Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Bill Kerry writes that extreme inequality serves to reinforce itself - and points out what needs to be done to counter the temptation to kick others down:
One of the major difficulties in tackling inequality is the way it coerces many people into accepting and even promoting it. In a steep social hierarchy people will often choose to shore up their own precarious social position by kicking down on poorer, weaker folk rather than challenging the richer more powerful folk above them.
So what do we do about it?  Well, it’s quite straightforward if not at all easy; we have to reduce economic inequality. It is material differences that create social distances. To narrow social distances we have to reduce material differences. If this all sounds rather abstract just consider your own social life. Chances are your friends are pretty much like you in terms of material status. How many of us can genuinely say that we have friends that range widely across the income spectrum?  Generally, we mix with people not too dissimilar to ourselves. We usually stick to our socio-economic hefts – where we feel comfortable and where reciprocity is likely if not guaranteed; in other words, where we feel safest and most secure, free from judgement or reproach by others. And sometimes, when our hefts are invaded by those not quite PLU (People Like Us) we can feel uneasy.

Unless we reduce the material differences between us, our society will continue to fracture and the quality of our social relations will deteriorate. Those at the top of the income and social spectrum will continue to weave myths about their own talents and falsehoods about the shortcomings of others. Those in the middle who believe (erroneously it seems) that they have the chance to join the top table will increasingly buy in to these twisted ideas and those at the bottom will likely feel the need to fight harder amongst themselves for status and respect at the bottom. Not a pretty picture and one that can be avoided if we act to reduce inequality and start to build social solidarity instead.
- And Ryan Meili comments on the growing consensus that inequality needs to be remediated, while recognizing the factors which have limited the policy progress so far:
However much attention this issue merits, there is an inconvenient truth that few in the realm of politics are willing to discuss. To deal with income inequality, and thus prevent the economic and social harms it causes, some people have to be paid less than they’re currently earning and some people more. The incomes of those at the top of the scale and those at the bottom aren’t going to magically gravitate toward one another.

There needs to be a conscious decision, before or after taxes, to increase equality.

Perhaps this uncomfortable fact explains the fleeting attention paid to the whopping salaries of the top earners relative to the rest of us. Despite the growing chorus of concern, governments have been loath to legislate increased wages or even to effectively tax executive compensation (much of the pay of the highest earning CEOs is in stock options which are taxed at a lower rate than cash income). The flattening of tax rates and a laissez-faire approach to the economy are simply too sacrosanct to address, even in the face of mounting evidence of their harm.
- Meanwhile, PressProgress highlights the connection between high levels of unionization and reduced levels of poverty - while also pointing out Peter Edwards' recognition of the role of unions in winning basic labour rights. And Matthew O'Brien discusses the link between poverty and a readily-observed (and theoretically simple to resolve) health issue - as poor people are significantly more likely to be hospitalized due to hypoglycemia as their access to food runs out at the end of each month.

- Monique Beaudin reports on the finger-pointing contest as every single corporation with ties to the Lac-M├ęgantic rail explosion tries to evade responsibility for the damage it caused. And Ned Resnikoff discusses the devastating effect of a pipeline spill in Mayflower, Arkansas.

- But of course, the Cons and their oil-sector allies are doing their utmost to prevent anybody from pointing out the dangers of an effectively unregulated rip-and-ship economy. And while the likes of Stephen Maher and Bruce Johnstone spend at least as much time challenging Neil Young's comments about the tar sands as recognizing that he raises points which demand some public discussion, Tim Gray recognizes the only action which could actually answer the concerns shared by Young and many Canadians:
It is time for our governments and leaders to come to terms with the shortfalls of the tar sands, which are some of the highest polluting oil in a carbon-constrained world. We still have time to catch up in the clean energy economy, but it is only going to get more difficult the longer we wait. Right now, many countries around the world, including the U.S., are investing many times more per capita than Canada in industries and jobs related to the clean economy. Canada is at risk of being left behind.

