Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Paul Krugman points out how the U.S.' corporate elites are agitating to make sure that any economic recovery helps only those at the top, rather than reaching most workers in the form of wage increases:
Suddenly, it seems as if all the serious people are telling each other that despite high unemployment there’s hardly any “slack” in labor markets — as evidenced by a supposed surge in wages — and that the Federal Reserve needs to start raising interest rates very soon to head off the danger of inflation.

To be fair, those making the case for monetary tightening are more thoughtful and less overtly political than the archons of austerity who drove the last wrong turn in policy. But the advice they’re giving could be just as destructive.
(A)lthough the current monetary debate isn’t as openly political as the previous fiscal debate, it’s hard to escape the suspicion that class interests are playing a role. A fair number of commentators seem oddly upset by the notion of workers getting raises, especially while returns to bondholders remain low. It’s almost as if they identify with the investor class, and feel uncomfortable with anything that brings us close to full employment, and thereby gives workers more bargaining power.
Is wage growth actually taking off? That’s far from clear. But if it is, we should see rising wages as a development to cheer and promote, not a threat to be squashed with tight money.
- And Robert Reich writes that neither soaring executive compensation nor the suppression of most workers' wages has anything to do with productivity or merit:
Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker got paid $35 an hour in today’s dollars. Today, America’s largest employer is Walmart, and the typical Walmart workers earns $8.80 an hour.

Does this mean the typical GM employee a half-century ago was worth four times what today’s typical Walmart employee is worth? Not at all. Yes, that GM worker helped produce cars rather than retail sales. But he wasn’t much better educated or even that much more productive. He often hadn’t graduated from high school. And he worked on a slow-moving assembly line. Today’s Walmart worker is surrounded by digital gadgets — mobile inventory controls, instant checkout devices, retail search engines — making him or her quite productive.

The real difference is the GM worker a half-century ago had a strong union behind him that summoned the collective bargaining power of all autoworkers to get a substantial share of company revenues for its members. And because more than a third of workers across America belonged to a labor union, the bargains those unions struck with employers raised the wages and benefits of non-unionized workers as well. Non-union firms knew they’d be unionized if they didn’t come close to matching the union contracts.

Today’s Walmart workers don’t have a union to negotiate a better deal. They’re on their own. And because fewer than 7 percent of today’s private-sector workers are unionized, non-union employers across America don’t have to match union contracts. This puts unionized firms at a competitive disadvantage. The result has been a race to the bottom.

By the same token, today’s CEOs don’t rake in 300 times the pay of average workers because they’re “worth” it. They get these humongous pay packages because they appoint the compensation committees on their boards that decide executive pay. Or their boards don’t want to be seen by investors as having hired a “second-string” CEO who’s paid less than the CEOs of their major competitors. Either way, the result has been a race to the top.
The “paid-what-[you're]-worth” argument is fundamentally misleading because it ignores power, overlooks institutions, and disregards politics. As such, it lures the unsuspecting into thinking nothing whatever should be done to change what people are paid, because nothing can be done. 
Don’t buy it.
- The Star-Phoenix notes that the Sask Party's ideology is preventing it from even considering a poverty strategy or other steps which might give Saskatchewan's poor a fair chance (even when they could also reflect a sound investment from a money standpoint alone). Murray Mandryk writes that the Wall government is similarly evidence-averse when it comes to evaluating the tens of millions of dollars being poured into "lean" consulting. And Craig Jones observes that the Cons' dumb-on-crime agenda is likewise based purely on political calculation rather than any public policy purpose.

- But Thomas Walkom laments the unwillingness of our major political parties to make the case to fund social goods. And based in large part on similar concerns, Matthew Taylor theorizes that much of the work to be done in developing policy which actually considers the public interest will have to take place outside of the partisan sphere.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Musical interlude

Kaskade - The X

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- The American Prospect writes about Thomas Piketty's work on inequality - and how we're just scratching the surface of the policy implications of a new gilded age:
Piketty is rightly pessimistic about an immediate response. The influence of the wealthy on democratic politics and on how we think about merit and reward presents formidable obstacles. Fierce international competition for the rich and their dollars leads Piketty to believe that without a serious countermovement, capital taxation will trend toward zero. Inequality is becoming a “wicked” problem like climate change—one in which a solution must not only overcome powerful entrenched interests in individual countries but must be global in scope to be effective.

