Friday, May 09, 2014

Musical interlude

Moguai - Mpire

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Robert Reich calls out four fundamental lies used to push corporatist policies. But perhaps more interesting is the truth which no amount of concentrated wealth seems to be able to suppress:
But the more interesting thing here is the memo’s concession of a hurdle AFP faces: That people support the idea of “taking care of those in need and avoiding harm to the weak.” That this is seen as a messaging problem is telling.
As it happens, the AFP memo is right. Majorities of Americans do see the economy as rigged for the wealthy and don’t believe everyone has an equal shot at getting ahead. Majorities support a minimum wage hike. Though polling is admittedly mixed on the proper role of “government,” polls have shown majority support for the idea of policies that tax the wealthy to fund programs for the poor, and more Americans think government programs for the poor help rather than hurt. During the 2012 election — which the AFP memo cites as a teachable moment — polling showed strong support for preserving the safety net.
- Meanwhile, Duncan Cameron kicks off Rabble's UP! series with a look at the history of Canada's labour movement. But Tyler Cowen points out that Canada may be on a "super-unequal" trajectory - meaning that there's ample work to be done in shaping a country that looks for ways to serve anybody beyond the wealthy few. And Linda McQuaig also weighs in on the disproportionate growth of concentrated wealth:
Even Republican President Theodore Roosevelt argued in 1906 that the U.S. should place "a constantly increasing burden on the inheritance of those swollen fortunes which it is certainly of no benefit to this country to perpetuate."

The slashing of those high tax rates in recent decades has contributed greatly, Piketty notes, to today's return to inequality.

Piketty also dispels the notion that today's fortunes are the result of talent, noting that 60 to 70 per cent of them are due to inherited wealth, and that we're on track to return to a world -- like late 19th-century Europe -- dominated by inherited wealth.

Stephen Harper is no doubt hoping we'll be distracted by sports, and by reports we're doing about as well as middle-class Americans, who've been crushed by the brutal, ongoing, Wall-Street-induced recession.

Meanwhile, an immensely rich and powerful class right here in Canada is quietly amassing ever greater wealth and power to hand down to their heirs, who will be still richer and more powerful. But, go Habs, go! Why would we care? 
- Joseph Heath writes about the apples-to-oranges comparison between defined-benefit pensions like the CPP which offer retirement security to all workers included in their scope, and the Cons' preferred message that retirees can expect not a dime more than they can buy through an individual annuity.

- And Danielle Martin, while pointing out that there's reason for pride in Canada's universal health care system, also highlights the room for improvement in our health policy:
I see three big ideas out there that could raise the bar for the health of Canadians in the next decade.

The first is to improve access to prescription medications. Public insurance, either provincial or national, should cover the 20 most effective medications for chronic disease for every single Canadian. If we purchased those 20 drugs in bulk for the whole country and bargained effectively on the price we pay, we could put this program in place without spending a single penny more of public money than we already spend.

The second big idea flows from a campaign called Choosing Wisely. It taps into the reality that today’s health care consumers are increasingly well prepared to have conversations about the risks of tests and treatments. Too many Canadians are harmed every year by inappropriate, wasteful and often harmful tests and prescriptions. Radiologists agree, for example, that 30 per cent of CT scans are unnecessary, and these scans involve radiation. And do we really need to be taking 80 per cent more drugs than we did 10 years ago? It’s time to challenge the belief that more is always better when it comes to health care, and start a conversation between patients and health care providers that is more honest about what good research tells us are the risks and benefits of our interventions.

Third, we need to acknowledge that health is about more than just health care. Rather than spending more and more at the repair shop, we need to attack the causes of ill health. Income is the most important predictor of health: the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have negative health outcomes. The Guaranteed Annual Income, a simple and powerful concept that is supported both by local and international evidence, could dramatically improve the health of all Canadians by reducing poverty.
- Finally, Don Lenihan discusses the stark distinction between academic and political commentary. But it's well worth using his analysis as a starting point to discuss how political can be made less war-like, and more open to actual discussion of public policy choices.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

New column day

Here, on the conflict between Canadian values including a reasonable quality of life and freedom from an employer's total control, and the explicitly anti-Canadian message of employers seeking to expand and exploit a temporary foreign worker underclass.

