Saturday, March 01, 2014

On inspiring action

The NDP's first National Day of Action last weekend looks to have received virtually no media attention despite involving numbers of participants comfortably within the range of similarly-timed conventions and conferences which routinely dominate national headlines for weeks at a time. And there's reason for optimism that the NDP's plan to hold several more may hint at a new stage in Canadian grassroots democracy.

But I'll echo Murray Dobbin's concern that while it's well worth building a strong participatory structure, there's reason to question the issue chosen for the first day of action:
On February 22, in the aftermath of a "boring" budget, Thomas Mulcair's NDP undertook a National Day of Action -- a welcome idea that's been long in coming and has the potential over time to be a political game changer. If developed more and replicated at the riding level it could be the beginning of moving the NDP away from being simply a campaign machine to actually becoming, like its CCF predecessor, a movement party engaged in communities year-round.

And yet the potential in this first experiment of engaging Canadians between elections seems to have been squandered by the focus of the day of action. How is it possible that the NDP would finally understand the importance of this kind of citizen engagement and at the same time completely abandon any substantive ideas with which to start a conversation? The whole day of action is one huge political contradiction -- engaging citizens but only after you have redefined them as consumers.
Every study ever done shows that the best bang for your buck is the taxes you pay. Put your money together with everyone else and you get stuff you could never possibly afford by yourself -- medicare being only the most powerful example among dozens: education, police and fire protection, parks, clean water, mass transit.

Imagine if the NDP, instead of talking about relatively minor consumer issues, had instead decided to have a National Day of Action engaging Canadians on the budget and taxes. While the way budgets are presented and discussed makes them dry and frustratingly incomprehensible, wherever participatory budgeting has been tried there has been a tremendous public response. Give people a real opportunity to engage, with accessible information, and they always respond.
At best, the "affordability" theme might be justified as a first step in a process of developing an ongoing structure for volunteer action. It's understandable for a party to minimize its risks in developing new forms of political activity, and the NDP followed that pattern - choosing a subject which left little room for disagreement, which in turn made it easy for new volunteers and newly-reached voters to talk about politics without creating avoidable controversy.

But with that first show of activist muscle out of the way (and being proclaimed a success), I'll hope to see future Days of Action go much further - both in offering the prospect of far greater responsiveness to the people being reached, and in pursuing Thomas Mulcair's oft-repeated promise of moving the political centre toward progressive values. And it's only by achieving those goals that the NDP can harness the power of the citizenry to overcome a corporate media environment where it's being written off yet again.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- The New York Times editorial board points out that a higher minimum wage can produce clear economic benefits for businesses as well as for workers:
One 2013 study by three economists — Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester and Michael Reich — compared the experiences of businesses in neighboring counties in different states and found less turnover in states that had raised the minimum wage. Workers were less likely to leave on their own, and managers were more likely to keep the workers they had on staff to avoid the cost of recruiting and training replacements.

Other studies on the effect of local minimum wage increases in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles have found similar results, according to a recent overview published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
There is another way in which a higher minimum wage helps businesses: by increasing consumer spending. When poor families earn more, they spend more. A group of more than 600 economists, including seven Nobel laureates, recently told President Obama and congressional leaders that an increase in the minimum wage would stimulate today’s weak economy. Even Walmart, the country’s largest retailer, has previously called on policy makers to increase the federal minimum wage. A spokesman for the company recently told Bloomberg News that it was “looking at” supporting the current Democratic proposal.

The argument that a higher minimum wage would hurt business is old and tired. There is clear and compelling evidence that the economy and companies enjoy real benefits when workers are paid more.
- And Tim Stacey suggests that in light of the connections between poor wages, insecure work and poor health as obstacles to future opportunities, governments should be looking for ways to foster jobs which offer some prospect of security - rather than pointing to temporary and precarious jobs as a sign of success.