Nonetheless, it is capital taxation, and ultimately global capital taxation, that Piketty sees as the eventual solution. Taxing only consumption and labor income violates the notion that citizens should finance the commonwealth on the basis of their ability to pay. A global capital tax—modest, progressive, based on transparency—could reinforce the fraying link between economic standing and individual contributions toward vital collective activities. Moreover, halting progress in this direction has already taken place, as rich countries seek—without great success so far—to crack down on the tax havens and corporate financial engineering that increasingly make taxes voluntary for the superrich. Because wealth is still so concentrated in advanced industrial nations, agreements that covered citizens of and transactions within Europe and North America would go a long way toward bringing these activities into the open. A modest tax on the largest fortunes might also encourage more productive uses of capital, gradually taxing away big estates with small returns.
- Meanwhile, Toby Sanger comments on the need to put capital to work in the public interest. And Erin Weir notes that the cash sitting idle in Canada's corporate coffers could more than pay off the national debt.

- But Mark Gongloff points out that the corporate actors most eagerly siphoning money out of the U.S. are the same ones demanding that public policy be used to keep wages low. And Ben Judah notes that the UK's role as a global money laundromat has led it to fight for tax evasion.

- Adam Hersh and Jennifer Erickson propose a set of progressive principles which can be applied to trade agreements. But I do have to wonder whether the focus on such agreements serves any useful purpose to begin with.

- Finally, Ivan Semeniuk discusses the effect of poverty on brain development - making it clear that anybody putting off action to ensure a reasonable standard of living for every child is taking a distinct stand against a reasonable opportunity for everybody.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

New column day

Here, on how Brad Wall is again joining Stephen Harper in putting oil lobbying over the public interest - making excuses for doing absolutely nothing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

For further reading...
- I've written before about the federal Cons' apparent strategy of standing in the way of consensus on action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And lest there be any doubt, the Cons have been well aware of both the need for action in order to keep their own promises - and have  responded by slashing Environment Canada for telling inconvenient truths.
- Meanwhile, the provincial picture doesn't look any better. In fact, since I posted this column last year, the province's climate change page has changed locations without any evidence of new action (other than a changing set of excuses).
- Finally, it's always worth examining how our political system is so thoroughly devoted to serving a few corporate masters. And Murray Dobbin and Dr. Dawg are both worth a read on that point.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Ian Welsh discusses the connection between one's view of human nature and one's preferred social and economic policies - while noting that policies themselves serve to shape behaviour:
The fact is this: incentives work.

The second fact is this: using strong incentives is usually idiocy, because they do work.

What happens with incentives is that people’s behaviour is warped by them.  A normal doctor who does not get paid more per test he orders, orders less tests.  A doctor who owns the facility which does the testing, does more tests.  Management has a saying “what gets measured, gets managed”.  Yeah—and nothing else does.

Paying people enough, and trusting their own judgment about what is important tends to produce better results, because people don’t ignore everything else to leap for the incentives and to meet the measurements some doofus is managing.  And they don’t go out of their way to manipulate the measurements, which is what happens when reward and punishment are linked to metrics.
[Humans] have multiple drives, and how much of what drive is expressed in each of us is different and changes based on the context.  Put people in a world where people are cruel to them, and they will become cruel.  Put them in a world where people are kind, and most of them will become kind.

None of us is just one thing; each of us changes and changes quickly, from day to day; year to year; sometimes even minute to minute.  We are capable of expressing cruelty sufficient to make demons weep; and kindness that would awe an angel but which we will do and when, depends so much on what who we believe we are, how we are treated and what we are told our nature is.

If we want the better angels of our nature to soar, we have to admit that they exist.  If we insist that we are all devils, all selfish bastards, we will build our societies based on that expectation, and we will make our prophecies come true.
- Meanwhile, William Watson suggests that it's long past time to stop feeding corporate sharks at the expense of the public - though of course his argument that we should instead give the sharks as much leeway as possible to hunt for themselves raises its own questions. Jared Milne writes about the costs of tax slashing. And the Broadbent Institute's latest polling suggests that inequality and job insecurity - the inevitable consequences of a corporatist mindset - represent for a price few Canadians want to pay.