For further reading...
- Once again, Dan Kelly's comments were caught by PressProgress, while Geoff Leo reported on the TFW recruiter's advice to keep distance between workers and Canadian values. And Cathie beat me to the punch in raising the recruiter's contempt for anything Canadian.
- Tim Harper writes about the layers upon layers of problems with the temporary foreign worker program.
- Murray Mandryk highlights the lack of protection for TFWs even in enforcing what should be their legal rights.
- And the CP reports that even some of Stephen Harper's Conservative minions are rightly raising concerns.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Michael Hiltzik points out new research showing that business-focused policies do nothing at all to encourage any positive economic outcomes: in fact, a higher rating from ALEC for low-tax, low-regulation government correlates to less economic growth. But Kevin Drum highlights what the corporate agenda is really intended to accomplish:
(A)lthough a high ALEC-Laffer ranking may not stimulate any actual growth, does correspond to reduced taxes on the wealthy and slashed spending on state services that benefit the poor and working class. In other words, it may not affect growth, but it sure is a good deal for the rich. And that's what counts, isn't it?
- Meanwhile, the corporate lobby seems to have long since decided that truth and falsehood are irrelevant as long as one can afford to drown out competing voices. On that front, Donald Gutstein discusses how former tobacco shills are now being funded by the Fraser Institute to shout down any effort to encourage healthy eating and combat obesity - and receiving nothing but free, unquestioning publicity from the media for their efforts. Similarly, Barrie McKenna dutifully transcribes the request of the big three telecoms to avoid the type of competition which provides consumers with a fair deal in selecting phone and wireless service.

- Fortunately, at least one media outlet is a bit more questioning of corporate choices, as CBC's Don Pittis lists a few of the reasons why business interests are standing in the way of meaningful action on climate change.

- Richard Eskow wonders why more political voices aren't fighting to protect public services and the workers who provide them:
The facts are these: Given the growth of the population, stagnating wages, persistent long-term unemployment, and a host of other factors, we should be adding twice as many jobs per month as we are currently seeing. Instead, government – the one area of our economic life over which politicians have direct control – is shedding jobs instead of adding them. This worsens the overall economy while depriving the public of much-needed government services.

What’s more, the American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that it will take $3.6 trillion to restore our nation’s infrastructure. We need the jobs, and the infrastructure needs repair. The president and his party should be hammering the message home every day: we need government jobs, and we need them now.

President Obama should be fighting to preserve current public-sector jobs and create new ones. Instead he’s given to repeatedly boasting, as he does in his latest budget proposal, about the fact that under his proposal “discretionary spending will fall to its lowest level as a share of the economy in more than 50 years.”

That’s nothing to brag about – and it’s the wrong message at the wrong time.
- Carol Goar writes that a higher-cost, lower-service Canada Post is receiving a chilly reception from businesses and citizens alike - again raising the question of why the Cons insisted on that approach rather than allowing a postal bank to provide more for less.

- Finally, Andrew Coyne writes that debates should be given a far more prominent - and legally-entrenched - place in election campaigns.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jim Stanford writes that Tim Hudak's combination of austerity and indiscriminate tax slashing represents a recipe for less jobs rather than more:
Mr. Hudak’s initial policy agenda is mostly a recycled business wish list: cut taxes, cut regulations, pay for training, cut energy costs, free trade.  Its logic is 100% trickle-down economics: anything that’s good for business, must be good for jobs and for all of society.  There is no powerful stimulative or expansionary impetus coming from any of those 5 proposals (unlike some other policies being debated in this election, like infrastructure investments and transit programs, which have a logical and direct connection to employment).  And whatever positive employment gains were generated by any of those five measures would be massively swamped by the negative side-effects of the severe fiscal contraction required to achieve Mr. Hudak’s “biggest” job-creating goal: namely, simply balancing the budget.

