Saturday, May 24, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- Tavis Smiley discusses the need to speak realistically about the causes and effects of poverty, rather than simply dismissing real human costs as somebody else's fault and problem. And similarly, Tim Stacey comments on the appalling "empathy gap" - which sees upper-class mouthpieces complaining about the cost of luxuries while claiming that the poor have it easier in trying to scrape together the essentials of life.

- But for the most compelling indication as to the consequences of policies designed to attack rather than assist those in need, CBC reports on a Harris poll showing that 39% of Canada's long-term unemployed have completely given up on looking for work - as the Cons' attempts to bully people back to work have predictably done nothing to create opportunities worth pursuing.

- Meanwhile, PressProgress challenges Tim Hudak's complete and baseless belief in the magic of corporate handouts. And Thomas Walkom notes that Hudak's entire jobs plan has been met with nothing but refutation by anybody who takes a meaningful look at it.

- Emily Atkin's report on the Harper Cons' squelching of environmental and scientific reporting is well worth a read. And Charles Pierce offers a reminder that the use of state coercion to further corporate power at the expense of the public interest isn't limited either to the oil sector or to Canada's federal government.

- Finally, Tim Harper poses six questions about murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada which cry out for answers (rather than the Cons' continued denial and obfuscation).

Friday, May 23, 2014

Musical interlude

Arcade Fire - Half Light II (No Celebration)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Linda McQuaig writes that while the Cons don't want to bother listening to the public about much of anything, they'll always make time for a disgraced former advisor lobbying on behalf of oil barons: RCMP allegations,... [Bruce] Carson was working for the Energy Policy Institute of Canada (EPIC), described in the media as a “non-profit group formed by business organizations in the energy sector.”

This rather benign description fails to convey what EPIC really is: a lobbying vehicle for dozens of extremely wealthy, powerful fossil fuel companies, including Enbridge, Imperial Oil, Shell, Suncor and Irving Oil, as well as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers — all hell-bent on developing Alberta’s tar sands.

The important story here isn’t the alleged illegal lobbying behaviour of Carson (who is banned from lobbying for five years after serving in government). The real story is the reception he receives when, now representing Big Oil, he approaches the top man in the PMO, Nigel Wright, someone he doesn’t know personally, with a document laying out what Big Oil wants.

According to emails disclosed by the RCMP, Wright promises to read the document over the weekend, and urges Carson to “feel free to give me a call at any time.”
Any interest group getting that kind of easy access in the PMO should raise eyebrows.

But the fossil fuel industry is no ordinary interest group — its interests run counter to the interests of humanity, if continuing to live comfortably on earth is what humans want to do.

Even as climate disasters occur with growing frequency — including the worst flooding in Serbia in a century, killing 43 people this week — the Harper government relentlessly promotes Big Oil’s development plans, guts our environmental review processes and aggressively audits environmental groups, muzzles government scientists and undermines international UN-sponsored efforts to rein in climate change.

So here’s the bottom line about the Harper government: those defending the earth are muzzled and harassed, while those willing to destroy the earth for profit are warmly invited to “call at any time.”
- In a similar vein, Josh Wingrove catches the Cons lying about the state of U.S. greenhouse gas emission regulations as an excuse to encourage further climate pollution from the tar sands. And Gary Doer confirms that the Cons have no interest whatsoever in regulation emissions except as a means to secure approval for pipelines. Which means that nobody looking for health, safety and the environment to be protected has much reason to waste time dealing with the Cons - as evidenced by the reality that every single First Nation who gave the Cons the benefit of the doubt about a new tar sands monitoring program has now walked away from the table.

- Meanwhile, the Parkland Institute studies the connection between wages, unionization and inequality in Alberta, while PressProgress neatly boils down how a lack of labour organization has made Alberta the most unequal province in Canada.

