Saturday, January 11, 2014

On consistent preferences

Stephen Gordon (among others) took the time to point out that Jim Flaherty's attacks on the Bank of Canada are both unwise in general, and wrong in terms of economic theory. But even setting aside those critiques, the mot important message to be taken from Flaherty is that he's once again seeking to benefit the rentier class at the expense of workers - signalling that he'll happily trade off a decline in employment for higher returns on capital.

Of course, that was a dubious enough set of priorities at the best of times last weekend. But this week's added news that the Cons are failing miserably on the jobs front already only emphasizes the need for a stronger public policy focus on making better employment available to Canadians. And the more the Cons make clear that they're once again determined to make matters worse, the more obvious it'll be who bears the blame when Flaherty's influence on fiscal and monetary policy alike have their predictable effect.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- In keeping with the theme of this week's column, the Star-Phoenix questions the Wall government's choice to neglect existing school infrastructure. And Lana Payne's message about how leaders react in a crisis also looks to be closely intertwined with the need to plan ahead before a crisis actually starts.

- But then, governments do have to choose their priorities. And once again, the Cons' choice is to spend tens of millions of public dollars on public relations for a tar-sands sector which could easily afford to pitch its own products, while standing firmly in the way of oil industry regulations needed for Canada to meet even modest greenhouse gas emission goals.

- Meanwhile, Alister Doyle offers a prime example of what can happen when resources are administered for the public good rather than for the sole benefit of the corporate class - as Norway's sovereign wealth fund has reached the level of making every resident a nominal millionaire. And Thomas Walkom discusses the debate on Canada's left between reforming the oil sector and looking to curb any reliance on it whatsoever.

- Erin Anderssen reports on the Ontario Medical Association's call for employers to allow workers to report sick days without straining the health care system through doctor's notes - particular in the middle of flu season where the effect can be to encourage the spread of viruses.

- And finally, Susan Delacourt seeks to apply Frank Luntz' take on U.S. politics to Canada. But digby reminds us why we shouldn't lend much credence to a GOP spinmeister's crocodile tears when he played a key role in causing the damage he's now lamenting.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Musical interlude

Chicane - Come Tomorrow

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jim Stanford writes about the myth of a labour shortage in Canada:
In this context of chronic un- and under-employment, it is jarring that so many employers, business lobbyists, and politicians continue to complain about a supposed shortage of available, willing, and adequately skilled workers. Employers routinely claim they can't find qualified Canadians to perform even relatively straightforward jobs. They can't entice Canadians to move from depressed regions, to areas with jobs. They can't elicit desired levels of effort, discipline and loyalty.

According to this worldview, the biggest challenge facing our labour market is adjusting the attitudes, capabilities and mobility of jobless workers. The question of whether there are any productive, decent jobs for those workers to fill is downplayed or ignored altogether. The problem, in other words, is not with unemployment. The problem is with the unemployed.
(T)he mismatch theory is wrong, both theoretically and empirically. Except in very rare circumstances, the labour market almost never runs out of workers. The usual problem is a general and persistent inadequacy of demand for labour on the part of employers. That's especially obvious today, four years into an economic "recovery" that has left millions of Canadians parked on the economic sidelines.
Focusing on job creation should occupy 95 per cent of Mr. Kenney's attention as Employment Minister. Instead, he will likely focus on social engineering: tough-love efforts to adjust the expectations, attitudes and flexibility of the unemployed, rather than trying to create jobs for them. In this regard, it is not surprising that Mr. Kenney added the term "Social Development" to his portfolio. This further telegraphs his intentions to blame the unemployed, not unemployment, for the continuing weakness in Canada's labour market.

