Saturday, March 08, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Jim Stanford writes that union-bashing has proven to be political poison for many of the parties who have tried to distract from increasing inequality with attacks on workers:
(T)he biggest problem for Mr. Hudak’s crusade was a deeper sentiment in Canadian public opinion regarding unions and the role they play in society. No matter their warts, unions ultimately reflect their members: typical Canadians just trying to earn a decent income, support their families, and (hopefully) retire with some security, in an economy which rewards the rich and powerful more than ever before. Unions (like wage-earners in general) have been on the defensive for years. Wage gains have been small, strikes are historically rare, and even much-maligned public sector contracts have been rolled back substantially. In such a lopsided context, it’s simply impossible to convince most voters that unions are really Public Enemy Number One. And many Canadians innately understand that if the only institutional voice speaking for working class priorities is silenced, then the whole social contract will become even more tattered in the years ahead. Unions, to their credit, effectively emphasized their broader social impacts in their responses to Mr. Hudak.

And therein lies the danger for other Conservatives (including federally) who have been sowing similar political ground. Attempts to delegitimize unions (as with the failed federal Bill C-377, which treated unions almost on par with organized crime), tilt the bargaining field further in employers’ favour, and snatch away negotiated benefits (like the health benefits Ottawa is now clawing back from retirees) all appear increasingly mean-spirited. They offend moderate Conservatives (who understand the important institutional role of collective bargaining), anger unions and their members, and reinforce the impression that Conservatives do not speak for average working people.

In short, the effort to blame trade unions as the scapegoat for all economic and fiscal ailments is running out of steam. Mr. Hudak’s platform will continue to emphasize other anti-union initiatives, but they will resonate awkwardly in the wake of his Rand Formula flip-flop. And other Conservatives should beware the political rock – a deep, innate sympathy for institutions which help to share the wealth – that their Ontario counterparts just drove into.
- But Michael-Allan Marion notes that the failure of one distraction tactic hasn't changed the basic corporatist direction of many governments, pointing out the perpetual growth of income inequality.

- Meanwhile, the Prairie Dog looks in detail at the state of women's equality in Canada - and finds that there's still a great deal of room for improvement even as right-wing governments look to roll back past gains.

- Marc Mayrand's detailed presentation on the Cons' Unfair Elections Act can be found here, while Andrew Coyne argues that the bill looks worse and worse with each review. (Which may explain the Cons' determination to shut down discussion to the greatest extent possible while feigning ignorance of its glaring flaws.)

- Finally, Peter O'Neil discusses the factors that led to the NDP's 2011 Quebec breakthrough, featuring two which seem particularly noteworthy in shaping party preferences in the longer term: greater recognition by Quebec voters that the NDP shares their social values, and a new set of voters claiming a "close identification" with the NDP which exceeds the vote share the party had won in the province in the previous generation.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Musical interlude

Velvetine - The Great Divide

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Following up on yesterday's column, David Atkins discusses his own preference for front-end fixes to poverty and inequality:
The standard way you'll hear most progressives address inequality issues is to allow the labor market to run as usual, but levy heavy taxes on the back for redistribution.

No doubt that is the simplest way of doing it. But it also creates some problems, including a perception of unfairness, the potential to simply lower the tax rates when conservatives are put in charge, and capital mobility in which the richest people simply leave the country.

Front-end fixes that distribute wealth more fairly before it makes it to the hands to the plutocrats is more desirable in my book. They're harder to get rid of legislatively, they eliminate the "we're overtaxed" argument, and they reduce the incentive for capital mobility.
- Chuk Plante and Rachel Malena introduce a week of action on the part of the the Poverty Costs campaign - a particularly important prospect given that investments to fight poverty can more than pay for themselves. Kathleen Geier discusses how inequality kills. And Paul Krugman challenges the "hammock fallacy" used by the right to complain about social investments:
(I)f generous aid to the poor perpetuates poverty, the United States — which treats its poor far more harshly than other rich countries, and induces them to work much longer hours — should lead the West in social mobility, in the fraction of those born poor who work their way up the scale. In fact, it’s just the opposite: America has less social mobility than most other advanced countries.

And there’s no puzzle why: it’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive in later life than those who didn’t. But we don’t do enough along these lines. The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much; it’s that it helps them too little.
- Unfortunately, we too are stuck with a federal government proudly trumpeting an economy which is generating almost nothing but part-time work - and a provincial one determined to favour private, low-wage labour no matter what the cost to Saskatchewan in both wages and productivity.