- Josh Eidelson writes that the corporate right in the U.S. - like that in Canada - has no interest in allowing free speech where workers seek to speak out. And PressProgress notes that Canada's own Museum for Human Rights apparently won't allow free speech where it might prove inconvenient for Stephen Harper.

- Finally, Ryan Meili writes about the need to improve the social determinants of health - rather than using them as an excuse to deny access to care as Nova Scotia's Libs proposed. And Frances Russell reminds us that even the health care we have now is under attack - and that the Cons have had plenty of Lib assistance in chipping away at a functional national health care system.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Floored cats.

On natural selection

Shorter (or paraphrased) Lisa Thompson:
People mention ‘Walkerton’ as if it were a bad thing. Don't they understand the benefits of killing off the weak?

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Mitchell Anderson compares the results of corporate-friendly Thatcherism to the alternative of public resource ownership and development in the interest of citizens - and finds far better results arising from the latter:
Thirty-five years after she swept to power as British prime minister, it is ironic that socialist Norway now has $830 billion in the bank and enjoys fully funded social programs that most of us can only dream of. Meanwhile the U.K. is enduring another round of wrenching austerity and owes over £1.3 trillion -- about US$2.2 trillion. That massive debt grows by about $3.8 billion each week, while every seven days Norway adds another billion dollars to their bank account.

What happened? Both countries were in dire economic straights in early 1970s. Both countries came into the financial windfall of North Sea oil around the same time, exploiting the same resource -- sometimes from the same drill rig. How could they have ended up in such vastly different places?

Rarely in history has there been such a clear-cut opportunity to explore the real world success or failure of competing world-views. Thatcherism has gone on to become an economic school of thought with true believers in positions of power around the world. The doctrine of cutting taxes, privatizing government assets and embracing deregulation continues apace around the globe to this day. But does it work?
Wealth flows from resources, and the North Sea oil represented $8 trillion of public money. Realistic governments see resource development as a hard-nosed negotiation with their private business partners. They aggressively fight for their taxpayers against outside interests who naturally want to keep as much of that money as they can for themselves. Norway did a far more competent job managing their oil wealth than the naive ideologues in the U.K. The numbers speak for themselves.
- But Alison points out that Canada is instead heading toward increasing domination by private-sector oil barons - with the Cons passing the oil lobby's wishlist without even a hint of public interest entering into the discussion, and Justin Trudeau joining Stephen Harper in putting oil lobbyists at the core of his political team.

- Meanwhile, Hugh Mackenzie studies the retirement options available to Canadians, and finds that the CPP provides a far more secure source of income without upwards of a third of one's savings being siphoned off by the financial sector. And PressProgress nicely summarizes Mackenzie's findings.

- A group of political science experts writes to suggest that the Cons not ram through their Unfair Elections Act without considering the public interest - both in making voting more rather than less accessible, and in thoroughly considering the effect of unnecessary, partisan-driven changes. And the Star's editorial board agrees.

- Finally, David Beers interviews Kevin Page about the Cons' "grotesquely wrong" priorities:
Some scientists say federal libraries and other valuable infrastructure for making decisions is being unnecessarily destroyed in the name of budget cutting, but the real goal is to silence sources of environmental criticism. The Tyee has followed the story closely, for example here. Do you think the Harper government has used budget cutting as an excuse to achieve other political aims including undercutting the work of scientists whose findings could be cited by critics of the government's policies?

"I am deeply concerned about the lack of transparency, analysis and debate on the choices and impact of government programs and operations that are being eliminated and scaled back in the name deficit reduction. This includes reductions in spending to support information and knowledge at Environment Canada, Statistics Canada and elsewhere. The government created a structural deficit problem when it cut the GST and corporate income taxes too deeply with respect to our fiscal structure and long-term economic and demographic fundamentals. It is now trying to reduce a structural deficit while our economy continues to operate below its potential. It launched an austerity program in Budget 2012 without a plan for Parliament to scrutinize.

