Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne calls out Stephen Harper's hypocrisy in paying lip service to the problems with the use of disposable temporary foreign labour while expanding exactly that policy throughout his stay in power:
The program was supposed to be a last resort for employers dealing with skills shortages and used in a truly temporary fashion to fill high skill gaps until Canadians could be trained for those jobs.

That has not been the case under the current federal Conservative government. Not only has the program been used as a source of cheap labour, it has been riddled with abuses and has undermined the need for real immigration.

The result has been what is fast becoming a permanent underclass of workers who have little to no rights, who are especially vulnerable as their conditions of employment and entry into the country are completely tied to their boss and who are quite hesitant to complain about any problems out of fear of losing their employment and being sent back to their home country. They are ripe for exploitation.
At this point, it appears as if the prime minister is trying to play both sides off against the middle. While he may sound surprised, the fact remains that actions speak louder than words. And his government’s actions have been to allow the very real problems with the program to continue while knowing their merely cosmetic changes would have little impact.

The prime minister went on to say that companies have used the TFWP in ways that were not in the interest of Canadians. “That kind of abuse cannot go on,” he said.

Well, Mr. Harper, in case you need a reminder: you are the prime minister. It is certainly within your power to make sure the conditions for the abuses to occur are eliminated. Better yet, eliminate the program and start from scratch.
- Stuart Trew wonders why the TPP - like so many trade agreements - would be sealed behind closed doors with no public input or knowledge of its contents if it were intended to serve the interests of anybody but the privileged few in the room:
In Canada, we have a permanent ‘fast track’ situation in which MPs only ever get to vote yes or no to trade deals. There’s no option to say ‘yes’ to the tariff package and ‘no’ to longer drug patents or copyright terms. Harper won’t even release a cost-benefit assessment of the TPP to trade committee MPs — the people who are supposed to be studying the deal. The only information we have about Canada’s negotiating positions comes from leaks, which Canadian negotiators refuse to talk about.

Pipeline opponents have every right to demand to see environmental assessments of proposed routes and a voice on approval hearings. This is permanent energy infrastructure with often greater risks to the environment than the economic rewards can cover. Modern trade deals like the TPP, which are about much more than tariffs, create a legal infrastructure with permanent and potentially harmful effects on our economy and communities. The process for approving them should be no less transparent.
- Boris discusses the inevitable result of putting the state's secret surveillance mechanisms in the hands of the oil sector. PressProgress highlights the connections between the Con-approved CNOOC and shady offshore tax evasion. And having been publicly confronted with the conflict between the interests of Enbridge and those of the public, Chuck Strahl has made his choice.

- Meanwhile, just another (TransCanada) pipeline explosion. Nothing to see here.

- Finally, Murray Mandryk rightly notes that the continued structural disadvantages facing First Nations Canadians should be our greatest shame as a country.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Musical interlude

Beth Orton - Yesterday's Gone

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Robert Reich confirms the seemingly obvious reality that poverty and inequality are in fact major obstacle facing the poor. And Paul Krugman explains why any successful progressive movement in the U.S. will need to discuss inequality and the hoarding of wealth to challenge the entrenched (and expanding) influence of those who already have the most:
(J)obs and inequality are closely linked if not identical issues. There’s a pretty good although not ironclad case that soaring inequality helped set the stage for our economic crisis, and that the highly unequal distribution of income since the crisis has perpetuated the slump, especially by making it hard for families in debt to work their way out.

Moreover, there’s an even stronger case to be made that high unemployment — by destroying workers’ bargaining power — has become a major source of rising inequality and stagnating incomes even for those lucky enough to have jobs.