- Finally, Joseph Stiglitz reminds us why burgeoning income inequality is so significant and so damaging. And Gary Engler discusses the ends we should expect our economy to serve - in contrast to its current orientation toward further enriching those who already have the most:
At its most basic level the economy is the sum total of the things people do to provide themselves food, shelter and other things that enhance life, such as recreation, healthcare, entertainment and art. So, the answer to our question should be clear-cut: The point of an economy is to serve people.

But the reality for most of us is exactly the opposite.
Rather than serving us, “the economy” has become an excuse to treat many people badly, to create unhealthy products, to damage our environment, to justify exploitation, to steal from other people and even to wage war.


The primary reason is that too much of the economy is run by and for a small minority of people. As [Piketty]’s statistics show, actual existing capitalism (as opposed to the phoney idealized system taught in school) concentrates ownership of wealth in the hands of a few people. This wealth produces both income and power, so much of which has gone to the richest 1% that any effective democracy is threatened.
Piketty argues for a tax on wealth and that might be a good starting point, but if we really want to fix this we must go further. When the problem is too much power in the hands of a few the obvious solution is to distribute that power more widely.

We should take away control of the economy from the greedy minority and share it amongst all of us. A good name for such a system is economic democracy.

The exact form such a system might take would probably depend on a country’s history, culture and level of development.  But essential elements would be: one-person-one-vote instead of one-dollar-one-vote decision making in all aspects of the economy; workplace democracy instead of master-servant relations and community control instead of corporate control.

If we want an economy that serves all people we must create a system of democratic governance to ensure that happens.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

New column day

Here, following up on the Robert Buckingham saga at the University of Saskatchewan by asking whether tenured university professors should be the only workers who have any hope of being able to discuss issues of public importance without fearing for their jobs.

For further reading...
- Buckingham's story is told here, here, here and here among other places - with the latest news seeing the U of S terminating the president who oversaw his firing.
- The terms of the U of S Faculty Association's collective bargaining agreement made public in association with the story are here.
- Matt Kwong reports on the uncertainty of academic tenure across North America, while Lauren Williams discusses Kansas' restrictive social media policy which is referenced in the column.
- Finally, Debbie Mihalicz sees the silencing of professors as part of a corporate mindset at the U of S. The Star Phoenix highlights how the firing creates reason to distrust the university's leadership. And Lindsay Tedds discusses the dangers of insisting that professors stick to the party line - though in keeping with the column, I'd think her points apply more broadly than the university setting alone.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jared Bernstein discusses how fair and progressive taxes on the rich are a necessary element of any effort to improve the lot of the poor:
The rising tide of inequality does more than create great economic distance between income classes. It also produces higher barriers to mobility. Increased investment in the poor’s economic opportunities and in their children, their health care, their housing and their education will be needed to overcome those barriers.

To be more precise, there are three reliable ways to help or “lift” the bottom: subsidies that increase the poor’s economic security today; investment in their future productivity; and targeted job opportunities at decent wages. The first two are more closely related than you might think, because researchers are discovering that anti-poverty consumption programs such as nutritional and income supports have long-lasting benefits to children in families that receive them.

None of these three approaches are free.
Yes, growth is necessary; in the age of high inequality, though, it is insufficient. What will work here is a large, publicly funded infrastructure program to begin to repair our deteriorating public goods, with the jobs targeted at the working poor.

All of the above — the expanded earned-income tax credit, universal preschool, job-creating infrastructure — will take more tax revenue, and much of that new revenue will need to come from those at the top of the wealth scale.
To be clear, the tax burden on all Americans, not just the wealthy, is low both in historical and international terms. We’re collecting less revenue than many other advanced economies and less than we have in the past. So it’s not just the rich that will ultimately have to pony up if we’re going to continue to fund the things we want and need in a sustainable way.

But since most of the pretax income growth in recent years has accrued to households at the top scale, that’s an obvious place to start.
- Mel Watkins comments on Arundhati Roy's observation that we're stuck with "gush-up economics". And Duncan Cameron weighs in on Tim Hudak's plan to create jobs by destroying jobs and public services alike.

