Friday, May 02, 2014

Musical interlude

Andain - Turn Up the Sound (Zetandel Mix)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Linda McQuaig discusses how the interests of big banks ended the Cons' willingness to consider postal banking which would produce both better service and more profits for the public:
(C)ompetition is the last thing the banks want. And given their power (straddling the very heart of the Canadian establishment) and their wealth (record profits last year topping $30 billion), the banks tend to get what they want from the Harper government.

This could explain the government’s otherwise baffling decision last fall to reject an option that would have allowed a serious competitor to enter the banking sector, offering financial services to hundreds of thousands of Canadians who currently lack a bank account and often end up paying triple-digit interest rates to payday lenders (otherwise known as loan sharks).

Canada Post had put together a lengthy file supporting the case for “postal banking.” Under such a scheme, Canada Post would offer banking services through its 6,400 postal outlets — stepping into the vacuum left after the big banks closed more than 1,700 branches across the country in the last two decades, leaving hundreds of rural and remote communities without a bank.

What’s more, by entering the lucrative field of financial services, the publicly-owned postal service could have earned significant profits. A management report done for Canada Post concluded that postal banking was a “win-win” strategy.
The Harper government’s resistance to the idea is at least partly ideological. Postal banking would essentially create a public banking system — something that would be repugnant to hard-right Conservatives who have spent years dismantling Canada’s public systems and turning them over to the private sector.
- Meanwhile, the Winnipeg Free Press concludes that the CPP represents by far the best option to offer Canadians improved income security in retirement. Which naturally means that the Cons are instead planning to demolish any form of defined-benefit plan, to be replaced by more risky plans intended to be run - and exploited - by the private sector.

- Mathew Paterson debunks the Fraser Institute's sad attempt to pretend that unregulated corporate dominance is anything but a disaster for the environment. And Andrew Flowers tests the business lobby's attempts to demonize unions in the name of "competition" - and finds that countries with greater union density are actually better placed to compete internationally.

- Frances Russell laments how even Canada's elections rules (along with budgets and other policy decisions) are being developed based solely on the Cons' partisan calculations. And Althia Raj points out that the Unfair Elections Act is designed to give special advantages to wealthier candidates.

- Finally, Carol Goar discusses the total lack of accountability or morality among Canada's right-wing political leaders - and recognizes what's needed to end the culture of cult conservatism:
There is nothing new about scandal in Canadians politics. History is replete with tales of ministers on the take, greedy public officials and corrupt mayors.

What has changed is that wrongdoers are no longer required — or even expected — to take responsibility for their actions. They don’t offer to resign. They don’t acknowledge they forfeited the confidence of the public. What they do instead is lash out at the government watchdogs who caught them, the journalists who exposed their malfeasance and the judges who applied the brakes.

To maintain this state of affairs, three conditions are necessary:

The first is an unprecedented level of secrecy or obfuscation by public officials.

The second is a sizable bloc of voters that can be counted on to support a besmirched leader no matter what he or she does.

The third is an electorate so unconcerned — or jaded — that it does nothing.

All three of these conditions currently exist in Canada; not in every jurisdiction but in several of the most prominent centres of government.

The antidote to what ails the body politic is obvious: eradicate the conditions that allow it to thrive.

Demand straight answers from those who are paid to serve the public and make it clear their jobs are on the line. Summon up the will to outvote the “bedrock supporters” who keep discredited politicians in power. Care a little more about Canada.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

New column day

Here, on how Canada's telecommunication providers and government agencies are each showing next to no regard for the privacy of consumers - and how the Cons want to make matters worse by allowing for far more sharing within the corporate sector.

For further reading...
- Again, reporting on the Privacy Commissioner of Canada's investigation can be found here and here, with the response from the telecoms available in PDF here.
- Bruce Schneier discusses the U.S.' plan to privatize the surveillance state here.
- Finally, the Cons' amendments to the federal private-sector privacy legislation are here. Of particular note, see section 6(10) which significantly expands the scope of permitted disclosure for the purpose of commercial investigations.

[Edit: fixed typo.]

