Saturday, June 07, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Jim Armitage discusses how the privatization of public services in the UK is being mashed up with the principles behind subprime lending and debt bundling - leading to a bubble which promises to take down investors and the public alike.

- Dylan Matthews offers what would seem to be a natural conclusion about the simplest, most effective answer to poverty:
As solutions to global poverty go, "just give poor people money" is pretty rock solid. A recent randomized trial found that Kenyans who received no-strings attached cash from the charity GiveDirectly built more assets, bought more goods, were less hungry, and were all-around happier than those who didn't get cash.

But voters and politicians generally prefer giving people specific goods — like housing, food, or health care — rather than plain old cash, for fear that the cash might get misused by unscrupulous poor people. Maybe the recipients will just blow the cash drinking! This particular concern comes up both in domestic and global poverty conversations; Fox News is obsessed with the possibility of people using federal government benefits like food stamps to buy fancy seafood or hang out at strip clubs, but mainstream global development experts often express these concerns too. As Paul Niehaus, the founder of GiveDirectly, once put it, "It is pretty ironic the number of conversations I have had with development people about the poor and their drinking—over drinks."
"We have investigated evidence from around the developing world, including Latin America, Africa, and Asia," Evans and Popova conclude. "There is clear evidence that transfers are not consistently used for alcohol or tobacco in any of these environments. This is particularly true when relying on randomized trials."
- Ellen Lawton and Megan Sandel discuss the value of dealing with poverty and other social determinants of health at the outset, rather than placing undue demands on our health care system:
We're starting to understand that poverty causes illness, not just for individuals, but for whole communities. Yet we talk about the effects of substandard housing, poor nutrition, and violence in a vacuum separate from the laws and policies that create and perpetuate these problems in the first place. And then we ask health care to clean up the mess.

Health care has long been in the business of treating the negative health effects of bad social policy. When there isn't enough safe affordable housing, when sanitary codes are unenforced and when cuts are made to housing voucher programs, doctors treat people for the injuries and asthma that ensue. When people live in food deserts without access to healthy food, or their SNAP applications are wrongfully denied, nurses help patients manage the low blood sugar episodes for diabetics who are hungry. And health care spends a lot of money doing it.

Now more than ever, with the prevention mandates of health reform, we are asking health care to be in the business of preventing illness. That's a tall order when so much of what makes people sick are underenforced laws and policies, underfunded public programs and ill-conceived public policies way outside the scope of what health care professionals are trained to do. Indeed research shows that only about fifteen percent of preventable illness can be improved with access to better medical care alone.

Health care providers should screen patients regularly for "social vital signs" -- problems with housing, hunger and domestic violence -- all of which are equal predictors of poor health as any vital sign taken for blood pressure or heartbeat. But we cannot ask nurses and doctors to write prescriptions for healthy housing or food when those "pharmacies" are empty.
- Meanwhile, Kelsey Johnson reports on the NDP's national food strategy - which should serve as a reminder of what could be accomplished by a government which actually saw the public good as something worth pursuing.

- Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor have been reporting on Michael Sona's trial - featuring the revelation that Con highers-up including Andrew Prescott saw Robocon as a national scheme. And Karl Nerenberg highlights some of what remains to be answered about Robocon, while Alison takes a look for herself.

- Finally, speaking of the Cons' standards for public service, Bruce Carson - he of the open door to the Prime Minister's office - is headed to trial for influence peddling. And Tim Naumetz reports on Benjamin Perrin's curious departure from the PMO just a day after Mike Duffy received his hush money from Nigel Wright.

Friday, June 06, 2014

Musical interlude

Delerium - Run For It

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Simon Enoch discusses the costs of turning over a profitable system of public liquor stores to corporate control - as Brad Wall has finally admitted to wanting to do:
A privatized liquor market is very likely to evolve into an 'oligopoly', where only a few corporations dominate and are able to exert monopoly-like power. Local, independent liquor retailers would likely find it difficult to compete. An oligopoly would have the supposed disadvantages of a monopoly, high prices and restricted supply, but lack the major advantage of public ownership, profits that flow in to public coffers...

Like any business, private liquor will seek to advance its economic interests through public policy. Indeed, Alberta-based private liquor companies have been consistently contributing financially to the Saskatchewan Party since its election. The reality is that the interests of the private liquor industry will almost certainly come into conflict with that of the public interest. Currently, under our public system, concerns such as public health can take priority in public policy. Will we be able to continue to make such issues a priority in the face of an economically powerful opposition determined to advance its own interests?
- Meanwhile, Joyce Nelson wonders why the combination of waste and scandal generated by massive privatization in Ontario isn't receiving more attention in the ongoing provincial election campaign. And the Globe and Mail reports on the Ford brothers' use of a privatization campaign supposedly based on efficiency to give publicly-funded handouts to their own personal business partners.