- Thomas Mulcair weighs in on the Cons' Unfair Elections Act designed to avoid any change on the federal scene:
With its euphemistically named Fair Elections Act, the Conservatives have managed to introduce one of the worst electoral bills to date. Among other things, it would strip Elections Canada of its investigative powers when, in fact, those powers need to be improved; increase the limit of political donations (they apparently haven’t been paying attention to the Charbonneau commission); and disenfranchise youth, seniors and aboriginal voters.

Canadians are not fools. They know the Conservatives are loading the dice in their favour. Every single one of these measures stands to unduly benefit their party.
But the most baffling provision is the one that prevents Elections Canada from educating Canadians about their vote or encouraging them to take part in this fundamental democratic duty. I say “baffling” because at a time when political cynicism is rampant and electoral participation is at historic lows, how can they possibly try to convince us that this will enhance our democracy?

“Getting Canadians to vote is the responsibility of political parties,” they say. I beg to differ. To think this way is to relegate this essential democratic principle to a simple act of petty partisan politics — and it doesn’t work.
- Likewise, both the Cons' appointed chief electoral officer (Marc Mayrand) and their most-cited authority on supposed voter fraud (Harry Neufeld) confirm there's no reason for confidence in either the bill or the government seeking to impose it on Canadian voters. And Justin Ling sees the Cons as having made as strong a case for their bill as they have for the necessity of ghostbusting.

- Finally,Tannara Yelland writes that Saskatchewan's access-to-information laws manage to stand out as weak even compared to their antiquated federal counterparts.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Thursday Afternoon Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Chris Hall notes that Brad Butt's admitted fabrications can only hurt the Cons' already-lacking credibility when it comes to forcing through their unfair elections legislation. And Ed Broadbent sums up what's at stake as the Cons try to rewrite the rules to prioritize their own hold on power over public participation and the fair administration of elections:
Inspired by the tried and tested voter suppression tactics used by the Republicans to disenfranchise marginalized groups in the U.S., the new election law would make it harder for certain groups to vote. The law would end the ability to “vouch” for the bona fides of a neighbour, a tool that allowed 120,000 voters — disproportionately aboriginal, youth and seniors — to cast ballots in the last election.
The move is part of a broader sweep of changes that also serves to suppress the vote. For example, the new law will remove the ability of electors to use voter identification cards. Elections Canada had only in the last few years piloted the use of the cards to make it easier to cast a ballot at polling sites serving seniors’ residences, long-term care facilities, aboriginal reserves and on-campus student residences. The conclusion of this pilot project was that the “initiative made the voter identification process run more smoothly and reduced the need to ask the responsible authorities for letters of attestation of residence.”

In other words, voter identification cards had been successful in enfranchising these groups. Conservative MP Brad Butt, a member of the committee dealing with this measure, has been compelled to retract a completely fabricated story he had told in the House about this so-called fraud. Despite his apparent breach of parliamentary privilege, the Conservatives rejected an opposition bid to have a House committee look into Butt’s false claims that he saw voter identification cards stolen from recycling boxes to commit fraud.
Having spent more than two decades in the House of Commons, I can think of no prime minister who has been so focused on undermining electoral participation and public debate.

We have a tradition of Conservatives, New Democrats and Liberals respecting everyone’s right to have a say. Past governments have avoided turning democratic process into a tool for one party’s advantage. Changes in electoral processes were always based on all-party consensus.

That Harper derides such all-party consensus is, sadly, no surprise. That his robotic backbench will unquestioningly obey is not news either. Except now, the victims of his disregard for debate aren’t only the people we elect. It’s those doing the electing as well.
- Meanwhile, Kathryn May discusses the witch-hunt mindset behind Mark Adler's bill to attack the partisan activity of anyone who is, or might want to become, a public servant.

- Stephen Maher looks at the Cons' data mining from Aga Khan's visit, while Susan Delacourt reminds us that a complete lack of checks on partisan use of information allows all parties to carry out similar data collection efforts.

- Andrew Leach offers some rare recognition of Brad Wall's fundamental lack of anything useful or coherent to say - in this case, on the subject of Keystone XL and environmental policy:
On new regulations, however, one environmental economist said Wall's logic defeats itself.