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Crawford Kilian discusses the growing influence of Thomas Piketty's observations about wealth inequality and the unfairness of a system which inherently perpetuates privilege:
What I take away is this: We are playing in a rigged game. The deck has always been stacked against us, and against our parents and grandparents, world without end. Why? Return on investment has always been higher than economic growth, and you can live well on just a fraction of that return while saving the rest for your offspring to inherit. They in turn will build the family wealth still more, Piketty explains. This is patrimonial capitalism, and it has nothing to do with education, skill or hard work -- only with whose legs you happen to have been born between.

For the bottom half of the population, he writes, "The very notions of wealth and capital are relatively abstract. For millions of people, 'wealth' amounts to little more than a few weeks' wages in a checking account or low-interest savings account, a car, and a few pieces of furniture. The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence."
Piketty sees a possible alternative: a worldwide universal, progressive tax regime. It would have to be worldwide to prevent the megarich from squirrelling their money away in the Cayman Islands or some other tax haven. (He suspects a lot more has already been hidden than anyone realizes.) This taxation wouldn't impoverish the one per cent, but it would give governments a better sense of just how rich everyone is -- and isn't. He suggests such a tax regime could begin regionally and eventually spread worldwide.

But that's just one economist's opinion. The rest of us, finally armed with Piketty's data, need to start debating what to do about the rich and the poor. We don't want a war to equalize matters, and revolutions tend to end badly.

But we need to make the one per cent understand that every dollar, pound and euro they make ultimately comes from the elaborate infrastructure the rest of us have created. They only exploit it. They are not the job creators; we are the wealth creators. They have no more right to a free lunch than we do, and high incomes warrant high taxes.
- Meanwhile, Tavia Grant reports on the OECD's finding that Canada is seeing income inequality spread even more quickly than other developed countries. Which means that there's a particularly obvious need for a policy response at home, while working out our options within the international community to address the global concentration of wealth and the abuse of tax havens.

- But of course, the Cons are more interested in exploring ever more exploitative practices to be inflicted on workers in Canada - such as the indentured servitude of temporary foreign workers examined by Andrew Stevens. And so Robyn Benson is right to note that there's reason for younger workers to worry about their future (while hopefully taking action to change it for the better):
Employer demands for a two-tier wage system is a fact of life in the present economy, condemning younger workers to a permanent low-wage existence. And abuses in the Temporary Foreign Workers program make even McJobs far less available to them. The Harper government’s expressions of shock when the abuses at come to light doesn’t hide the fact that it issued the permits in the first place—or that 75% of all new jobs over the past few years have gone to imported temporary workers.

Overall, workers in the 15-24 age group are facing high levels of unemployment, and employment prospects are getting worse. Despite popular accusations of “entitlement,” many young people have taken years to train for careers, and have the degrees to prove it, but now find themselves in low-skilled jobs because better work simply isn’t available.

It’s no surprise that many of these bright millennials are turning to unionization as a solution to the low-wage trap they have found themselves in. This is “bottom-up” pressure that is bound to pay dividends now and in the future for the workers who engage in it, and for society as a whole. Higher rates of unionization mean better, more secure employment, and the possibility of facing the future with confidence.

What is also badly needed in Canada, however—and what the new generation of workers isn’t getting from the present government—is a national jobs strategy that actually creates opportunities for young people to put their training, skills and intelligence to good use, in productive careers. Everyone would benefit from that, no matter what generation they are. But our youth, it seems, have a long way to go before that Spring arrives.
- PressProgress exposes Kinder Morgan's stunning argument that its pipeline expansion should be allowed in part because of the benefits of oil spills in creating cleanup work. Charles Pierce discusses the environmental devastation caused by unfettered tar sands development. And Mychaylo Prystupa takes a look behind one of the most prominent B.C. astroturf groups pushing for handouts to the resource sector at the expense of the environment and the rest of the population.

- Finally, Alice Funke offers a useful primer as to the nomination processes in Canada's federal political parties.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Wednesday Night Cat Blogging

Passed-out cats.