There is a way in which balanced budgets and job-creation are logically connected — but the direction of causation is exactly the opposite of Mr. Hudak’s argument.  Ontario’s deficit today is overwhelmingly due to the downturn in employment that accompanied the 2008-09 financial crash and recession — recovery from which has been painfully slow and inadequate.  (Remember, for several years before the recession hit, Ontario’s budget was balanced.)  Restoring the employment rate to its 2008 level would mean 250,000 more jobs, and generate billions in additional revenues (through personal income taxes, HST revenues, growing spending, and other streams).  The deficit will take care of itself, if and when we put Ontarians back to work.
- Alex Boutilier reports on the Cons' latest laughable claim to secrecy - this time claiming cabinet confidence to withhold information about pensions from the Auditor General. And Larry Pynn highlights the frustration of one mayor with the Cons' insistence on providing total secrecy to shippers of dangerous goods - even as against the public who could be left with no warning of a potential disaster. 

- David Dayen responds to baseless criticisms of Seattle's new $15 minimum wage, while pointing out that the minimum should properly reflect a living wage. And Iglika Ivanova examines the need for a living wage to help combat child poverty in Vancouver.

- Sid Ryan discusses the role of unions in ensuring that the benefits of growth are shared across the population as a whole, while pointing out a few areas demanding immediate attention.

- Finally, Frances Russell argues that the Chief Justice of Canada was bound to make Stephen Harper's public enemies list at some point, while Jeffrey Simpson still sees the attack as a new low. And the CP reports on another case which figures to bring the judicial system into the Cons' cross-hairs, as the Ontario Superior Court has restored the constitutional right to vote to a million Canadians living abroad who were stripped of their say by the Harper government.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Covered cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Polly Toynbee writes about the continued spread of privatization based solely on corporatist dogma even in the face of obvious examples of its harm to the public:
In the Royal Mail debacle, shares sold at £1.7bn rose to £2.7bn. The 16 investors chosen as "long-term" custodians included the most wolfish hedge funds, who sold the shares at once. Let's hope that ends any pretence that shareholders look after companies. What's more, the investment arm of Lazards, key adviser to Vince Cable, was also given "priority" status. But Lazard Asset Management sold its entire stake within a week at a profit of £8m. Likewise Goldman Sachs, employed to facilitate the sale, told its investors share prices would hit 610p a month after advising the government to float at 330p. How well these companies deserved their tongue-lashing from Margaret Hodge: "You all know each other. You work together. You trade with each other. You are part of this little clique and we the ordinary taxpayer lose out on it." This is a case of caveat vendor.

We should beware the inherent asymmetry when the state sells contracts and assets. On the government side, this is negotiating with a political gun at the head, conducted by inexperienced civil servants told to secure complex objectives, unable to walk away from already announced sell-offs. On the market side is rat-like native cunning impelled by profit, willingness to give mendacious assurances with one easy objective – to make money. Governments will always need to deal with markets for procurement and regulation – but that needs a strong, experienced civil service with equal cunning, not one cut by 30%, losing memory of past errors.
There is no evidence about how well contracting and privatising work: the best experts can find is 1980s assessments of early contracts for simple local services. At the very least, there should always be a state comparator. NHS contracting is galloping ahead, with no centrally gathered monitoring for comparison. Other privatisations rush on – probation and the court fines collection service – while companies built by cashing in from the state, such as G4S, A4E and Serco, are in disgrace. While Serco is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office after overcharging on tagging, it emerges that its finance director sold £2.7m shares two months before the share price tanked on a profits warning.

This is the world David Cameron assumes always does better than public service, as a matter of unproven conviction. Laying out his Open Public Services policy, he said everything was up for sale, with "a new presumption" that "public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service". When he said: "The old narrow, closed state monopoly is dead," he forgot to say that services sold or contracted would become private monopolies making handsome profits at our expense. The dogma driving these privatisations wilfully ignores past experience.
- David Dayen contrasts the IRS' public message about cracking down on tax cheats against its actions in giving tax evaders two more years to keep free-riding.