- Bruce Campbell discusses the regulatory failure behind the Lac-M├ęgantic rail disaster while noting that the people most responsible for systemic problems aren't the ones facing charges. But then, Lauren Krugel reports that the Cons are trying to obstruct even an investigation of tar sands tailings which can't possibly lead to any direct consequences other than fact-finding - signalling that instead of caring about the health and safety of Canadians, Harper and company are fully occupied trying to make sure that nobody uncovers what they're so desperately sweeping under the rug.

- Meanwhile, Margo McDiarmid reports on the latest research showing the catastrophic effects of climate change. And Denise Robbins points out the Republican response that they'd rather try to uproot much of civilization in a few decades than lift a finger to reduce the damage today.

- Finally, Andrew Mitrovica rightly calls out the press gallery's groupthink (and willingness to mindlessly dispense other parties' talking points) about Tom Mulcair. And both thwap and Karl Nerenberg highlight how absurd the Con/Lib attempt to gang up on Mulcair and the NDP was in the first place.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cushioned cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Frank Vibert writes that our democratic system includes more than just electoral politics, while recognizing that we all too often neglect the distinct role of regulatory bodies:
When one looks more closely at regulation and the interdependencies between systems the more apparent it becomes that regulation now needs to be viewed as a basic means of coordination in modern democratic societies. For example it corrects for the inadequacies of the law in dealing with evidence from the natural and social sciences – an area where lawyers, judges and juries have special difficulties. Far from demotivating people to act responsibly, regulation provides society with a basic means of addressing a key weakness that all democratic societies face. The weakness is that people have conflicting motivations that impair their willingness to observe  the underlying norms of behavior that are necessary for all systems to work. For example markets depend on honesty and trust in contracting. Market incentives may motivate people towards making false representations. At the same time the efforts of democratic societies to socialize norms through education also yield very imperfect results. Regulators step in to underpin norms and to educate.

The most important sense in which regulation is basic to modern societies is that it provides an adjustment mechanism, smoothing and facilitating the constantly changing mix between the different systems in a democratic society. Thus, if governments look towards markets to fund and manage services that were previously within government, such a move will be accompanied by regulatory structures in order to minimize the ‘creative destruction’ associated with markets. Conversely, if governments look to intervene in markets, as in the case of Obamacare, they will also accompany such moves with a regulatory structure in order to try to ensure that the end users benefit from the new insurance arrangements. Regulation has unique properties as an adjustment mechanism and is of fundamental importance in modern democratic systems both for functional and normative reasons.
(R)egulation addresses what has been termed ‘adaptive bias’ in systems. The term means that there is a tendency for social institutions to be backward looking and to favor the status quo. For example the law is famously rooted in citing precedent. The horizon of politicians is forward looking to an extent – but only as far as the next election. The market is forward looking, but it often projects past relationships and conveys its information in the form of prices – prices that contain a mixture of signals and noise. Regulators are engaged in forecasting and horizon scanning for professional reasons. They convey their information in policy relevant terms. For example an outbreak of an internationally disseminated infection such as swine fever or avian flu will likely be reflected in market prices. But public policy will pay more attention to the indicators of morbidity and mortality estimated by health sector professionals.
- Ted Strickland highlights the need to focus on poverty and inequality in our political choices - and to facilitate collective action in the process:
The excuse we hear too often from political leaders who don’t talk about poverty is that budgets are too tight and you can only do so much.  But there is a reason budgets are tight—we have cut taxes!  If we had a progressive tax system that was anywhere near the levels it was before Ronald Reagan became President, we would have the resources we need.

This is one area where I think we can do a much better job—talking about the link between tax policy, decreasing revenues, and cuts in programs that people need to have a fair shot at the American Dream.