Beyond that, as a political matter, inequality and macroeconomic policy are already inseparably linked. It has been obvious for a long time that the deficit obsession that has exerted such a destructive effect on policy these past few years isn’t really driven by worries about the federal debt. It is, instead, mainly an effort to use debt fears to scare and bully the nation into slashing social programs — especially programs that help the poor. 
- And Jordan Weissman offers a reminder that Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy includes a commitment to a guaranteed income:
King had an even more expansive vision. He laid out the case for the guaranteed income in his final book, 1967's Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? Washington's previous efforts to fight poverty, he concluded, had been "piecemeal and pygmy." The government believed it could lift up the poor by attacking the root causes of their impoverishment one by one—by providing better housing, better education, and better support for families. But these efforts had been too small and too disorganized. Moreover, he wrote, "the programs of the past all have another common failing—they are indirect. Each seeks to solve poverty by first solving something else."

It was time, he believed, for a more straightforward approach: the government needed to make sure every American had a reasonable income.
- Meanwhile, Chris Bowers shows that a genuinely progressive take on politics can be a political winner by looking at past U.S. partisan support. And Thomas Mulcair is likewise demonstrating that a challenge to corporate control can resonate with the general public in Canada.

- Finally, following up on the theme of yesterday's column, Matthew Robinson and Mike de Souza report that the shipment of oil by rail is actually increasing even in the wake of the Lac-Mégantic explosion. And Adam Gamble highlights Regina's SomerSet development as a prime example of warnings being utterly ignored in the name of immediate gratification.

On official business

It's no surprise that the Cons' idea of accountability for themselves is to provide nothing but blank pages when faced with a request for information about their dealings with Senate reimbursements. But one of the reasons for the secrecy looks like a noteworthy story in itself.

Here's the exemption being applied to several pages of the record:
21. The head of a government institution may refuse to disclose any record requested under this Act that contains
(b) an account of consultations or deliberations in which directors, officers or employees of a government institution, a minister of the Crown or the staff of a minister participate, 
While the provision isn't as explicit as it could be, the exemption generally refers to consultations or deliberations involving government policy (Canadian Council of Christian Charities v. Canada (Minister of Finance), [1999] 4 FC 245 at para. 30, 32):
Despite the importance of governmental openness as a safeguard against the abuse of power, and as a necessary condition for democratic accountability, it is equally clear that governments must be allowed a measure of confidentiality in the policy-making process. To permit or to require the disclosure of advice given by officials, either to other officials or to ministers, and the disclosure of confidential deliberations within the public service on policy options, would erode government's ability to formulate and to justify its policies.
On the other hand, of course, democratic principles require that the public, and this often means the representatives of sectional interests, are enabled to participate as widely as possible in influencing policy development. Without a degree of openness on the part of government about its thinking on public policy issues, and without access to relevant information in the possession of government, the effectiveness of public participation will inevitably be curbed.
In contrast, personal matters are covered by the separate exemption under section 19 (also applied to much of the Senate document request).

In other words, by the Privy Council's own account, communications between some combination of Harper, the PCO and Duffy about the Senate expense scandal were dealt with as a matter of government policy rather than mere personal (or indeed partisan) discussions. Which further discredits the "Nigel Wright acted alone" and "I couldn't have known" lines of spin from Harper - while raising all the more need for an accurate account of Harper's own participation.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New column day

Here, on how the reactions of the federal government and the rail industry six months after the Lac-Mégantic rail explosion only seem to reinforce the risk of more disasters to come.

For further reading...
- Monique Beaudin reports on the finger-pointing and other attempts to avoid responsibility on the part of the corporations linked to the explosion. And I'll especially highlight the chutzpah of the group of oil services companies in arguing that as U.S. companies, they're entitled to ship oil through Canada while being above the law when it comes to cleanup of a spill.
- Meanwhile, David Sharp reports on the sale of MMA.
- Today's news of some additional review of the dangers of shipping by rail by the Transportation Safety Board represents some improvement - at least compared to last week's report about the elimination of the federal government's emergency directive following lobbying by CN and other railways.
- But it remains to be seen whether the Cons will follow through on the recommendations. And in light of TransCanada's declaration that it wants to set up a massive set of new infrastructure to ship oil by rail, there's a real possibility that the Cons will include shipment by rail in their list of oil-industry actions which must never be questioned no matter how explosive the consequences.
- Don Braid at least recognizes the need for more credibility in talking about the effects of tar sands development, but also implies the problem is one of branding rather than substance.
- And finally, David Climenhaga discusses the backlash against Neil Young's modest effort to draw attention to the health and rights of First Nations:
Refusal to bend to the will of this nearly omnipotent and omnipresent industry, with its vast wealth and numberless retainers, hirelings and toadies in government and media can be a risky proposition -- as we have all seen with the hysterical and unremitting national campaign against rocker Neil Young throughout the past few days.