- Amber Hildebrandt discusses how Canadian employers became addicted to temporary foreign workers - though as Tim Harper notes, the Cons' consistent pushing of cheap labour at the expense of Canadian youth has played a major role. And Mike Moffatt wonders why there's been an explosion of temporary foreign workers in southwestern Ontario (among other regions with plenty of available workers).

- Diana Ziomislic reports on the manifestation of inequality through differences in Ontario children's dental health - while pointing out that a universal dental care system would represent an obvious means of closing that particular health gap.

- Finally, Andrew Coyne muses about Stephen Harper's degeneration and lack of impulse control - visible most recently in his choice to gratuitously pick a fight with Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin. But Lawrence Martin observes that there's nothing new either in Harper focusing maniacally on his enemies list, and including public servants on that list for absolutely no justifiable reason:
(T)hese Conservatives constitute what might be called Ottawa’s first real wedge government. Other governments, including Tory ones, have sought to be more representative. With this one, it’s divide and conquer. It’s less about broadening the tent than hardening the attitudes of those within. Others are seen as enemies at the gate.

But the antagonism is fuelled by more than strategic political imperatives. I recall interviewing David Emerson, who had a unique perspective because he served in both the cabinets of Paul Martin and Stephen Harper. There were things he preferred about the Harper operation. But one difference that alarmed Mr. Emerson was the degree of visceral contempt he saw from Mr. Harper and his top lieutenants toward those opposed to their beliefs. He’d never seen anything like it. How could they harbour, he wondered, so much venom?

The combination – a wedge government driven by such a degree of animosity – makes for a potent mix. It’s why the enemies list has kept growing. It’s why a woman as honourable as the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court is now on it.

Monday, May 05, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- David Atkins highlights how public policy and corporate strategy have both instead been directed toward squeezing every possible dime out of the public:
The less noticed but potentially more consequential way that policymakers across the industrialized world set about accomplishing this goal was to push their middle classes to invest their wealth into assets, especially stocks and real estate, then use the levers of public policy to inflate the values of those assets in order to disguise the inevitable declines in wages. There was also a concerted effort to hide wage losses by lowering the prices of non-perishable goods — even if doing so meant domestic job losses. These goals were accomplished in several ways...
All of these moves toward increasing the value of assets do directly benefit the wealthy. But more important, they have served to create a more purely capitalist society, hide the decline of the middle class and mitigate public discontent over stagnant wages. There are many problems with this, of course. The first is that the vast preponderance of wealth will accrue to the very top incomes in an economy where assets inflate while wages deflate. The second is that a purely asset-based economy is bubble-prone, deeply unstable and given to sharp and painful boom-bust cycles. The story of the last half-decade is in part the removal of the blindfold that has been hiding wage losses over the last half-century. Housing prices have skyrocketed beyond the ability of most people under 40 to afford, even as household debt nears record highs. Nearly half of Americans have no retirement savings at all, while much of the rest of the developed world faces a pension obligation crisis. 
The tools policymakers have used to distract the public from the raw deal of low wages are no longer working. And that may more than anything else help usher in a new era of populist progressivism in the U.S. — if, that is, the Democratic Party can shift itself away from reinforcing the asset-based economy toward rebuilding a sustainable model that encourages wage growth and a strong labor market.
- Of course, that proposed theme is utterly antithetical to the Cons and their corporate benefactors. Which means it's no surprise they're continuing to defend - and indeed try to further push - the temporary foreign worker model in the face of more and more stories of abuse.

On that front, Geoff Leo reports on a TFW broker's advice to employers that it use the threat of deportation to prevent new workers from developing expectations that they might be allowed to have some life outside of work; Kathy Tomlinson finds workers being subjected to death threats and coercion while effectively trapped in indentured servitude; and Claire Brownell exposes the use of the TWFP to create a massive, underground migrant economy in agricultural workers. But I'm sure the CFIB will be happy to tell us the real problem is that Canadian workers aren't willing to accept that type of abuse for themselves.

- Jacob Soll notes that a propensity to destroy impartial oversight (in the form of reliable and well-resourced auditing) is equally obvious in the U.S.' corporate and government establishments. And Jared Milne points out that there's plenty of reason for concern about the Cons' fiscal mismanagement even based on what's been revealed publicly.