We also have to do a better job talking about work and shared prosperity.  It’s un-American, frankly, that you can work and work and work and not get out of poverty.  And I think something that is sometimes missing from progressive consciousness—and something that certainly benefited my family—is an awareness of the importance of organized labor.  We became as egalitarian as we did as a nation because working people gained power and influence by banding together and bargaining for better wages and benefits and safety conditions.  And as economic disparities have increased over these last few decades, the influence of organized labor has decreased.

So whether it’s the same paradigm or not, we’ve got to find some way for people to act collectively in their self-interest.  And that’s a challenge that I think is facing organized labor but also all of us who care about giving everyone a fair shot and a fair chance.
- Patrick Wintour points out UK Labour's proposal for a minimum wage set at a reasonable percentage of the country's median hourly earnings - which on the upside would mean a significant increase for now, but on the downside could give employers an incentive to further suppress wages across the board. Meanwhile, in the category of policy changes with a far less ambiguous effect, Corey Robin discusses the Republicans' moves to encourage wage theft by employers.

- John Quiggin takes a look at Delaware's role as one of the globe's most notorious corporate tax havens.

- Finally, Michael Harris sees the Cons' highly selective sanctions as further evidence that they'll put oil interests above any sense of morality given the choice.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Elias Isquith interviews Matt Taibbi about the complete lack of morality underlying Wall Street and the regulators who are supposed to protect the public interest from banksters run amok. Paul Buchheit reviews some compelling evidence that poorer people are more ethical than the wealthy - suggesting that extreme wealth and inequality may themselves serve as an indicator of social dysfunction. And Charles Blow writes about the absurdity of blaming poor people for forces beyond their control:
That construct, that the poor are in some way deficient, is a particularly poisonous and unsupportable position. And, by extension, the proposition that people can simply love and marry — traditionally only — their way out of poverty is supremely condescending.

This position, cloaked in an air of benevolence and good will, is in fact lacking in understanding of the lives of poor people and compassion for their plight.
Poverty is a demanding, stressful, depressive and often violent state. No one seeks it; they are born or thrust into it. In poverty, the whole of your life becomes an exercise in coping and correcting, searching for a way up and out, while focusing today on filling the pots and the plates, maintaining a roof and some warmth, and dreading the new challenge tomorrow may bring.

We should extend the conversation about tackling poverty, but that conversation should not be governed by the belief that poverty in resources is synonymous with poverty of values.
- But as the Observer notes, workers (and particularly the most vulnerable ones) have come to be seen as prey rather than people by the corporate lobby and right-wing political leaders alike:
For the past 30 years, one of the big aims of policy has been to make the labour market more flexible. Trade unions have been curbed, industries have been privatised, welfare reformed and employment protection reduced. The balance of power between labour and capital has been tilted decisively in favour of the latter.

The evidence of this is all around. There are 1.3m jobs on zero-hour contracts; wages can barely keep pace with price increases, even with unemployment coming down at a fair lick. Around 80% of the jobs created in the past year have been for the self-employed, with the suspicion that many of those "running their own business" are doing so involuntarily.

This is the flexible labour market in action. It is what has distinguished the UK economy from some of the more heavily regulated economies in the rest of Europe. Supporters of the reforms of the past three decades say the flexible labour market is the reason the jobless rate is around half the average for the eurozone. Critics say that the smashing of organised labour and the triumph of management is bad for workers, bad for growth and ultimately bad for employers.
(I)n the long term there is a clear choice. Either the power of labour will be increased by full employment, stronger trade unions and collective bargaining or the flexible labour market will arrive at its ultimate destination: a form of capitalism that cannot function without excessive debt; is marked by low wages, low investment and low productivity; and which eventually ends up eating itself.
- On the subject of workers being used as prey, Kathy Tomlinson reports on the use of Canada's temporary foreign worker program as an extortion racket - and the complete lack of regulatory action even after that flagrant abuse of employer authority was reported to federal officials. And Alison duly mocks the attempt of business groups to pretend that Canadian workers somehow stand to benefit from being pushed aside in favour of more pliable replacements.