Young's crime? Publicly supporting a northern Alberta First Nation that's fighting Bitumen Sands expansion on its traditional land. That Young has given as good as he got, and held his own against this tide of rage and fury, has given this story a David-and-Goliath quality that has many ordinary Canadians shaking their heads and wondering, "What are they afraid of?"

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Pierre Brochu and David Green study the effect of minimum wage rates, and find a connection between a higher minimum wage and greater employment stability. But if there's a choice between stable, well-paying work and precarious employment where job churn and wage reductions are seen as the norm, far too many policy-makers are choosing the latter - as Annie Lowrey notes that U.S. states are actively slashing benefits for unemployed workers to force them to grab desperately at whatever is available.

- Meanwhile, Juan Carlos Suárez Serrato and Owen Zidar offer reason to doubt the theory that corporate tax giveaways have any redeeming social value. And Toby Sanger calls out Gwyn Morgan for attacking workers' pensions as being too lavish while collecting millions each year himself (plus enjoying preferential tax treatment on his stock options).

- Martha Rosenberg looks at six examples of drugs which were approved and mass-marketed in the face of massive risks and side effects - as big pharma chased down immediate profits at the expense of unwitting patients. And Scott Stelmaschuk highlights the lack of real choice for consumers - not to mention the lack of investment in the public interest - where a few well-connected corporate entities control most of the major goods and services people need.

- Sticking to the subject of illusions of choice, Thomas Walkom reminds us of the Libs' track record in federal government - featuring their simultaneously taking credit for both introducing and slashing the public programs which once did more to mitigate against corporate domination.

- Finally, Deborah Campbell interviews Ron Diebert about the dangers of mass surveillance. And Nafeez Ahmed provides a prime example of the type of excuse being used to brand large numbers of citizens as potential threats, noting that mere opposition to fracking has resulted in activists being labeled as terrorists.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Splayed cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Erika Shaker rightly questions why government policy toward business is based on a level of permissiveness which we'd recognize as utter madness in dealing with a child:
Sure, all parents make mistakes, and all kids have meltdowns (some of which might have, admittedly, been handled better).

But it seems to me that even the worst examples of permissive parenting pale in comparison to the way politicians and pundits coddle, make excuses, and encourage double standards for questionable (even deplorable) behaviour from corporations and their representatives.

And perhaps it’s the post-holiday sugar-and-excessive-consumerism hangover talking, but I’m tired of being held hostage by self-indulgent, narcissistic tyrants, whose endless “gimmes” and “I want that…or elses” seem so utterly pervasive that I feel as though I’m trapped at a Toys “R” Us outlet sale (whereupon, after my third coffee, I discover the washrooms are out of order).