Instead of pouring money into massively expanding the tar sands, let’s invest more of the wealth they and other industries are producing in solutions, such as renewable energy technologies that lessen our dependency on oil, new manufacturing processes that are cleaner and more efficient and changes to transportation systems that improve people’s lives and reduce pollution. All of these initiatives are creating hundreds of thousands of new jobs around the world and it is time that Canada had our fair share.

Rather than attacking Neil Young, the oil industry should be working to clean up its act, and our leaders should be working to transition to a modern economy powered by safe, renewable sources of energy.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Musical interlude

Delerium feat. Angela McCluskey - Stargazing

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Robert Reich (via GlenInCA) points out the connection between a strong middle class and curbs on corporate excesses - with may go a long way toward explaining why the business lobby is working so hard to eliminate the concept of a secure livelihood for most workers:
Last week’s massive toxic chemical spill into West Virginia Elk River illustrates another benefit to the business class of high unemployment, economic insecurity, and a safety-net shot through with holes. Not only are employees docile, eager to accept whatever crumbs they can get. The public is also quiescent and unwilling to cause trouble.
For years political scientists have wondered why the citizens of West Virginia and other poorer states vote against their economic interests, hypothesizing it’s because economic issues have been preempted by others like guns, abortion, and race. But as wages keep sinking and economic security disappears, it’s also because people are so desperate for jobs they’ll vote whatever way industry wants them to. Bottom line: A strong and growing middle class is the best bulwark against corporate irresponsibility.
- And Jim Stanford wonders why the same economists looking on the bright side of a falling Canadian dollar now seem to have ignored the effects of a higher currency for the past decade.

- Bruce Cheadle reports that the Cons have been skimping on informing Canadians about health and issues - even as they've spent millions promoting nonexistent programs which involve nothing more than a giveaway to employers. 

- Kady O'Malley reports that Stephen Harper's already-sad attempt to put actual policy on hold for a gratuitous 2017 birthday bash may be running into another snag - as the country the Cons plan to celebrate bears little resemblance to Canada. And Jeremy Nuttall catches Stephen Harper trying to put one over on Vancouver's ethnic media - as the Prime Minister directly responsible for expanding and entrenching the use of temporary foreign workers pretended to disagree with his own party's policy of favouring temporary, work-based immigration in service of abusive employers over any long-term opportunity for newcomers to Canada.

- Finally, Murray Mandryk slams the Saskatchewan Party's back-benchers for gleefully voting down basic accounting principles which even their own leaders don't dare to oppose publicly.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

New column day

Here, on how Mark Adler's C-520 looks to undermine public participation in all Canadian political parties - including the Conservatives who are pushing it.

I'll add here one point which didn't make it into the column. While there's obviously a need for independent institutions to act impartially, there's also a need for them to have some familiarity with the systems they're charged with overseeing. And if the Cons succeed in ensuring that regulators can't have any personal knowledge of what they're supposed to be regulating, the result may be far more damaging than the type of unsupported assertion of partisanship that's encouraged by Adler's bill.

For further reading...
- Alex Boutilier offers an introduction to the bill.
- David Doorey writes about the lack of protection for political views in many workplaces across the country.
- And Lawrence Martin worries that the effect of the bill will be entirely partisan (at least as long as the Cons remain in office).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- John Cassidy makes the case to call the U.S.' war on poverty a success - pointing out that there has been a meaningful reduction in poverty over the past 50 years connected almost entirely to government programs. But lest that be taken as an indication that there's no need to do more, Jared Bernstein points out that if economic growth had been distributed as it was in the postwar boom, poverty would have been eradicated by the mid-1980s - rather than persisting among tens of millions of Americans today as inequality has grown.

- Which is to say there's nothing but reason for skepticism when trickle-down policies are sold as a boost for workers rather than an attack on them. And Martin Regg Cohn notes that Tim Hudak's latest message represents a particularly laughable rendition of the same old hymn.

- In contrast, Ontario's Health Providers Against Poverty suggest that a minimum wage hike to $14 could do wonders both for the working poor in particular, and social development in general.