- Don Cayo reminds us why the Cons seemed to have it right in temporarily nixing income splitting - making Stephen Harper's more recent declaration that he's fully committed to channeling wealth upward all the more inexplicable. And Kevin Milligan notes there's less than meets the eye in Statistics Canada's latest wealth survey, while Andrew Jackson recognizes that younger workers are facing a nasty combination of high debts, high entry barriers to homeownership and low asset levels.

- Carol Goar comments on the false economy the Cons are trying to claim by cutting health services to refugees.

- Finally, Susan Delacourt writes about the systemic damage done to Canada's democracy by the Cons' well-established pattern of using public office solely for their own ends:
The cumulative, long-term effects are emerging though. The ever-growing list of “enemies’ of the government — Liberals, New Democrats, public-service watchdogs, journalists, environmentalists, election officials, charities — expect to find themselves on Harper’s bad side.

But this newest poll shows that a large number of non-political citizens, armed only with their voting rights, may expect to find themselves on the wrong side too.

Our democratic life can go on, whether or not the public likes, respects or even pays attention to the people in power.

But when two-thirds of the public expresses doubts about the fairness of future elections, that’s a problem — not just for Conservatives, but to the institution of government altogether.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Musical interlude

Audien - Wayfarer

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jonathan Freedland discusses how the UK's Conservative government is forcing its poor citizens to choose between food and dignity:
Cameron's statement rests on the repeatedly implied assumption that the only people going hungry are those who have opted for idleness as a lifestyle choice, who could work but don't fancy it. This assumption is false. The majority of poor households include at least one person who works. As Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, put it this week: "People who are using food banks are not scroungers who are cynically trying to work the system. They are drawn from the 6 million working poor in this country, people who are struggling to make ends meet in low paid or bitty employment." Sure enough, the very first thing the "clients" I speak to at the Hackney food bank tell me – unprompted – is how desperate they are to work. One is an immigrant legally barred from working. The other is a former removal man now aged 60 who can't afford to buy the van he needs to get started again.

Yet the driving rhetoric behind the government's welfare policy focuses narrowly on those dishonestly claiming benefits, even though such fraud accounts for less than 1% of the money paid out. To punish that tiny, parasitical minority, hundreds of thousands of people – poor not because they're lazy but because of low wages, patchy, zero-hours jobs or rising food costs – are going hungry.

As for welfare dependency, on that logic any and all support is part of the problem: the minute you help someone, you risk making them dependent. The bishop of Bradford is surely right to argue that the government might as well be honest and "say ... we are prepared for people to starve and become destitute in order to achieve that longer-term goal" of ending welfare dependency. Like refusing to put out fires lest you encourage fire brigade dependency, it would at least have the merit of consistency.
(T)here is less shame in claiming a nationally mandated benefit than in going to a church hall, being handed a food parcel and having to nod your head and say thank you.

Still, the shame is bearable if the alternative is you or your family going hungry. What has become of us, when that is the choice we offer our fellow citizens: dignity or food? And this in our wealthy, wealthy country.
- But in case anybody was under the illusion that nobody gets a free lunch, Duncan Hood reports on several major Canadian corporations which are paying little or no tax (with the assistance of government policy choices).

- Bruce Campbell calls for an independent inquiry into the Lac-M├ęgantic oil-by-rail explosion. But then, the same anti-regulatory dogma which did so much to cause the disaster in the first place figures to explain the Cons' refusal to allow for a full investigation. Which means that we may have to hope rail operators pay more attention to the U.S. regulators who are rightly studying the dangers of oil by rail - rather than the Cons who value safety far below oil-sector profits.

- Finally, Simon asks how either the NDP or the Libs could possibly justify refusing to work together in a coalition if the 2015 federal election results in an opportunity to replace the Harper Cons. And Paul Wells likewise notes that there's every reason to keep all options open in order to pursue good government - even if the fundamental rightness of that position will get buried in favour of a substance-free "flip-flop" narrative in some corners. (Though I do maintain my doubts about Wells' confidence that the Cons would step down willingly - rather than pulling out all the stops to prevent mere voters and Parliamentary majorities from bringing about a change in government.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

New column day

Here, on the importance of letting voters decide among a full range of potential political candidates - rather than imposing rules or conventions which prohibit senior military leaders, public servants or others from participating in politics.