"PBO tried to get information on the cuts in advance of decisions to scale back science and veterans support etc. but were told by the public service and cabinet ministers that we were exceeding our legislative mandate. PBO sought a reference opinion at the Federal Court on this issue. There should be a plan in place to explain to Parliament and Canadians the choices and impact analysis on the cuts. This plan does not exist. The system is broken. MPs are voting on departmental spending plans without the information they need to assess austerity impacts. We are closing veterans offices in the name of efficiency but spending more on recreation trails. MPs should debate these issues.

"One of my favourite writers, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, wrote a piece a few weeks ago about the state of leadership. He said we 'have high quality people but weak leadership.' He said we have an implicit pact with our elites. We want them to do their best and at least get things 'partly right,' not 'grotesquely wrong.' I fear that on the management of our institutions and on the long-term issue of climate change our elites are grotesquely wrong. We should be increasing investments in environmental research, not decreasing."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Matthew O'Brien is the latest to pick up on the connection between pre-transfer income equality, redistribution and sustainable economic growth:
Redistribution overall helps, and at least doesn't harm, growth spells. That's because the positive effects of less inequality add to or offset the negligible, or negative, effects of redistribution itself. When redistribution is in the bottom 75 percent, these positive effects are the only ones, and growth lasts longer. And when redistribution is in the top 25 percent, these positive effects make up for the negative ones from taxing-and-transferring so much—it's a statistically insignificant wash.

So countries that spread the wealth around more seem to grow more and grow longer than countries that don't.
[Update: Paul Krugman has more. ]

- And Laura D'Andrea Tyson points out that minimum wage increases are particularly important for women (who make up a disproportionate number of low-wage workers):
Less than half of all workers are women, but they account for 75 percent of workers in the 10 lowest-paid occupations and about 60 percent of minimum wage workers. And most women earning the minimum wage are not teenagers, or wives who can rely on a spouse’s income.

About three-quarters of female minimum wage workers are above the age of 20, and about three-quarters of these women are on their own. Many, of course, are working and taking care of children.
(T)he prevailing view among economists, reinforced by rigorous studies over the last decade, is that a modest increase would boost the wages of millions of workers and have little to no negative effect on employment. A higher minimum wage would also enhance labor productivity, reduce worker turnover and absenteeism, and lower the costs of recruiting and training employees.

Despite the evidence, Congressional Republicans have pounced on a recent estimate by the Congressional Budget Office that raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, as Democrats have proposed, could reduce employment by 0.3 percent, or 500,000 jobs, by the end of 2015. For reasons that have been raised by a variety of experts, I doubt this estimate.

But even if it’s correct, let’s be careful to recognize what the C.B.O. also emphasized: The higher wage would directly benefit 16.5 million workers currently making less than $10.10 an hour, and as many as 8 million additional workers currently earning slightly more, and would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.
- Dr. Dawg and Stephen Maher both weigh in on the judicial appointment of Vic Toews. And on a similar theme, Michael Harris uses the Cons' cover-up of Brad Butt's legislative fraud to discuss how Stephen Harper rewards blatant lying within his caucus.

- Meanwhile, Jeffrey Simpson discusses the Cons' continued misuse of public resources for partisan self-promotion.

- Finally, Josh Bolotsky comments on the right's success in determining what issues are acceptable for public debate - and what progressive activists need to do to turn the tide in our favour:
The most important thing about the Overton that it can be shifted to the left or the right, with the once merely “acceptable” becoming “popular” or even imminent policy, and formerly “unthinkable” positions becoming the open position of a partisan base. The challenge for activists and advocates is to move the window in the direction of their preferred outcomes, so their desired outcome moves closer and closer to “common sense.”

There are two ways to do this: the long, hard way and the short, easy way. The long, hard way is to continue making your actual case persistently and persuasively until your position becomes more politically mainstream, whether it be due to the strength of your rhetoric or a long-term shift in societal values. By contrast, the short, easy way is to amplify and echo the voices of those who take a position a few notches more radical than what you really want.

For example, if what you actually want is a public health care option in the United States, coordinate with and promote those pushing for single-payer, universal health care. If the single-payer approach constitutes the “acceptable left” flank of the discourse, then the public option looks, by comparison, like the conservative option it was once considered back when it was first proposed by Orrin Hatch in 1994.