- Josh Eidelson looks at the story behind Freedom Industries' massive West Virginia chemical spill - with a complete lack of either planning or enforced regulation featuring prominently. And Tom Warne-Smith discusses how the TPP figures to result in yet more corporate attacks on any attempt to protect the environment.

- Meanwhile, Frances Russell highlights the multiple layers of wishful thinking - involving both oil prices and the effectiveness of unproven remediation techniques - being relied on by the tar sands to shrug off environmental concerns. Don Braid questions why Alberta still hasn't put together a serious greenhouse gas emission reduction plan of its own to fill the vacuum left by the Cons. And James Munson comments on the Cons' gag order imposed on the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industry Development as a condition of federal funding.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cuddled cats.

Tuesday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Jo Snyder discusses how poverty makes everybody less healthy, and recognizes the need for higher basic wages as a result. And Laurie Penny highlights the futility of trying to badger young adults into service jobs which offer no opportunity for personal, professional or financial progress:
The British gov­ernment, like many others, is no longer even pretending to care about how or if the next generation gets to thrive. It is demonstrably content to sacrifice its young. That quality is not just spiteful; it is a recipe for social and cultural self-annihilation.

What are the alternatives? “Finding work” for young people, even the lowest-paid and least secure work, seems to be the only solution on the table, even from well-meaning groups such as the Prince’s Trust. The government’s sole response to the survey was that it was doing “everything possible” to help young people find work – chiefly “incentivising” them with the threat of eviction in a stagnant job market. What it is not doing is helping any young person find work that pays a liveable wage, or a wage at all – and in the meantime it’s getting harder to afford the rent and bills.

The assumption that work is a passport to dignity and security, that work is what makes life worth living, is so deeply embedded in our culture that it is almost heretical to think otherwise. But the problem isn’t just the lack of work. It’s also the lack of hope. Young people leaving school and university can no longer kid themselves that their future is likely to include a stable place to live, love and get on with growing up, even if they do manage to find paid work.
- Meanwhile, Barbara Ehrenreich offers a reminder as to the cost of trying to live with poverty. And Josh Eidelson interviews Frances Fox Piven about the connections between the Republicans' attacks on the poor and their appeals to racism.

- David Atkins points out Fintan O'Toole's commentary on the disastrous effects of corporatist policy (from deregulation to austerity) in Ireland.

- And finally, Andrew Coyne sees both Stephen Harper and Chris Christie as perfect examples of a warped political system in which political leaders are assessed largely on their ability to avoid taking responsibility for the scandals of their own hand-picked insiders:
It was all there [in Christie's press conference]: the repeated declarations that he “took responsibility” without in fact taking any; the expressions of contrition that made it clear he had nothing to be contrite about; the evocations of what a toll the whole affair had taken on him emotionally; and the almost instantaneous conversion of what ought reasonably to have been a moment for humility and introspection into yet another occasion to list off his many wonderful qualities. Change a few words here and there, and you could have been listening to the prime minister’s year-end interviews.

Indeed, the explanation both have offered is remarkably similar: My closest advisors and confidants conceived and carried out an ethically abhorrent plan, for my benefit but without my knowledge, then lied to me about it for months. Even supposing we take these at face value, it is hardly “taking responsibility” to blame it all on your staff, nor is it especially difficult to say you are “sorry” for other people’s mistakes. They are simply words politicians have been taught to say: They test well with focus groups, almost as well as “I’m not a focus-group tested politician.”
We have been taught not to expect [genuine responsibility] from our leaders. The measure by which we assess them now is their own expedience — “what they need to do” or “what they should say,” by which we mean not what is true or right but what might work. 
But these are not simply crises to be managed. They go to the heart of each man’s claims to leadership. It is pointless to offer advice on how they should “handle” the issue, because they are the issue.

On self-interest

With Chuck Strahl's massive conflict of interest between lobbying and patronage appointments already making news, the revelation that Vic Toews has found his way into the lobbying industry (having seemingly planned for it before he'd even resigned from Parliament) looks all the more noteworthy. And Toews' assertion that a lawyer who would seem to have accumulated substantial pensions through three different public roles has "got to make a living" trading off his political connections speaks volumes about how far removed Stephen Harper and has cabinet ministers are from the reality facing most Canadians.