On skewed perspectives

Shorter anonymous Conservative MP:
Of course we want nothing more than fairness out of Canada's electoral oversight bodies. And by that, we of course mean they should stop damaging our party's cause with this annoying habit of investigating Conservative wrongdoing.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Andrew Jackson reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, while Paul Mason offers a useful summary. And David Atkins applies its most important lesson in response to some typical right-wing spin prioritizing assets over incomes:
(I)nstead of doing something about radical inequality, the new neoliberal answer is to give the 44% of Americans living paycheck to paycheck more savings vehicles and incentives to stash away money to pay for those increasingly impossibly high mortgage and tuition costs.

As the inequality problem becomes more and more severe and as Piketty's arguments gain increasing influence, look for all the neoliberal asset addicts to make ever more preposterous arguments to defend incentivizing boosting assets over boosting wages.

It's all they know, and doing anything else would turn their worlds inside-out and hurt all their very asset-heavy bank accounts.
- Meanwhile, David Dayen calls out the financial sector's attempt to start up another mortgage securitization scheme comparable to the one which caused the 2008 economic meltdown - this time taking all the profits for themselves while enjoying a direct government bailout mechanism.

- Josh Eidelson discusses how the U.S.' laws are set up to squelch any effort to organize workers - with ineffective protection for organization to address wages and working conditions, and none whatsoever for any other type of activity. But Marc Ames discusses how corporate collusion to drive down wages is all too often met with no significant consequences - with Silicon Valley serving as the latest example.

- Paul McLeod reports on the stunning number of requests for Canadians' personal information from telecoms, and I'm not sure which is more appalling: the 1,194,000 requests made annually, or the fact that such indiscriminate requests are being granted the majority of the time (with 785,000 individuals' information disclosed). And the CP follows up to point out that even those numbers only scratch the surface of what's being disclosed behind the scenes.

- Finally, Jim Stanford writes that the Cons' grudging movement to address the abuse of temporary foreign workers may have arisen out of a fault line within their party:
For sure, evidence had been mounting for years that the program was out of control. Migrant employment rose 140 per cent between 2005 and 2012. One in every five net new paid jobs created in Canada between 2007 and 2012 was filled by a migrant worker – a startling reliance on what was supposed to be a “last resort” program. Even the business-friendly C.D. Howe Institute confirmed that the program has pushed up unemployment, including in Alberta.

But this evidence has been around for years, as have anecdotes about employers hiring migrants to do jobs Canadians are clearly capable of filling. The hospitality sector alone had 45,000 guest workers on the roll by 2012, with migrants capturing 40 per cent of net new positions since 2009. How many jobs are there in hotels and restaurants that Canadians truly cannot perform? Almost none – and the government has always known that.
Many middle-class Canadians know their children need fast-food jobs, given the lousy state of the youth job market. To have even those jobs placed out of reach by an immigration strategy aimed explicitly at suppressing wages fuels resentment that transcends party lines. That’s what the Conservatives sensed, and so Mr. Kenney acted.
Of course, there is a principled solution to Mr. Kenney’s TFW dilemma, advocated nicely in a recent column by The Globe’s Doug Saunders: Increase permanent immigration and give these workers the same rights the rest of us enjoy. But that wouldn’t win favour from either of the two constituencies worried about here: business lobbyists who want cheap labour and social conservatives who want less immigration. Which is why it won’t happen.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Joshua Holland writes that for all the social and cultural factors contribution to U.S. sickness and death, inequality ranks at the top of the list:
Here in the United States, our high level of income inequality corresponds with 883, 914 unnecessary deaths each year. More specifically, the report concluded that if we had an income distribution more like that of the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland — or eleven other wealthy countries — every year, about one in three deaths in the US could be avoided.

Put that into perspective. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), tobacco, including second-hand smoke, causes approximately 480,000 deaths every year, and in 2010, traffic accidents killed 33,687 people and 31,672 others died of gunshot wounds.