Stagnation in real wages provides further evidence that there is no generalized constraint on the supply side of the labour market. If skilled workers were genuinely in short supply, their services should be becoming more expensive (as eager employers try to snap up scarce candidates). To the contrary, median hourly wages in Canada have been growing less than one per cent per year since 2010 -- lagging far behind inflation.
- In a similar vein, Lydia DePillis exposes the emptiness of business-sector claims that poverty and inequality should be dealt with through education rather than a fair distribution of resources. And Jeffrey Simpson recognizes that Ontario's constant attempts to appease the corporate sector with tax giveaways have led to no apparent economic benefits.

- PressProgress highlights Chuck Strahl's latest depiction of the Cons' ethical standards - as he's deflecting his multiple conflicts of interest by pointing that he's not quite as bad as the criminally-convicted Arthur Porter (who was of course also judged suitable to oversee Canada's spy service by Stephen Harper). Meanwhile, Tom Parry reports that part of the problem with the current structure of SIRC may be based on the lack of a full-time chair, and both Alison and Greg Weston remind us that the rest of SIRC's board is no less tarred by conflicts of interest than Strahl.

- James Munson points out that it isn't only CSIS that's being shaped for the oil industry's benefit, as the Cons have radically altered environmental approval processes to the advantage of Enbridge and other operators. And Max Paris reports on Thomas Mulcair's rightful comments that we should expect our government to protect the public interest in rail safety and other areas - not to conceal and facilitate the spread of avoidable public risks.

- Finally, Michael Green discusses the importance of measuring social progress - as well as the role of the Social Progress Imperative in carrying out that measurement around the globe.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

New column day

Here, on how well-planned public infrastructure and a strong community spirit have helped Saskatchewan through weather that's caused far more problems elsewhere - and how we're in danger of losing that advantage.

For further reading...
- The obvious point of comparison is the spate of problems faced by Toronto - including widespread power outages, and flight delays and cancellations. And the provincial government is now handing out gift cards to make up for what people lost due to the power issues.
- In contrast, Saskatchewan's main cities have seen some short and scattered power issues, along with what doesn't seem to be much more than normal traffic problems.
- Finally, while the point didn't make it into the final column, I'll note that we should take a similar view toward social infrastructure as toward physical infrastructure: it's better to invest in somewhat more than the bare minimum, lest optimistic assumptions be proven wrong when we can least afford it. And on that point, Saskatchewan has as much room for improvement as any jurisdiction.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Thomas Walkom points out that many Canadians can expect to lose jobs without any social supports due to the Cons' focus on political messages over real-life impacts. And Blake Zeff offers a reminder that while progressive economic policy may be receiving more attention over the last year, it's always been extremely popular among the public (even as it's been ruled out by policy-makers who focus primarily on serving corporate interests):
Way back in 1992, President Clinton ran an explicitly populist campaign, telling voters, “The rich get the gold mine and the middle class gets the shaft. It’s wrong and it’s going to ruin the country.” Clinton didn’t always govern as an economic liberal — nor did Obama, for that matter — but that’s precisely the point. To know what’s popular, look at which messages politicians use to sell themselves to voters during campaigns. That’s when Americans exert some control in the process, and demonstrate what they want.

Governing, of course, is a different story; we don’t make most laws based on initiatives and referenda. Congress often does its real business behind closed doors, sneaking provisions into law via fine print — so when the legislative process is worked out, many voters are not engaged in each development. But corporate lobbyists and wealthy contributors, who don’t necessarily share the same agenda as the electorate, are. The result: campaign messages approved by the broad electorate don’t always translate to governmental results. So, if you want to know what the American people actually want and support, don’t always look at what was enacted, but what they voted for during campaigns.
(E)ven if Americans haven’t necessarily embraced the label “liberal,” a government that seeks shared prosperity by ensuring living wages for its workers, and basic assistance for those looking for work has been popular for a long time...

Why has the myth persisted, then, that economic progressivism was until now in popular remission? One possibility is that there are many powerful groups — from Republicans to business-backed Democrats to financial interests, and the corporate media that covers them —  that benefit from (and have little cause to discourage) such a misconception.