For further reading...
- The column is largely a response to Andrew Coyne (who argues that personal decisions of military and civilian leaders should be evaluated differently based on their potential interest in politics) and Adam Chapnick (who argues for a five-year moratorium against political involvement which would exclude recently-retired military professionals from participation in the democracy they've fought to defend).
- And I'll also point readers back to my earlier column on the Cons' Bill C-520 - which strikes me as similar in theme in its attempt to dictate that public service is incompatible with past or future political involvement.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- David Macdonald comments on Statistics Canada's latest wealth survey, with particular emphasis on the continued gap between a privileged few and the vast majority of Canadians:
(T)he top 20% of families have twice as much wealth as the bottom 80% of families combined. Even if the bottom 80% of families doubled their net worth tomorrow, they still wouldn’t have as much as the top 20% presently do.

Inequality is not only about the wealthy, it’s also about the middle class. Looking at the middle 20% of families, while they represent 20% of the population, they only receive 15% of all income. However, the middle 20% of families only have 8% of all net wealth and this has remained fairly constant since 1999.

All the above examines the share of net worth, not its dollar value change over time. In fact, net wealth has increased for all quintiles since 1999.  For instance, middle class net wealth has increased by almost 80% since 1999 in inflation-adjusted terms. The upper class has increased their net worth by a little over 80% since 1999. That seems fairly equal until you realize that the wealth they were starting from in 1999 was already incredibly unequal: 80% of $760,000 is a lot more than 80% of $137,000 (the 1999 median wealth values for the upper and middle classes, respectively).

In fact, of every new dollar of Canadian wealth created since 1999, $0.66 went to the richest, $0.23 went to the upper middle class and the bottom 60% fought it out for the remaining dime.

The reasons why wealth increased for the middle class in contrast to the rich are also quite different. If we look at the distribution of debt instead of net wealth, we find that the middle class actually holds the most debt of any quintile, certainly more than the poor, but interestingly also more than the rich.  The middle class has managed to increase their net wealth in large part due to increased leveraging, not asset price appreciation. The richest families have less debt and substantially more assets. Their increased wealth is largely due to asset accumulation, not leveraging.
- Meanwhile, Phillip Inman reports on a new IMF study which shows that redistribution of wealth correlates to slightly more economic development - meaning that policies aimed at giveaways to the wealthy in the name of growth tend to fail even on their own terms (while succeeding only at exacerbating inequality).

- Ian Welsh explains how our political and financial systems are set up to funnel free money to the banking sector - while pointing out the inevitable result that an already-coddled industry is accumulating ever more wealth and power.

- Karl Nerenberg offers seven suggestions to make the Cons' elections legislation less damaging. But it's particularly worth noting that exactly one point on the list reflects a change from the status quo - meaning that the main effects of the Fair Elections Act are to make matters worse than they'd be if nothing were to be passed at all.

- And Rick Mercer rants about the Cons' plans to change Canada's electoral rules solely for their own benefit:

- Finally, David Climenhaga looks at the dwindling membership of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation - showing that even astroturf has an expiry date.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

On top priorities

If there's anything to question in the latest reporting about possible post-election cooperation between the NDP and the Libs, it's the impression that Thomas Mulcair's willingness to pursue a coalition to replace the Harper Cons with a better government somehow comes entirely out of the blue. But while the story may not be entirely new, it's certainly well worth pointing out:
The leader of the New Democrats said on Tuesday he is willing to form a coalition in order to take power after the next election, even as the other opposition party leader, Liberal Justin Trudeau, played down the idea.
“We’ve always said we’re ready to work with other parties. We’re a progressive party. We want to get results,” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters when asked if he would be willing to form a coalition with Mr. Trudeau after the election.
Minutes later, Mr. Trudeau told reporters he opposed any formal arrangement with the NDP. He has battled hard for voters to the left of the Conservatives but has viewed some of the NDP economic ideas as too interventionist.