If the whole point of introducing rules is to convince the Americans you're doing something on climate change, and then you insist on weak rules so the oil industry isn't affected, he said, isn't there a conflict there?

"In some ways those arguments feed into the opposition," said Andrew Leach, a professor at the University of Alberta and a former federal official. "Then you're essentially saying exactly what the (Keystone) opponents are saying."

Leach said that kind of mixed messaging has been typical of the Keystone debate.

He said it's been similar with the Alberta government, which went from calling the pipeline indispensable to the expansion of the industry to now suggesting it won't really make a difference.
- And finally, Robyn Leach points out that the oil industry is using a glaring regulatory loophole to avoid environmental scrutiny for massive project expansions.

New column day

Here, featuring my take on the IMF's recent report (PDF) on the relationship between equality, redistribution and growth.

I've already linked to other responses to the report from the Guardian and the Economist. But the column raises a point left largely unaddressed in those pieces - and which seems particularly important given some of the advice regularly dispensed to Canadian progressives.

I'll sum up that advice as being "don't worry about market inequality - instead, address poverty and inequality through taxation and redistribution". Which makes for a neat enough recommendation on its face - and has led me to see a guaranteed annual income as the single policy with the greatest potential to ensure broad equality and security.

But Ostry, Berg and Tsangarides find that while an equal initial distribution of income doesn't harm an economy's growth (and indeed contributes a small positive effect), particularly high levels of after-market redistribution give rise to some negative effect on growth. And those naturally arise only where pre-market distributions are so unequal to give rise to a need for exceptionally high transfers.

In other words, the study shows no drag on growth arising out of policies which encourage pre-market equality (though I'll note that it doesn't break down the policies and social factors supporting those more equal market distributions). But it does identify some perceptible drag on growth arising out of policies which settle for redistribution after the fact - which suggests to me that we should be focusing relatively more attention on the former than the latter.

Naturally, I'll invite any questions or comments about that line of reasoning. And I certainly don't see it as ruling out transfers as an important means of ensuring equality. But it does seem to me to suggest that a singular focus on after-market redistribution may have harmful economic effects (in addition to being politically implausible) - which confirming that broadly-shared high wages and effective worker bargaining power are necessary elements of a fair and prosperous economy.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Brian and Karen Foster question why steadily improving productivity has led to increasing stratification rather than better lives for a large number of people:
(W)ith all the optimism, why hasn't technological progress actually opened up a world where we all work, and we all work less? Why do we still have some people working overtime while others sit idle, wishing for employment? Why are we not seeing the spread of work-sharing schemes, where the duties of one job are divided into two or more jobs?

We have a government program that helps companies do this for a short time instead of laying workers off, but generally the closest we come to work-sharing is splitting a job that was once full-time and salaried into a suite of part-time, short-term contracts with no benefits. Conceivably, we could spread the work around without diminishing job security and drastically cutting wages. We could use work sharing as a long-term employment strategy rather than solely as a crisis response.

Sticking with the idea of long-term strategies, why haven't we seriously considered the success and promise of Basic Income schemes -- like the one tested and then quietly abandoned in Dauphin, Manitoba?

At the very least, why haven't we shortened our work week in recognition of our increased productivity? (Because it is increasing, despite all the fear mongering; the worst that happens, generally, is "poor growth.")

Why, as Bertrand Russell wondered nearly a century ago, have we chosen "to have overwork for some and starvation for the others" when "modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all"?
- And Carol Goar recognizes that paper wealth doesn't do much to help anybody who hasn't managed to siphon off real money from the increased price of houses and other assets:
  • Families’ net work may have increased, but their cash buffer is gone. On paper, they’re better off because of a 47-per-cent appreciation in the value of homes since 2005. But that kind of wealth can shrink — or vanish — for reasons beyond their control. All it would take is a run-up in mortgage rates, a tightening of credit conditions or a real estate sell-off by aging baby boomers.
  • Younger families didn’t do nearly as well in the survey as their baby-boomer parents. Households with a principal breadwinner between 35 and 44 had a median net worth of $182,500. Those with a primary earner between 55 and 64 had almost triple that amount ($533,600). With baby boomers holding so much of the nation’s wealth, it’s not surprising Trudeau and Mulcair are picking up distress signals from the next generation of voters.
  • Household debt rose at a faster pace than assets. “Because assets are far larger than debt, net worth still increased,” explained economist Leslie Preston of Toronto Dominion Bank. But that was little comfort to middle-class families carrying a large mortgage, a car loan, a line of credit and a couple of maxed-out credit cards. If interest rates climb — even one or two percentage points — they’ll be in financial trouble.
  • The poorest 20 per cent of the population — some 2.7 million families — lost ground. That quintile now includes many Canadians who considered themselves middle class before the recession. The contraction of the manufacturing sector, corporate downsizing and outsourcing eliminated well-paid jobs, pushing them down a level.
These developments reshaped people’s attitudes and expectations. Working hard was no longer the key to upward mobility. A good education didn’t necessarily lead to employment. A job didn’t mean a pension. Career planning became an oxymoron. Condos were the only homes most young couples could aspire to own.
What is beyond dispute — no matter whether wages, income or wealth is used — is that inequality is growing. Those at the top are getting richer and those at the bottom are sinking deeper into poverty.