Either way, the languid economy has propelled the need for strong government action now. But those who think that the nation’s support for that approach is either new or confined to the far left, are missing what’s really been going on in America.
- Meanwhile, Emily Badger discusses what an increase in the minimum wage could do to reduce poverty in the U.S.:
By economist Arindrajit Dube's calculation, [a minimum wage increase to $10 US] could lift as many as 4.6 million non-elderly people out of poverty in the United States. As a result, the population living below the federal poverty line would drop by nearly 10 percent. Most compelling: The change would have the greatest impact on the families that struggle the most, those living in "extreme poverty" below half of the poverty line.

This graph, from Dube's latest research, shows that the largest proportionate increases in income from a higher minimum wage would go to the families living in the 10th and 20th percentiles of family income...
"What that's telling you is you're pulling up the bottom of the family income distribution," Dube says. "And that is reducing inequality. That’s very clear from that graph – you're going to reduce inequality, by almost any measure of inequality. "

The relationship between poverty, the minimum wage, and inequality is complex. But Dube's research (and the work of many other economists) points to a few keys points about how they're intertwined: The declining real value of the minimum wage over the last three decades is at least part of the story of why income inequality has widened. And elected officials struggling with the limited policy levers available to curb inequality might at least consider this one.
- APTN reveals that Chuck Strahl's lobbying oil lobbying isn't limited to Enbridge, but includes pushing Alberta's government on behalf of a First Nations developer with Chinese backing. And Dr. Dawg rightly points out what Strahl's oil ties and party loyalties mean for his ability to oversee a spy agency known to be engaged in dubious corporate operations.

- CBC reports on yet another oil-by-rail disaster, this one resulting in a fire near Plaster Rock, NB. And Bill Curry highlights an internal audit showing how the Cons' combination of outsourcing and mismanagement has led Transport Canada to pay far more money for far less effective regulation than it could deliver on its own.

- Finally, Adrienne Silnicki discusses how private clinic result in longer wait times for everybody - and warns that we may soon face a serious fight to preserve an equitable, universal health care system in Canada.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Feisty cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- George Monbiot criticizes the UK Cons' latest effort to outlaw any form of individual action or expression which might intrude upon the corporate bubble:
The existing rules are bad enough. Introduced by the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act, antisocial behaviour orders (asbos) have criminalised an apparently endless range of activities, subjecting thousands – mostly young and poor – to bespoke laws. They have been used to enforce a kind of caste prohibition: personalised rules which prevent the untouchables from intruding into the lives of others.

You get an asbo for behaving in a manner deemed by a magistrate as likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress to other people. Under this injunction, the proscribed behaviour becomes a criminal offence. Asbos have been granted which forbid the carrying of condoms by a prostitute, homeless alcoholics from possessing alcohol in a public place, a soup kitchen from giving food to the poor, a young man from walking down any road other than his own, children from playing football in the street. They were used to ban peaceful protests against the Olympic clearances.
[A new] bill would permit injunctions against anyone of 10 or older who "has engaged or threatens to engage in conduct capable of causing nuisance or annoyance to any person". It would replace asbos with ipnas (injunctions to prevent nuisance and annoyance), which would not only forbid certain forms of behaviour, but also force the recipient to discharge positive obligations. In other words, they can impose a kind of community service order on people who have committed no crime, which could, the law proposes, remain in force for the rest of their lives.
The bill also introduces public space protection orders, which can prevent either everybody or particular kinds of people from doing certain things in certain places. It creates new dispersal powers, which can be used by the police to exclude people from an area (there is no size limit), whether or not they have done anything wrong.
The new injunctions and the new dispersal orders create a system in which the authorities can prevent anyone from doing more or less anything. But they won't be deployed against anyone. Advertisers, who cause plenty of nuisance and annoyance, have nothing to fear; nor do opera lovers hogging the pavements of Covent Garden. Annoyance and nuisance are what young people cause; they are inflicted by oddballs, the underclass, those who dispute the claims of power.