“I made very clear during my leadership [campaign] that I was not interested in any of those options, and the fact is I got a very strong mandate from Liberals to pursue a winning Liberal strategy … for 2015,” he said.
Yes, that's the Leader of the Official Opposition confirming that his top priority is the public interest and that he's willing to work with other parties in the effort - nicely appealing to the strong majority of voters who want to see the Cons gone. And that's the leader of the third party proudly proclaiming that he doesn't think that good government for Canadians rates even the slightest consideration compared to his focus on absolute power for the Liberal Party.

Needless to say, the contrast remains a huge plus for the NDP - no matter how determined some critics are to ignore all evidence in demanding that leaders eradicate any trace of cooperation from federal politics or be branded insufficiently macho to earn the good ol' boys' support.

The bad news is that Mulcair hasn't yet done much to build on the Layton legacy of productive cooperation. But particularly if Trudeau keeps so firmly focused on himself, there should still be plenty of time to confirm the NDP's place as the party of cooperation and progressive principles.

Update: Dr. Dawg has more

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Heat-seeking cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Alison and PressProgress both discuss how Brad Butt's attempt to defend voter suppression is based on what even he had to concede was nothing short of legislative fraud. And Stephen Maher notes that the Cons' unilateral rewrite of election rules figures to force Elections Canada to cover up the Cons' pattern of illegal activity.

- Meanwhile, Jason Fekete reports on the Cons' deliberate ignorance of deputy ministers' advice that the government can't keep stonewalling against action on climate change - and follows up by pointing out the NDP's work to challenge the Cons on the issue in Parliament.

- And CBC reports that it took a since-fired whistleblower to force TransCanada to live up to its regulatory obligations - as neither the company nor the government had any apparent interest in enforcing the rules otherwise.

- Duncan Cameron observes that the Libs' federal convention featured discussion of a few eminently worthy policies - most notably a basic income guarantee. But Dr. Dawg notes that there's a massive difference between talk, commitment and action:
A policy document like the one just produced is really little more than a statement of faith, although I’d argue that this is the case for any party in Canada’s present political culture. The process of creating policy builds an illusory feel-good solidarity, affiliation and loyalty, while not committing adherents to anything at all except to get their party into power—which is what the “Hope and Hard Work” slogan at the convention was all about. Nor does it commit that party, once in power, to anything either. As a piece of mass audience-participation theatre it serves its purpose, creating bonds of loyalty and galvanizing activists. But let’s not imagine it’s a mirror of the future under Justin Trudeau.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s great to get this stuff on the record. It sets a general political tone and direction, and, more importantly, from a progressive point of view, it provides a little leverage for holding politicians to account. I’ve been hungrily awaiting policy ever since the remarkably policy-free Trudeau assumed the leadership of his party. Well, now the Liberals have some. It remains to be seen, however, just how seriously it will be defended by the Leader and his inner circle.
- Finally, Global POV highlights the importance of public support for citizens across all classes - while noting that the corporate class benefits more than anybody from the strategic use of welfare benefits:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Stephen Hume writes about the importance of tax revenue in building a functional and compassionate Canada:
My taxes provide our mostly peaceful, prosperous and safe society; a health care system that for all its flaws and glitches is pretty darn good compared to the alternatives; a policing and justice system that despite occasional hiccups is fair, merciful and trustworthy; a brave and honourable military.

My taxes provide income support for the unemployed, the indigent, the impaired and the unlucky.

My taxes helped create educational facilities of exceptional quality and performance; public infrastructure that makes doing business in Canada stable, predictable and profitable compared to many other parts of the world.

My taxes keep cities clean and safe and full of life. They provide generally good government by mostly decent, hard-working public servants and politicians.

My taxes helped send Chris Hadfield into space; Carey Price, Hayley Wickenheiser and all our other wonderful athletes to the Olympics. They helped writer Alice Munro and scientist Gerhard Herzberg to win the Nobel Prize. They also paved B.C.’s roads, brought electricity to remote First Nations communities and built bridges across the Fraser River that enable Vancouver’s prosperity.