Canadians in the middle see themselves moving down, not up. Even if they hang on, their kids — burdened with debt, struggling for a foothold in the job market, still living at home — will fall back.

That is what Trudeau and Muclair are tapping into. It’s not acute financial distress. It is a gnawing conviction the ladder of opportunity is broken.
- In a similar vein, Robert Reich identifies inequality as the major problem in the distribution of what we produce. And Rhys Kesselmen highlights how the Cons are going out of their way to exacerbate that inequality by setting up and expanding new tax shelters like TFSAs, while Penny Kome interviews Allyson Pollock about P3s as another means of converting social resources into private profits.

- Michael Harris wonders whether the Cons' big bang is coming soon. And Josh Wingrove reports that they're using their majority to stifle any discussion of their own admitted lies to Parliament, while Paul Adams laments their hollow-threat diplomacy on the international stage.

- But Alex Boutillier notes that the NDP is looking to set a more positive example for political consultation, planning to hold its own public hearings into the Cons' election legislation if Harper and company refuse to allow for any to occur through Parliament.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Napping cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- The Economist looks at the relationship between equality and growth, showing that there's at worst little evidence that fairer economies have any trouble matching their more-polarized counterparts - and best some indication that they perform better:
Inequality is more closely correlated with low growth. A high Gini for net income, after redistribution, corresponds to slower growth in income per person. A rise of 5 Gini points (moving from the level in America to that in Gabon, for instance) knocks half a percentage point off average annual growth. And holding redistribution constant, a one-point rise in the Gini raises the risk an expansion ends in a given year by six percentage points. Redistribution that reduces inequality might therefore boost growth.

If redistribution is benign, that could be because it substitutes for shaky borrowing. In their 2011 paper Messrs Berg and Ostry note that more unequal societies do poorly on social indicators such as educational attainment, even after controlling for income levels. This suggests that households with lower incomes struggle to finance investments in education. In a recent paper Barry Cynamon of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis and Steven Fazzari of Washington University in St Louis reckon most Americans borrowed heavily before 2008 to prop up their consumption. That kept the economy growing—until crisis struck. Sensible redistribution could mean the difference between a healthy growth rate and one that is decidedly subprime.
- Meanwhile, PressProgress highlights the glaring gap in income gains between the super-rich and the rest of us:

- Trish Hennessy's latest Index notes that decades of tax slashing have eliminated Canada's capacity to fund important social programs. And Pete Evans reports that so far, posturing about getting tough on corporate tax evaders hasn't led to any substantial results.

- But Megan Leslie points out that a fair corporate tax rate is one of the big ideas on offer from the NDP - even if it's one that may need to be discussed more frequently. 

- Finally, Timothy Taylor compares the employment philosophies of GM and Toyota, and raises the possibility that employers who train workers to perform a range of roles - and listen to their suggestions as to how to improve the workplace - may benefit significantly compared to those who try to limit workers to mindlessly repeating a single task.

On unsound vessels

Shorter Senate Internal Economy Committee:
The real Senate expense scandal is the fact that anybody's found out about Senators' misuse of expense claims. How we spend public money is nobody's business but our own, the PMO's and the Conservative Party's.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- David Atkins emphasizes the need for progressive parties and activists to discuss big ideas rather than settling for the path of least short-term resistance:
Both the poor and the middle class feel threatened and increasingly pessimistic. Opinions of elite institutions across the board are at an all time low. Whether on the right or left, few believe anymore that anyone in government, business, or politics is actually looking out for their interests. In a world like this, the move to ensure that every single individual in society has an equal, infinitesimal chance to become obscenely rich loses its moral force. The rhetoric around "making sure that no one is left behind" in starvation and penury is far less compelling when the entire middle class feels like it's being left behind.
Tapping into the backlash will require more than just a focus on winning elections, as voters no longer believe politicians can or even want to solve their problems. It will also require much more than the weak vision of progress that the New Left has been peddling for decades.