- Kaylie Tiessen and Kayle Hatt write about Tim Hudak's desire to turn Ontario into a low-wage profit haven by slashing public services and the jobs that go with them. 

- Finally, Murray Dobbin highlights how Stephen Harper has put Canada on the road to ruin. And Carol Goar notes that the Cons have gone out of their way to prevent the public from knowing exactly what damage they've wrought:
Two things are noteworthy about [the Cons'] pattern of disinformation.

One is that it has lasted so long. Until recently there was no systematic questioning of the “facts” dispensed by Harper and his associates.

The other is that it is locked in. The Tories have downsized Statistics Canada, the country’s chief information gathering agency, so severely that future governments will have to rely on blunt — and sometimes unreliable — tools to monitor socio-economic developments.

Half of the agency’s workforce is gone. Hundreds of its programs have been dropped. The mandatory long-form census has given way to a voluntary household survey. It would cost tens of millions of dollars to reverse these changes — and any government that tried would face resistance from taxpayers conditioned to regard number-crunchers as a needless public expense.
StatsCan is shrinking from a public information agency into an in-house research bureau for the government. It has curtailed its consultations with entrepreneurs, academics and non-government organizations. It has narrowed its focus. “We found the agency primarily consults with the federal, provincial and territorial governments” the auditor said. “In order to ensure the continued relevance of its data, Statistics Canada should obtain, document and analyze ongoing feedback from the full range of its users.”

StatsCan disconsolately agreed and said it would broaden its future consultations.

What emerged was a picture of a highly professional agency forced to cut corners and lower its standards.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- The Globe and Mail joins the chorus calling for Canada to welcome more citizens, rather than exploiting cheap and disposable workers. But Bill Curry reports on yet another corporate lobby group demanding that the Cons actually expand the flow of temporary labour to secure profits at the expense of workers.

- Andy Radia discusses the laughable attempt of the Cons to rebrand themselves as anything other then enemies of the environment after eight years of constant attacks on regulations and advocates alike. And Daniel James Wright points out that the organization chosen to greenwash the Cons was subject to a full corporate takeover.

- Meanwhile, the CP reports on a mercury advisory for fowl near the tar sands - being just the type of health and environmental disaster the Cons are always happy to sweep under the rug in the name of oil profits. Chris Varcoe writes about the complete takeover of Alberta's government by the oil sector. And Bob Weber reports on Alberta's moves to make sure the same people who have pointed out exactly the types of environmental dangers which have come to pass never get a word of input into further development:
Critics say Albertans are in danger of being shut out of discussions on how the province's natural resources are developed.
Expert observers and opposition politicians worry Alberta's new energy regulator is drawing the circle of who can speak so tightly that one hearing on a proposed energy project had to be cancelled because no one was allowed to appear.
The Alberta Energy Regulator is responsible both for holding public hearings on oilsands proposals and other energy developments and for determining who has the right to appear. The regulator is obliged to allow only those "directly and adversely affected" to appear.
Blakeman said decisions such as what happened with the Kirby project ignore important realities.

"The government seems to believe that the air doesn't move, water doesn't flow and soil doesn't leach," she said.
- Harry Neufeld notes that the Unfair Elections Act remains a serious step backward for the prospect of free, fair and transparent elections even after the absolute worst abuses were altered by amendments. And Amira Elghawaby reviews Alison Loat and Michael McMillan's Tragedy in the Commons as a basis for asking whether there's much worth salvaging in Canada's current system of party politics.

- Finally, Don Lenihan argues against mandatory voting on the basis that popular turnout can serve as a measure of a government's mandate. But I can only respond by wondering whether there's any evidence whatsoever to support the theory that governing parties are more open to competing ideas based on a low turnout - or whether we should take the Harper Cons' determined exploitation of every lever of power based on a modest mandate as a cautionary tale against the hope will restrain power-mad leaders.