This is Negotiating 101. Unfortunately, the right has been far ahead of the left in moving the Overton window in their desired direction for a long time. If anything, the left often plays it in the exact wrong way, actively policing and seeking to silence its radicals for fear that strong left positions will serve to discredit moderate left positions. The irony is that the Overton window should actually be easier for progressives to play: if you look at the polling on issue after issue, from education to jobs to foreign policy, the actual majority stances tend to be to the left of the range of policy proposals on offer.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Michael Hiltzik writes about the efforts of the corporate sector - including the tobacco and food industries - to produce mass ignorance in order to preserve profits:
Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford, is one of the world's leading experts in agnotology, a neologism signifying the study of the cultural production of ignorance. It's a rich field, especially today when whole industries devote themselves to sowing public misinformation and doubt about their products and activities.

The tobacco industry was a pioneer at this. Its goal was to erode public acceptance of the scientifically proven links between smoking and disease: In the words of an internal 1969 memo legal opponents extracted from Brown & Williamson's files, "Doubt is our product." Big Tobacco's method should not be to debunk the evidence, the memo's author wrote, but to establish a "controversy."

When this sort of manipulation of information is done for profit, or to confound the development of beneficial public policy, it becomes a threat to health and to democratic society. Big Tobacco's program has been carefully studied by the sugar industry, which has become a major target of public health advocates.

It's also echoed by vaccination opponents, who continue to use a single dishonest and thoroughly discredited British paper to sow doubts about the safety of childhood immunizations, and by climate change deniers.
- In a similar vein, Douglas Coupland points out that the promotion of poor health is a major money-maker for far too many industries. Joseph Stiglitz notes that the supposed benefits of technological innovations on actual standards of living may be far less than we'd think from the hype surrounding new products. Jacalyn Duffin writes that we can expect more shortages of generic drugs due to the Cons' refusal to place public health over big pharma's profits. And Stephen LaRose highlights Toronto's efforts to woo an NFL team which has no natural fit with the market as an example of how the free-market principles used to justify human suffering at the bottom of the income scale are readily tossed aside in favour of corporate vanity projects.

- Bruce Johnstone makes clear that too little, too late isn't enough to make up for the utter failure of the Cons and the Sask Party to look out for grain producers who can't get a bumper crop to market due to rail backlogs - no matter how much the Harper/Wall mutual promotion society tries to pretend otherwise.

- Finally, Paul Krugman calls out the Republicans for their absurd "let them eat dignity" rhetoric as an excuse for slashing social benefits for already-hungry people. And Michael Rozworski lists five important myths about a livable minimum wage:
4. There are better ways to reduce poverty. Perhaps a better way of putting this is that there are numerous ways to reduce poverty, all of which play their part. The minimum wage is only one of many tools in the shop, but it is one we should be using if it is available, especially in light of the arguments above. The minimum wage helps the lowest-paid workers not only achieve gains in income and move closer to escaping from poverty, it gives them more bargaining power in their highly-skewed relationship with employers. A minimum wage hike is best seen as part of a broad poverty-reduction strategy that includes all those other tools we'll be hearing about from right-wing opponents, like tax credits, and some tools they may not mention, like just EI and welfare rates, effective enforcement and strong social programs.

5. Economists are united in their opposition to minimum wage increases. If all the studies cited in the arguments above weren't enough evidence for the fact that the economics profession holds no monolithic position in the minimum wage debate, consider a public letter circulated in the U.S. Signed by over 600 economists, including seven past Nobel Prize winners, it argues that "increases in the minimum wage have had little or no negative effect on the employment of minimum-wage workers, even during times of weakness in the labour market... [and] could have a small stimulative effect on the economy as low-wage workers spend their additional earnings, raising demand and job growth." The debate is not a false one between hard-nosed economics and feel-good politics. There are many good reasons to raise the minimum wage and economic reasons are clearly among them.

Raising the minimum wage will not solve all the problems of the working poor. Some individuals may be negatively affected, but the net benefit not just to society as a whole but to the lowest-paid, and often hardest-working, individuals as a group is clear. Let's not allow the proposal to raise B.C.'s minimum wage to $13 become a be-all-end-all controversy that pits a false economics against the real needs of British Columbians. Let's hope instead that this proposal is just the start of a province-wide conversation about justice and fairness for workers.