Canada is far from perfect. Many social injustices remain to address. But life is better than it might be for most of us, even for the aggrieved.

Thank my taxes — and yours — for that.
- Meanwhile, John McDermott offers a worthwhile read on how the UK Cons' attacks on social benefits are making life more difficult for low-income individuals both inside and outside the workforce. And Kathleen Geier highlights how more progressive tax policy could go a long way toward reducing inequality on both local and national levels.

- Huffington Post reports that the Cons' priorities run in exactly the opposite direction - as they continue to encourage the use of temporary foreign workers to suppress wages and channel resource wealth to those who need it least. And CP reports on an internal government study showing that any attempt to sell 20 years of corporatist policies as a benefit to middle-class families is based on myth rather than fact. (Which likely explains why the defenders of the status quo are making up fictitious symbols rather than talking to or about real people.)

- But we're at least seeing much-needed pushback against the Cons' assumption that health, safety and equity all need to be sacrificed on the altar of burning more oil - including from Suncor employee and Unifor member Lori McDaniel, who's earned the NDP's nomination in Fort McMurray-Athabasca.
- Finally, Huffington Post also reports on one of the many nasty surprises in Stephen Harper's latest omnibus budget bill, as the Cons are planning to take direct political control over CBC labour relations and personnel decisions.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content to end your weekend.

- Lana Payne highlights the Harper Cons' culture of hate with just a few recent examples:
Veterans. Informed-debate. People’s right to a union and free collective bargaining. Voting rights. These are all under threat in Harper’s Canada.

This really is a government that hates; hates anyone that disagrees with them. Hates unions and the ability of people to work collectively to get a fair share of the economic pie. Hates democracy. Hates people who vote for other parties. Just plain hates.

This is not healthy for our country, our society. This is no way to govern. This is no way to build an inclusive nation where fairness prevails. This is just simply nastiness and hate. And we should call it out for what it really is.
- And kirbycairo comments on the Cons' distaste for basic principles of governance (h/t to Boris):
Good governance requires certain basic elements - commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy, the desire to foster dialogue, a basic commitment to an effective civil-service and the good programs that they need to deliver, a commitment to giving a voice to the voiceless and providing care and protection for society's most vulnerable, a strong commitment to the constitution, a respect for fairness and the democratic traditions of the House of Commons, a respect for the judicial arm of government and the necessary (role) it plays, and a commitment to protecting the environment for future generations. Our government has no commitment to any of these. In fact, it actively undermines all of them. There is not a single element of good governance to which this government is committed.
It is difficult to live in a society which is inching gradually toward autocracy as many of the citizens seem to blithely ignore the coming danger. There is a certain nonchalant attitude taken by many to the dangerous and insidious actions of a government that is falling into fascism. They have trouble believing that it "can happen here" or that our traditions can be subverted and perverted by a bunch of men dressed in suits. But not every coup is a violent one and sometimes what is best in a society is lost in a (quiet) war of attrition.
- Meanwhile, Karl Nerenberg looks at the particularly glaring gap between the Cons' eletion-rigging legislation and the principles they agreed to just last year when their election fraud scandal was in the front pages. And the CP reports on the NDP's efforts to give the public some voice in the rules governing elections - even as the Cons insist that nobody but themselves should have any say in determining what constitutes a fair electoral process.

- The CP also reports on a new study showing the link between tar sands tailings ponds and groundwater contamination. But the most noteworthy part of the story is the joint industry/government position that new development must be allowed to barge ahead without environmental reviews, while any regulation (or even tracing of projects' contributions to groundwater damage) should be put off until we're absolutely sure the development is causing irreversible damage.

- Finally, Paul Wells notes that Justin Trudeau has taken sole and full ownership of the Libs' historic self-image, while J.J. McCullough sees Trudeau as prioritizing high status over any connection with the public. Needless to say, these theses seem fully compatible.