The mechanism by which a bullet or a car crash kills is readily apparent. Inequality is lethal in ways that are less obvious. It’s a silent killer – a deadly plague that we, as a society, tend not to acknowledge.
- Meanwhile, Paul Krugman highlights the important questions receiving renewed attention as a result of Thomas Piketty's work - along with the reasons why the corporate right doesn't want to see them discussed:
For the past couple of decades, the conservative response to attempts to make soaring incomes at the top into a political issue has involved two lines of defense: first, denial that the rich are actually doing as well and the rest as badly as they are, but when denial fails, claims that those soaring incomes at the top are a justified reward for services rendered. Don’t call them the 1 percent, or the wealthy; call them “job creators.”

But how do you make that defense if the rich derive much of their income not from the work they do but from the assets they own? And what if great wealth comes increasingly not from enterprise but from inheritance?

What Mr. Piketty shows is that these are not idle questions. Western societies before World War I were indeed dominated by an oligarchy of inherited wealth — and his book makes a compelling case that we’re well on our way back toward that state.
- Canadians for Tax Fairness comments on the connection between the Senate's corporate links and the preferential tax treatment of stock options.

- Mike Moffatt writes about the devastating effect of long-term unemployment on future hiring - and how that reality means it's futile to punish the long-term unemployed by cutting off benefits. But it's worth noting that rushing people back to whatever work is immediately available isn't necessarily the only available response - and I'd be particularly curious whether employer prejudice against applicants who have been out of the workforce can be addressed as a problem in and of itself, rather than being taken as an unchangeable assumption.

- Finally, Laura Beaulne-Stuebing reports on the role of social media activity in drawing attention to - and ultimately changing - the Unfair Elections Act.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Alex Himelfarb and Jordan Himelfarb comment on the dangers of failing to talk about taxes:
The tax debate is often muddied by disagreement about whether taxes have actually gone up or down. As the economy grows, so too do tax revenues and spending, which is why many (though not all) prefer to measure tax as a percentage of the economy (GDP). The only good data on this come from StatsCan in a survey discontinued in 2008. These numbers show a decline in the scale of tax and spending over the last several decades, as do international comparisons. And using the federal government’s own projections, the scale of federal tax and spending will, over the next years, fall to lows not seen for seven decades.

Whether we’re taxed too much or too little is a perennial debate that now needs rebalancing. It’s all well and good to say that many Canadians want smaller government but that means nothing unless it’s based on some understanding of how this will affect our ability to pursue our shared goals. We ought to know what we’re giving up before we celebrate the next round of tax cuts.

It’s time we restored the tax debate to its rightful place within a larger conversation, which has all but vanished, about the kind of country we want and are willing to pay for.
- Marc Taliano writes that rather than solving any problems arising out of limited public resources, privatization only exacerbates the problem of public dollars being diverted to corporate purposes. And Paul Krugman notes that Cliven Bundy represents a perfect example of an anti-social businessman portraying himself as an individualist while blatantly stealing public resources.

- Marc Zwelling points out the challenge facing progressive voices in discussing poverty, as the general public is willing to respond to the issue when prompted while having little history of considering it as a top-of-mind concern.

- Lawrence Martin responds to the commentators who have tried to treat the failed Elections Canada investigation into Robocon as a retroactive basis to question whether electoral fraud should have been covered in the media. And Michael Harris sees Robocon as the sign of a democracy in decay based on the near-impossibility of holding fraudsters accountable:
What Yves Cote’s report really means is that not all elements of an offence under the Elections Act as written could be established. A big part of the reason for that is the weak investigative powers of the Commissioner rather than a shortage of skullduggery.

It really comes down to the fact that the Elections Canada Act is like a worn out pair of your grannie’s lace-ups. The commissioner can’t compel evidence, and persons of interest can decline to be interviewed by EC investigators. Cote noted that “In one instance, a person who investigators believed could have provided very relevant information declined to be interviewed.”

Many others in this investigation did the same thing. And apparently there is no such thing as attempted voter suppression. Unless a voter is actually prevented from voting, there is no offence. And that’s not all. If incorrect poll information is given out and a citizen wants to pursue a complaint it is “not sufficient to simply prove the content of the call and the identity of the caller.” It is also necessary to prove the call was made with the intention of preventing an elector from voting. The burden of proof, “is the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Believe it or not, the same burden of proof applies to harassing calls: “To transmit false or mistaken information without the requisite intent, however objectionable it may be, is not, in itself, an offence under the Act,” Cote reports.

