the private sector – inspiring and supporting it to enter in high-risk areas it would not normally approach. To do so it requires the ability to attract top expertise – to "pick" broadly defined directions, as IT and internet were picked in the past, and "green" should be picked in the future. Some investments will win, some will fail. Indeed, Obama's recent $500m guaranteed loan to a solar company Solyndra failed, while the same investment in Tesla's electric motor won big time – making Elon Musk richer.

But as long as we admit the state is a risk-taking courageous investor in the areas the private sector avoids, it should increase its courage by earning back a reward for such successes, which can fund not only the (inevitable) losses but also the next round of investments. Instead, calling it names for the losses, ignoring the wins, and outsourcing the competence and capabilities, is ridding it of the courage, ability and brains to create the missions, hence opportunities, of the future. And without brains, all government will be able to do is not make big things happen but simply serve a private sector that is concerned only with serving itself.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Joan Walsh discusses how employers are exploiting the U.S.' wage supplement policies by taking the opportunity to severely underpay their employees - resulting in both insecure income and employment, and significant public expense to reduce the poverty suffered by full-time workers. And Lana Payne comments that the Cons' anti-worker policies figure to further exacerbate inequality in Canada as well.

- Meanwhile, lest anybody doubt the disproportionate effect of corporate power in politics, Juliet Eilperin writes that the Obama White House delayed the introduction of health, safety and environmental regulations until after the 2012 election cycle to avoid controversy - and still hasn't caught up on the backlog.

- Martin Regg Cohn writes that the Canada Pension Plan needs shoring up now. But Chris Hall reports that the Harper Cons loom as one of the most important obstacles to agreement on a more secure retirement system.

- In the same vein, the Cons are once again showing their disdain for immigrant families by severely restricting the circumstances in which it's possible to sponsor a parent or grandparent. And they're seemingly planning to pull the rug out from under Canadians who rely on social housing.

- Thomas Walkom points out how the Cons' attacks on Canada Post seem designed to avoid important decisions about underfunded pensions. And Susan Delacourt speculates about the political effect of making mail less accessible and affordable:
The more that people refuse to answer their phones or come to their doors when a politician calls, the more the parties have had to find other ways to know their voters.

The parties have been buying magazine subscription lists, for example, to find out what interests the people inside those homes. But will these subscriptions themselves become relics, when magazines, like the mail, no longer arrive on the doorstep?

What about the direct mail fundraising that has been such a source of small, individual contributions to political parties? Will those postcard-format appeals for dollars even make it from the community mailbox into voters’ homes?

People are still letting the outside world into their homes, but now the main route of entry is through a screen — whether on a television, computer or smartphone.

The milkbox is no longer the portal into suburban homes. Soon the mailbox, the place to deposit letters, bills and newspapers, will join it as a museum artifact.

Can the politician on the doorstep be far behind?
- Finally, Andrew Coyne comments on the Cons' culture of secrecy:
If the Senate scandal has had such legs, then, it is because so much of the behaviour it describes, the secrecy and deception and control from the top, has been everywhere replicated in the government’s handling of the fallout. What began as a secret deal to buy a senator’s silence has progressed through several additional layers of deception: the bogus story about Senator Mike Duffy repaying his own bogus expenses, papered over with a bogus money trail; the tampering with the Deloitte audit; the whitewashing of the Senate committee report; the series of ever more preposterous stories, after the story broke, about what Senator Duffy and Nigel Wright were up to, and whether they were fine, upstanding public servants or misguided patriots or deceitful criminals; the denials of involvement or knowledge, including to the police, by several of the principals, in direct conflict with the known facts; the mysterious mass deletion of emails by Benjamin Perrin, who may or may not have been the prime minister’s lawyer, followed by their even more mysterious discovery; the stonewalling and evasions throughout. I may have missed a stage, but I believe we are now at the cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up.
As ever, we are confronted with the utter inability of our democratic institutions to hold those in power to account. Nor is this confined to the Senate mess. Debates in Parliament are now routinely cut short by “time allocation.” Committees now routinely meet in camera. The Parliamentary Budget Office is reduced to filing access to information requests for the departmental data to which it is statutorily entitled. The list goes on.