It will require an acknowledgement of the trends that continue to destroy the middle class and send the working class into abject poverty, and a commitment to not only protect those falling furthest behind but to reverse the broader trend.

It will require a willingness to propose and try ambitious and novel policy ideas, both at the federal level and through the laboratories of the states. Policies like a Wall Street transaction tax, or state-run banks, or incentives designed to decrease rather than increase the cost of housing, or even a universal basic income. Capital mobility can be a problem, but even that is soluble through international trade treaties that serve to protect the interests of workers rather than plutocrats. These sorts of ideas can and should serve as the template for a re-energized left that promises not just vague and increasingly unrealized "opportunity" to people, but that actually delivers tangible results.
- Meanwhile, Darcy Henton reports on the latest example of unchecked privatization and corporatism run amok - as TransAlta is accused of taking a page out of Enron's playbook and causing up deliberate power shortages in order to drive up its own prices. Market efficiency at work!

- And Bruce Johnstone writes that the Cons' obsession with demolishing the Canadian Wheat Board is the most important factor behind the lack of shipping capacity that's leaving a prime grain crop stranded on the prairies.

- Dan Leger and Mark Burgess both note that the Cons' election legislation is aimed purely at rigging the electoral rules in their favour. And Linda Leon writes to her Con MP with an appropriate response to the bill.

- Finally, James Cudmore reports on Doug Drever's attempt to encourage accountability and access to information. But it's well worth noting that the Cons' culture of denial seems sufficiently dominant that even a strong dissenting voice wasn't enough to stop others from happily taking up the job of keeping information secret:
Then DND headquarters changed the plan again. Drever was ordered to advise CBC to ask for the documents through Access to Information rather than release them.

"Actually … No, I won't,” he said in one email.

"Gotta stand for something once in a while,” he added in another.

Drever told the army team to get someone else to refuse the request.

Eighteen minutes later, a subordinate, Capt. Denny Brown, reported, "Mission accomplished."

Pavlov's lapdog

Shorter Barrie McKenna:
We must respond to all tax policy developments anywhere in the world by slashing corporate tax rates. And I've just lowered the bar on what constitutes a "tax policy development" to include the idle posturing of a U.S. party which can't pass anything.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your weekend.

- Nick Kristof writes that the growing gap in income reflects a similarly growing gap in social perception - and that there's plenty of need to reduce both:
There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.
There may be neurological biases at work. A professor at Princeton found that our brains sometimes process images of people who are poor or homeless as if they were not humans but things.

Likewise, psychology experiments suggest that affluence may erode compassion. When research subjects are asked to imagine great wealth, or just look at a computer screen saver with money, they become less inclined to share or help others. That may be why the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.
It’s true, of course, that the poor are sometimes lazy and irresponsible. So are the rich, with less consequence.

Critics note that if a person manages to get through high school and avoid drugs, crime and parenting outside of marriage, it’s often possible to escape poverty. Fair enough. But if you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.

So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.
Johnny shouldn’t be written off at the age of 3 because of the straw he drew in the lottery of birth. To spread opportunity, let’s start by pointing fewer fingers and offering more helping hands.
- And in a similar vein, Ryan Meili highlights the absurdity of the Libs' trial balloon about barring anybody deemed insufficiently virtuous from Nova Scotia's health care system.

- Meanwhile, Suzanne Mettler discusses how a university system increasingly tied to connections and wealth is serving to reinforce class barriers in the U.S.

- Stephen Maher comments on the creeping and creepy authoritarism of the Cons' selective ethnic preferences. And Scott Stelmaschuk similarly points out their scorched-earth campaign in Quebec.

- Finally, Jennifer Ditchburn reports on the efforts of independent oversight bodies to avoid being sliced to ribbons by Mark Adler's private member's bill. But if their millions in budget cuts to many of the same offices offer any indication, the Cons seem to figure that euthanizing public watchdogs is a feature rather than a bug.