These days it seems the capitulation-impulse is so hair-trigger that often the actual demands (“Cut your salaries in half or I’m running away to Indiana where they just approved Right-to-Work!”) aren’t even necessary. It’s the anticipation of the demands—or fear of the consequences to be suffered if the unvoiced demands aren’t met—that results in a smorgasbord of pre-emptive tax-cut-esque goodies in an attempt to avoid the surely inevitable breath-holding tantrum. (Or reneging on job commitments—am I right, U.S. Steel?)
It’s the steadfast refusal to acknowledge that bad behaviour should have consequences; that corporations are required to negotiate fairly and should not expect governments—like doting helicopter parents—to constantly remove all obstacles in the path of profit; that ultimately by allowing rules to be bent or broken with near-impunity we are setting very dangerous precedents and ensuring that the cycle of toddler-like consequence-free behaviour will continue.
- Meanwhile, the CLC highlights the temporary foreign worker program as a prime example of that tendency to grease the skids toward higher profits. Mitchell Anderson contrasts Norway's strategy of saving resource wealth for the benefit of its citizens against Alberta's willingness to pile up debt to hand money to oil barons. And Alex Andreou discusses the broken promises underlying trickle-down economics:
If one subscribes to the charitable view that neoliberal philosophy was simply naive or misguided in thinking that "trickle down" would work infinitely, then evidence that it doesn't, should be cause for concern. It is a fundamental building block of supply-side economic theory – the tool of choice these past few decades for those in charge to make adjustments. The realisation that governments have been pulling at economic levers which, for some time, have been attached to nothing, should be a wake-up call to the deepest sleepers.
It is not so much that the supply-side principle "if you build it, they will come" is no longer true. It is more that we appear to have passed a tipping point, where so much wealth has been concentrated at the top, they no longer need bother to "build" anything. In short, it has become more economically efficient to buy countries' economic policy than to create value in order to sell it on. If one can control government to favour the richest, while raising barriers for new entrants, thus increasing their share of the pie exponentially, what is the incentive to grow the pie?
We have come to measure, to an increasing extent, individuals' success by their wealth, spending power and other assorted trappings. We do the same with the economic success of governments; measure it by an aggregated data set that fails to take into account wealth distribution, educational achievement, innovation, or even the welfare and health of the population they claim to represent. We must shift this perspective. It will be the hardest, simplest thing we have ever had to do as a species.
- Justin Ling offers his ideas to reform Canada's political system in response to Kevin Page's previous op-ed. But I'd argue that Ling's second and third points can be readily improved: I'd rather see the reinstatement of general funding for parties than Ling's proposed support only for specific activities, and would think it's possible to be far more ambitious about the expansion of information and privacy laws to include both government (including ministers' offices) and political parties alike.

- Finally, the WoodGreen Community Services' skewering of celebrity culture is well worth a look (and a share):

Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Graeme Wearden reports on Oxfam's latest study on inequality and the outsized political influence of the wealthy few:
The Oxfam report found that over the past few decades, the rich have successfully wielded political influence to skew policies in their favour on issues ranging from financial deregulation, tax havens, anti-competitive business practices to lower tax rates on high incomes and cuts in public services for the majority. Since the late 1970s, tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 out of 30 countries for which data are available, said the report.

This "capture of opportunities" by the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes has led to a situation where 70% of the world's population live in countries where inequality has increased since the 1980s and 1% of families own 46% of global wealth - almost £70tn.

Opinion polls in Spain, Brazil, India, South Africa, the US, UK and Netherlands found that a majority in each country believe that wealthy people exert too much influence. Concern was strongest in Spain, followed by Brazil and India and least marked in the Netherlands.
Oxfam is calling on those gathered at WEF to pledge: to support progressive taxation and not dodge their own taxes; refrain from using their wealth to seek political favours that undermine the democratic will of their fellow citizens; make public all investments in companies and trusts for which they are the ultimate beneficial owners; challenge governments to use tax revenue to provide universal healthcare, education and social protection; demand a living wage in all companies they own or control; and challenge other members of the economic elite to join them in these pledges.
- Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute is assembling support among economists for an increase in the U.S.' minimum wage. And Rob Rainer discusses why Canada should ensure a basic income guarantee as a matter of values and conscience.

- Bloomberg reports on the latest Enbridge oil spill just outside Regina. But Sheila Pratt points out why we probably can't expect even another incident close to home to lead to any meaningful public discussion - noting that the atmosphere of tar sands intimidation in Alberta has reached the point where doctors are refusing to treat patients who observe a connection between their illnesses and oil development.