Think about that for a moment. Without the element of mens rea or guilty mind, a rogue robocaller is not breaking the law merely by misdirecting voters to the wrong poll. In order for an offence to take place, there are two additional requirements. The voter must prove as a result of the call, he didn’t vote; and investigators have to be satisfied that the robocaller intended his misinformation to stop the person from voting.
You see why the jails will not soon be filled with cheating robocallers. Why else would a robocaller send a person to the wrong poll — to introduce him to a part of town he’s never seen before?
- Finally, Susan Delacourt nicely highlights what a tax return would look like if delivered in the same form as one of the Cons' spin-heavy, fact-free budgets.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Joe Conason discusses the increasingly widespread recognition that inequality represents a barrier to growth. And Heidi Moore takes a look at Thomas Piketty's place in making that point:
This is a deep point. Many American households, if they are lucky, will grow their wealth at the same rate as the economy. But, because the wealthy are growing their fortunes at a much faster rate, no one else can ever catch up.

Let's repeat that: no one else can ever catch up.

This is where Piketty adds more nuance: it's not just inequality of wealth and income that we're struggling with, but inequality of opportunity. That's of far more concern. In essence, he is saying, we're lying to ourselves if we believe that hard work will lead to wealth. Mainly, wealth reliably leads to wealth. Everything else is chancy. The middle class is playing the economic lottery to improve their lot in life, while the wealthy have a sure thing.
- Ian Welsh nicely sums up what level of profit we should expect out a functional market economy. (Handy hint: it isn't "every dime that can be squeezed out of a powerless workforce".)
Sustained high profits, in free market economics, are considered the sign of an uncompetitive market.  ...[If] an industry or business makes high profits regularly, and certainly if they do so for more than a decade or so, the market is not competitive.

The response to that should be political: either make the market competitive, or if it’s the sort of market which can’t be or is too much trouble to be made competitive (most utilities, if you’re sane; certainly utility distribution; any insurance required of almost anyone; roads, etc…) then either make them government run, or heavily regulate them.
The general level of profits in a society should, actually, be pretty low.  5% plus inflation is a good level to aim for.  If high profits are available in parts of the economy, every other business gets starved for cash, as money runs to the high profits.  Economics says that those opportunities should run out and there should be a regression to the mean, but in oligopolistic economies with strong protected works and vast amounts of government corruption, that doesn’t happen—until there is a crash, at which point the most profitable businesses are bailed out, because they used their profits to buy government.

Individual businesses want high profits, but societies want low profits, and should view sustained high profits as a sign of economic illness which requires intervention.
- Joseph Heath duly criticizes Gary Mason's unusually-explicit call to drive down wages in the name of greater corporate profits:
Mason circles around this point:
A weakening Canadian dollar is helping to offset our competitive disadvantage with the United States and others, to some degree, but it doesn’t look to be a long-term answer. And we know wage cuts aren’t likely to happen.
Notice the wistful tone in that last sentence. What he’d really like to see is everyone’s wages go down, but apparently that’s not realistic. I guess we can put that down to the unreasonableness of the working classes, unwilling to sacrifice their standard of living in the interests of securing… a higher standard of living. And why isn’t a weakening Canadian dollar a long-term answer? Depends what you think the problem is. If it’s correcting a balance of trade issue, then yes it is an answer. But if the “problem” is that our standard of living is too high, as Mason seems to think, then he’s right, a weakening Canadian dollar will not lead to a permanent reduction in national income. The fact that he, and the various business leaders he cites, regard this as a problem, suggests that they are either deeply confused, or else they harbour a fundamentally malevolent attitude toward the mass of the population.
- In case there was any doubt that the corporate lobby is firmly in the latter column, Cliff and Stephen Maher both discuss the abuse of the temporary foreign worker program to attack wages and working conditions for Canadian and immigrant workers alike. And the Alberta Federation of Labour looks in detail at the massive numbers of employers misusing the program.

- Finally, Wendy Gillis reports on Canada's increasingly-embarrassing (and damaging) obstruction of access to information.