That said, Toews' position does seem to fit the new revolving door into the Cons' typical pattern of ethical commentary.

As with centralized control, the misuse of public money for partisan purposes and a lack of accountability, lobbying looks to be just another area where the Cons have gone out of their way to do in government what they decried in opposition. And the U.S. influence seems to be unmistakable - as Toews is fully embracing the view that a transition from public office to a lobbying role should be both common and lucrative.

But Toews' addition to the list of Cons-turned-lobbyists does raise the question of how so many members of Harper's inner circle leave public service with the apparent assumption that their lone remaining purpose is to cash in. And it's not hard to see that mindset as a continuation of the Cons' attitude that governing is solely about helping themselves rather than the country.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- The Star's editorial board sees Canada's woeful job numbers as a signal that it's time for some economic management in the interests of people (rather than artificial manipulation of numbers):
Economists used words like “dismal” and “ugly” for these results, and no wonder. Last year turned out to be the worst year for job growth in Canada since the recession of 2008-2009. And this was just the latest evidence that Canada’s recovery has stalled. The experts are even starting to speculate about a possible cut in interest rates – not the eventual increase that has been predicted for many months based on a gradual strengthening in the economy.

So what’s the Harper government’s response? Nothing. In fact, worse than nothing. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and his officials spent most of last week putting out the message that Canadians should expect a stand-pat federal budget with no significant initiatives, no surprises, no new spending and no meaningful tax breaks. In fact, sources were hinting to selected journalists that it might even be delivered the week of Feb. 10 – all the better to bury it amid the distraction of the Sochi Winter Olympics that will be in full swing then.

Flaherty’s sole obsession appears to be making sure that the government erases its deficit by its own self-imposed target of 2015-16.
For the Harper Conservatives, it’s also nakedly political. They want to go into the 2015 election year with a big budget bang – with the deficit slain and goodies on offer for their chosen electoral constituencies. In the meantime, the unemployment lines in Ontario and elsewhere can just grow longer.

This is a dangerously complacent attitude that will leave more and more people without hope that things can get better – or even a sense that Ottawa takes their plight seriously. Ontarians, in particular, should remember that when it comes time to pass judgment on the Harper government next year.
- Michael Harris discusses Elections Canada's investigation into Julian Fantino's campaign finances. And David Climenhaga follows up on Chuck Strahl's multiple conflicts of interest - while noting that what's kept barely legal through loopholes in the Cons' system of ethics has little to do with what's right.

- Jessica Barrett reports that Lisa Raitt considers lax rail safety (and the occasional town blown to smithereens) to be more than sexy enough to be worth defending. And Tim Harper discusses why Neil Young's words (and actions) to address the tar sands deserve our attention.

- Finally, Robert Frank writes about the vicious cycle of inequality:
Income concentration has changed spending patterns in other ways that widen the income gap. The wealthy have been spending more on gifts, clothing, housing, celebrations and other things simply because they have more money. Their extra spending has shifted the frames of reference that shape demand by others just below them, so these less wealthy people have been spending more, and so on, all the way down the income ladder. But because incomes below the top have been stagnant, the resulting expenditure cascades have made it harder for middle- and low-income families to make ends meet. Despite taking on huge amounts of debt, they’ve been unable to keep pace with community standards. Interest payments impoverish them while enriching their wealthy creditors.

But perhaps the most important new feedback loop shows up in higher education. Tighter budgets in middle-class families make it harder for them to afford the special tutors and other environmental advantages that help more affluent students win admission to elite universities. Financial aid helps alleviate these problems, but the children of affluent families graduate debt-free and move quickly into top-paying jobs, while the children of other families face lesser job prospects and heavy loads of student debt. All too often, the less affluent experience the miracle of compound interest in reverse.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sunday Afternoon Links

This and that to end your weekend.