- Finally, Gerald Caplan discusses the reality Stephen Harper should try to see during the course of his trip to Israel - while acknowledging the certainty that Harper will avoid it at all costs.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Leo Panitch reminds us that the term "reform" was once understood to represent efforts to bolster the public interest against unbridled market forces - and suggests it's well past time to take the word back from the business interests who have turned it into just the opposite. 

- Paul Krugman comments on the twin myths of the undeserving poor and the deserving rich. And Sam Polk writes from experience about the mindset that drives money addicts to demand that others' basic needs give way to their desire to accumulate:
I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.
I had recently finished Taylor Branch’s three-volume series on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, and the image of the Freedom Riders stepping out of their bus into an infuriated mob had seared itself into my mind. I’d told myself that if I’d been alive in the ‘60s, I would have been on that bus.

But I was lying to myself. There were plenty of injustices out there — rampant poverty, swelling prison populations, a sexual-assault epidemic, an obesity crisis. Not only was I not helping to fix any problems in the world, but I was profiting from them. During the market crash in 2008, I’d made a ton of money by shorting the derivatives of risky companies. As the world crumbled, I profited. I’d seen the crash coming, but instead of trying to help the people it would hurt the most — people who didn’t have a million dollars in the bank — I’d made money off it. I don’t like who you’ve become, my girlfriend had said years earlier. She was right then, and she was still right. Only now, I didn’t like who I’d become either.

Wealth addiction was described by the late sociologist and playwright Philip Slater in a 1980 book, but addiction researchers have paid the concept little attention. Like alcoholics driving drunk, wealth addiction imperils everyone. Wealth addicts are, more than anybody, specifically responsible for the ever widening rift that is tearing apart our once great country. Wealth addicts are responsible for the vast and toxic disparity between the rich and the poor and the annihilation of the middle class. Only a wealth addict would feel justified in receiving $14 million in compensation — including an $8.5 million bonus — as the McDonald’s C.E.O., Don Thompson, did in 2012, while his company then published a brochure for its work force on how to survive on their low wages. Only a wealth addict would earn hundreds of millions as a hedge-fund manager, and then lobby to maintain a tax loophole that gave him a lower tax rate than his secretary.
- Susan Delacourt theorizes that Twitter is becoming the defining communication mechanism for political leaders. And Konrad Yakabuski writes about the dark side of detailed political data collection - as the same information which can help parties reach supporters may also be used to target non-supporters for punishment and exclusion if there's no mechanism to test how it's used.

- Finally, Kevin Page suggests that we won't be able to make any progress in dealing with economic and social issues without first ensuring that our political system functions to serve the public interest rather than its own:
Income inequality is increasing in Canada and international comparisons put us well behind many European countries. The richest 1 per cent in Canada earns about 10.5 per cent of income, up from about 7 per cent some 30 years ago. About 9 per cent of our population lives in poverty, including some 570,000 of our children. Without aggressive action, these numbers are bound to get worse, not better.

Canadians have also added a lot of debt to our balance sheets. The ratio of household financial liabilities to household disposable income now sits at a record high 166 per cent, compared to 110 per cent in 2000. And as Canadians try to pay off this increased debt, inevitably consumption will further decrease, adding to more economic drift or stagnation.

So how do we get out of this dangerous spiral? One thing is clear: we cannot overcome the pressing economic challenges before us without the concerted effort of our government institutions. And yet in the wake of a year of scandal, those institutions are more distracted and less able to help than ever before.

The Prime Minister will not stand accountable for the actions of his own office. The Senate has lost trust over a spending scandal. The House of Commons has lost its power of the purse. Members of Parliament are forced to vote on appropriations without the information they need. The public service has become dangerously good at avoiding transparency and accountability.

Without rebuilding — and rebuilding trust in — the bodies charged with protecting our prosperity and democracy, we will continue to drift aimlessly, to put off the thinking we must put off no longer.