These laws will be used to stamp out plurality and difference, to douse the exuberance of youth, to pursue children for the crime of being young and together in a public place, to help turn this nation into a money-making monoculture, controlled, homogenised, lifeless, strifeless and bland. For a government which represents the old and the rich, that must sound like paradise.
- Michael Geist makes the case for an independent investigation into CSIS' surveillance of Canadians (frequently laundered through foreign spy services to avoid accountability). And in an entirely related story, James MacGregor worries that pipeline politics are harming Canadian democracy.

- Mark Weisbrot takes a look at how NAFTA has affected Mexico, and finds little reason to think that its place as North America's cheapest pool of labour has done much to benefit Mexican workers.

- Finally, Ian Welsh discusses how many personal and social choices are being made based on the "death bet" - that by the time problems fully manifest themselves, the people responsible will be dead anyway:
The men and women who lived through the Great Depression always planned for the (future). They built power plants which produced more power than needed, bridges which could handle more traffic, water purification plants which produced more water than needed. They made sure infrastructure would last for decades, and then built it so well it outlasted even their (specifications).

Their heirs, the Silents and the Boomers, thought this was absurd. Why not party now, and let the future take care of itself?

Call this the “death bet”. In it’s pure form, the death bet is just that, a bet that when the bill comes do, you’ll be dead. If you live a good life and die owing millions, well, what do you care?

But someone will pay that bill. Maybe it will be your creditors, who might even go out of business, unable to collect what they are owed. Perhaps it will be your heirs, if the millions adhere to property. Perhaps it will be someone you don’t even know.

But someone will pay. The good life, bought by debt, is always paid for.

The death bet is why we are not dealing with climate change, even though we know that it is coming and we know it will kill hundreds of millions and might even destroy our entire society. The death bet is why our governments make huge tax cuts today knowing that either taxes will have to be increased in the future or spending will have to be drastically cut because the spending is not used for investment. But in the meantime the government can borrow, or print money, so who cares? The politicians who make the tax cuts won’t be in power, and many of the people who receive the cuts will be dead, so what do they care?

Monday, January 06, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Tim Harper and the Star's editorial board each offer up some hope that 2014 will be a more productive year in politics than 2013 was. And Nora Loreto offers a suggestion as to how to make that happen:
Young workers, like all workers, need the labour movement to invest in organizing... Through working at the grassroots, creative options will emerge that will make it easier for unions like CUPE to take on organizing workers that are difficult to organize.

Through a concerted and coherent effort to organize, CUPE could not just figure out how to get around the complicated issues that arise when organizing temporary, short-term or non-traditional workers, but they could leverage the strength they have within the sector to force widespread change. They could find ways to represent residence workers not just at Carleton, but at other residences too. Maybe it would look like a traditional union, but maybe it wouldn't.
How about making 2014 the year of the organizer?
- Meanwhile, Adam Davidson points out that retailers figure to benefit from offering reasonable pay and greater respect to their workers, rather than treating them as a cost to be minimized wherever possible:
Even the most coldhearted, money-hungry capitalists ought to realize that increasing their work force, and paying them and treating them better, will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and — surprisingly — larger corporate profits. This sounds Pollyannaish, sure, but a study co-authored by Marshall Fisher, a Wharton professor who specializes in retail-management studies, backs it up. For every dollar of increased wages, one retailer that was studied by Fisher brought in $10 more in revenue. For more-understaffed stores in the study, the boost was as high as $28.

The problem results from the way many companies consider their workers. Ikea, for instance, has more than 130,000 global workers. In order to manage all these people, it uses something called work-force-management software, which ensures that there are enough workers — but not too many — to handle the forecasted in-store shopping traffic. (Walmart, which has 16 times as many workers, does, too, as do most larger retailers.) The software typically codes workers as a cost — one of the biggest — and aims to find the most efficient number of employees that can handle expected traffic. A trip to a big-box store reveals this algorithm’s logic in practice. There always seem to be endless aisles of merchandise but no one to answer your questions.