- Paul Luke comments on the general stratification of workers into three groups: professionals facing extended hours and stress at a single job, service-sector workers juggling multiple jobs at more than full-time hours, and people struggling to find work at all. But it's well worth asking whether it's inevitable that we'll keep moving in a direction which seems to offer few benefits for anybody but the employers who extract more work for less pay - and asking what public policy choices we could make to ensure manageable workloads for more of the would-be workers who might want them.

- Tabatha Southey hands out her medals for climate-change denial in the wake of last week's extreme winter weather.

- Robin Rowland catches the Cons putting the National Energy Board in charge of regulating fisheries affected by pipelines - once again signalling their determination to have environmental concerns heard only by organizations whose primary concern is expanding resource extraction (if those concerns are to heard at all).

- Ezra Klein writes about the impact of partisan and ideological framing on different groups' support for exactly the same set of ideas, and wonders whether meaningful policy discussion is effectively ruled out by partisan affiliations. And Henry Farrell replies that there's value in being able to look at ideas critically based on motivated reasoning arising out of their origins - as long as the result is a meaningful evaluation of the ideas presented on all sides.

- Finally, Daniel Boffey reports on the UK's stock of publicly-constructed social housing - which, thanks to Conservative governments past and present, has largely become a source of rent revenue for the wealthy rather than an actual opportunity for people to find an affordable place to live.

On consensus positions

I won't break down in detail the bevy of reviews of the current position of Tom Mulcair and the federal NDP - including pieces by Bruce Stewart, John Ibbitson and John Geddes. But it's worth highlighting the areas where I'd see no need to challenge the consensus reflected in those articles - as well as the one where some pushback is absolutely needed.

On the bright side, there's little reason to see anything but opportunity in the public's views of both the NDP as a voting option, and Mulcair as a leader. As Geddes in particular notes, the main goals for a party approaching an election figure to be a sufficient base to support a strong national campaign, and a plausible path to build on that base toward a winning coalition.

And all indicators on that front look to be positive.

Of course, any party would prefer to start with the pole position. But there's plenty of room for growth as part of a close three-way contest (as appears to be the current state of federal politics). And indeed, the media narrative of "Mulcair is great, but has anybody noticed?" looks like a rather nice launching pad for a winning campaign - as the positive impressions built between elections create room for a strong campaign to resonate.

In that respect, remember that the NDP started the 2011 campaign in the mid-teens in the polls - and with a leader whose approval ratings weren't substantially different from Mulcair's today. But is there some reason to think Mulcair might have more trouble adding to the current starting point?

Well, both Ibbitson and Geddes make the claim that the public will see mindless support for free trade in all possible forms is a mandatory precondition for any party or leader being fit to govern. And from that starting point, both insist that Mulcair has no choice but to get in line behind the CETA - no matter how much that might frustrate a large number of existing supporters.

But I'm not sure one could invent a better example of the commentariat substituting its own views for those of voters in the absence of a shred of evidence.

The persuadable voters being pursued during the course any campaign are likely to be those with the fewest entrenched policy positions. And anybody willing to vote solely on their devotion to free trade is almost certain to be either a committed Con or at best a Con/Lib swing voter - and thus well beyond the NDP's pool of potential supporters.

Meanwhile, the CETA also offers huge opportunities to build on the NDP's preferred messages: what better way to be the party of affordability than to point out billions of extra dollars in prescription drug costs foisted on the public?

Instead, the larger question remains that of how to emerge as the most liked and trusted leader in the face of Justin Trudeau's campaign to be all things to all people. But taking any meaningful policy principles off the table will only strengthen Trudeau's hand.

As for what will enable the NDP to gain the upper hand, that remains to be seen. In retrospect, the NDP's Senate abolition campaign could hardly have worked out any better in placing the party alone alongside the general public. And there figure to be plenty more opportunities for Trudeau to either end up on the wrong side of major issues, or watch his personal image succumb to another Con ad blitz.

If that doesn't happen, then the NDP's best course of action is to grow the number of committed base voters who won't be taken in by a charm offensive. But if it does, the NDP is as well positioned to form government as it's ever been. And Mulcair's strong performance in Parliament can only bode well for his chances of winning over the public once the campaign starts.