- Michael Harris discusses Stephen Harper's attacks on the Supreme Court as just the latest example of a government bent on eliminating any possible checks on absolute power:
The train wreck of the Harper government continues to roll down the mountainside, crushing body after body, yet no one utters the right word. Allow me. Canada is a dictatorship in the making.

Did you ever know a person who just kept taking more and more from a relationship until you had to draw a line? A person for whom there are no rules, just a bottomless appetite to have it all their own way?

If so, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I give you our prime minister — a man who needs to be stopped before he starts appearing on the money. Either that, or we all better practise the curtsey.
- Finally, Stephen Maher weighs in on the Cons' continued refusal to do anything about the 1,186 missing or murdered aboriginal women in Canada. 

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- D.L. Tice writes that it's becoming more and more difficult for the right to ignore the spread of income inequality - and the reality that only public policy, not faith in the market, can produce a more fair distribution of income. Which is particularly important in light of Doyle McManus' recognition that an overly high level of inequality is unsustainable.

- Simon Kiss and Peter Graefe discuss the connection - and in some cases the tension - between populism and progressive values:
Left populist campaigning around cost-of-living issues on significant non-discretionary (at least in the short-term) expenses like heating and auto insurance provide a way to speak to these voters. Yet this kind of pocketbook politicking, for all of its populist potential in taking on insurance companies and big natural resources firms, remains profoundly individualist in its potentials.  It closes down spaces to make a more collective argument, namely that paying for public services through taxes is the best deal going for working people. 

This presents a deep challenge for social democrats, who, at their core, are marked by their commitment to the notion that the state can be – and ought to be – a solution to pressing social problems, rather than being a source of problems.  This presents both an opportunity and a challenge for social democrats. On the one hand, tax increases on privileged groups can easily fit with a populist rhetoric.  This might be electorally viable and might even make fiscal sense and create the opening for Canadian social democracy to advance, rather than stand still. On the other hand, an argument for tax increases on the citizenry as a whole in order to finance public services for the citizenry is the opposite of populism. It caters to enlightened – not narrow – self-interest and avoids catering to desires for punishment of the enemies of the undivided “people”. 
- Lana Payne observes that the widespread abuse of temporary foreign workers shoud come as no surprise to anybody who's paid attention to the issue, while Michael Smyth tells the story of the 21-year-old whistleblower who exposed McDonalds' misuse of the program. Ishmael Daro notes that the exploitation of temporary workers represents just a small part of a meaner immigration policy. And Rick Salutin writes that the use of TFWs only serves to make matters worse for workers of any point of origin.

- Jesse Brown muses about the relative lack of outrage against online surveillance in Canada, while pointing out that the answer likely lies in what we don't yet know:
America’s outcry over the NSA’s overreach occurred in response to specific revelations. In Canada, we still don’t have the foggiest notion about the nature or extent of the surveillance state — we just know that we are, to some extent, living in one. Canadians have been criticized for not taking action against these intrusions. But how could we when we know so little?

Still, Canadians haven’t been totally complacent. Canadian Journalists for Free Expression has been monitoring and reporting on information about CSEC as it breaks. The intrepid Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has attacked the problem from a different angle, demanding answers from Rogers, Telus, Bell and 16 other telecommunications companies as to what information they share with authorities and under what circumstances. Meanwhile, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association has launched a class-action lawsuit against CSEC, on behalf of every Canadian who has used a wireless device since 2001. The idea is, if CSEC has not been spying on all of us, let them prove it.

If authorities refuse to answer reasonable questions based on legitimate concerns, we mustn’t stop there. We can go around CSEC and its masters, we can remind them constantly that they owe the public answers, and we can make ourselves available to anyone out there who, like Edward Snowden, possesses information that their consciences won’t allow them to conceal.
- And finally, Daniel Wilson notes that the Cons' cynical education legislation looks like just the latest example of a hostile federal government seeking to divide and conquer Canada's First Nations.