Ton, however, argues that workers are not merely a cost; they can be a source of profit — a major one. A better-paid, better-trained worker, she argues, will be more eager to help customers; they’ll also be more eager to help their store sell to them.
- Dan Leger highlights the Cons' selective populism - as the same government spending millions of public dollars attacking a few telecommunications providers is using far more resources to encourage the oil industry to extract whatever it can for minimal public benefit.

- Finally, in an interview with Derrick Harris, Jonathan Reichental argues that any good government should embrace open data - rather than seeking to control and suppress information which might prove inconvenient.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Frank Graves recognizes that the dismal mood of young Canadians is based on the economic reality that the expected trend toward intergenerational progress has been reversed.

- Meanwhile, Jesse Myerson discusses five policy proposals which would give younger citizens a far more fair chance at success than they currently hold. Ben Irwin lists twenty elements of life in poverty which figure to be unfamiliar to anybody at higher income levels. And Dennis Raphael nicely boils down the policy choices we face in addressing family poverty:
Research carried out by UNICEF points out that those nations with the lowest child and family poverty rates are, not surprisingly, those nations with the smallest proportion of low-paid workers. Low-paid workers are much more common in nations where the labour sector is weak, government does little to manage the economy in the service of all, and public participation is less than the case in other countries. They are also the nations with a system of proportional representation that allows greater citizen input into the election process. It is not only the Nordic nations that do well in reducing child and family poverty. The Continental nations of Europe also do far better than we do in Canada. 

This analysis suggests that the best means of reducing child and family poverty is to reduce the imbalances in power and influence that exist among Canadians. The best — and easiest way — to do this is to make it easier to organize workplaces, increase the progressivity of income taxes, and assure that all members of the population, regardless of their class status, have the benefits and supports necessary to avoid poverty. 

The recent history of public policy in Canada has been to do the opposite. There have been sustained attacks on organized labour, taxes have been reduced on the wealthy, and the social safety net has been weakened.
- And Don Lenihan rightly questions the corporate media's attempts to downplay the growing gap between the rich and the rest of us, while recognizing the most important influence on escalating executive wealth extraction:
CEOs’ high compensation also relies on a culture of collusion. Boards of directors hire CEOs and set their compensation. But this has at least as much to do with the collegial nature of the corporate executive world as with markets. Boards are an elite professional club. To become a member—most of whom are still men—people work hard to cultivate the right connections, say the right things, dress properly and be recognized as a “team player.” If not, they don’t get in—or at least they don’t last. And therein lays the problem.

Many members sit on multiple boards and depend on this for a substantial part of their income. The more robust the compensation packages for CEOs, the more likely board members are to see their own status and compensation enhanced. No one wants to upset the applecart. On the contrary, there are very strong incentives to support the trend to ever better packages, and serious risks for opposing it—even if one thinks it is unnecessary or wrong.

“The market” provides the perfect alibi. It allows board members to ascribe CEOs’ salaries to an impersonal calculus. They talk about the remarkable skills and learning of CEOs, the small talent pool available to run big organizations, the risk of losing such talent, and so on.

In a private moment, however, the same people can be surprisingly candid about how becoming a successful CEO has less to do with exceptional management skills than proper grooming, meticulous planning, and a ruthless dedication to the goal.
- Finally, Chantal Hebert suggests that Stephen Harper would be smart to say "no" to the Northern Gateway pipeline. But given his apparent lack of concern that Canada's top spy watchdog - responsible for overseeing agencies reported to have plotted with oil interests to spy on First Nations and environmental groups - is himself lobbying on Enbridge's behalf, we can safely say that Harper isn't the least bit concerned with maintaining the appearance of intelligence or unbiased evaluation.