- Charles Pierce writes about the U.S. Democrats' quixotic efforts to restore some ability to regulate campaign finance in the wake of court rulings equating unlimited money with free speec

- David Dayen discusses how the roots of the 2008 crash run deeper than we often presume - and how consumer debt relief remains a necessary step in both boosting growth and reducing inequality:
By reviewing other economic downturns, Mian and Sufi discover two recurring features: a buildup of household debt before the crash, and an extreme decline in consumer spending afterward, as households cut back, hoarding money to pay off those scaled-up debts. The normal channels of fiscal and monetary policy have difficulty dealing with highly leveraged household balance sheets. House of Debt correlates these features of recessions, and really targets debt as the core problem, arguing that it needs to be restructured during crises and prevented during better times.

This critique — about the destructive power of debt and the need to forgive it — has in recent years come from far more radical circles, not from two economics professors trained in the classical tradition. “When we pitched the book, one publisher said, this is the intellectual justification for Occupy Wall Street,” said Professor Sufi in an interview. “We didn’t set out with that agenda. But one of the points we make is that the position we’re taking is not that radical if you look at history.”
Sufi and Mian detail in the book how credit growth, particularly to low-income, high-risk households, fueled the housing bubble. Thanks to securitization, lenders could extend shaky credit and then pass off the risk to investors around the world, disconnecting themselves from any price drops. That’s before you get into how they ignored underwriting standards in a rush to lend, and fraudulently sold mortgage-backed securities without divulging the poor quality of the underlying loans. “Lenders should be held accountable for their actions,” Sufi said.
- And finally, Don Pittis writes about the need for a strong policy response to tax evasion techniques which are exacerbating inequality.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

New column day

Here, on how Justin Trudeau seems to have taken up the cause of unaccountable executive power even from his third-party place in the House of Commons.

For further reading...
- For some of the background on of the Libs' entitlement hangover following the Cons' taking power, see here (insisting that Parliament has no place in approving of military engagement) and here (criticizing the Accountability Act as a response to their actions while in power).
- Josh Wingrove reports on the attempt by privacy experts to challenge the Cons' appointment of Daniel Therrien. And Lisa Austin highlights some of the substantive problems with Therrien's past roles. But James Fitz-Morris reports on Trudeau's full support for the choice.
- Finally, Terry Milewski discusses the Con/Lib tag team effort to shut down the NDP's parliamentary outreach offices, while CBC follows up with on their retroactive and selectively-enforced rewriting of the rules around mailouts. But as I've pointed out before, we should be far more concerned with the yawning gap between government and parliamentary communications, rather than stifling MPs' communications solely for the purpose of attacking a single opponent.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Emmett Macfarlane and Justin Ling both weigh in on the Cons' newly-unveiled prostitution legislation - which seems downright calculated to exacerbate the risks to sex workers' lives and safety that resulted in the previous version being struck down as unconstitutional.

- And on the subject of policy designed entirely out of prejudiced desire to punish and exclude marginalized groups, Christopher Ingraham writes about a study showing that restrictive voter ID laws arise out of discriminatory intent.

- Newsweek takes note of the Harper Cons' gag order against meteorologists informing the public about climate change. And Mike De Souza rounds up the top ten quotes from scientists who have been muzzled.

- The CP reports on a study showing increased mercury levels around the tar sands - which of course wasn't made public after being completed last December. Paul Krugman rightly dismisses the claim that continued (or increased) carbon emissions are necessary for economic growth. And Linda McQuaig identifies the dinosaur in the room when it comes to the oil industry:
Harper now stands poised to ignore massive opposition and stomp on the historic rights of First Nations people by approving the Northern Gateway pipeline, thereby putting in place a key piece of his energy superpower scheme.

What makes all of this so perplexing — almost other-worldly — is that it’s so unnecessary.
Due to the marvels of modern technology, the world now has the technical capacity to move to a post-carbon age. The International Energy Agency is clear about this. In a report last month, the agency — which is the energy equivalent of the OECD or the IMF — pointed out that it is possible for the world to “decarbonise almost all power generation by 2050.”

Sure, but we’d all be back in the Stone Age, right? Employment would be confined to shovel-ready pyramids.

Actually, no. The IEA estimated the global cost of moving to a post-carbon world at $44 trillion — which sounds like a deal-breaker until you read on and discover that this massive cost would be more than offset by $115 trillion in fuel savings, resulting in a net saving of $71 trillion.
- Finally, David Pugliese breaks the news that the Cons' increasingly unaccountable and intrusive surveillance apparatus now has literally every public demonstration in Canada in its sights.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Neil Irwin highlights the reality that top-heavy economic growth has done nothing to reduce poverty in the U.S. over the past 40 years:
In Kennedy’s era, [the "rising tide lifts all boats" theory] had the benefit of being true. From 1959 to 1973, the nation’s economy per person grew 82 percent, and that was enough to drive the proportion of the poor population from 22 percent to 11 percent.

But over the last generation in the United States, that simply hasn’t happened. Growth has been pretty good, up 147 percent per capita. But rather than decline further, the poverty rate has bounced around in the 12 to 15 percent range — higher than it was even in the early 1970s. The mystery of why — and how to change that — is one of the most fundamental challenges in the nation’s fight against poverty.
The 1959 to 1973 period might be an unfair benchmark. The Great Society social safety net programs were being put in place, and they may have had a poverty-lowering effect separate from that of the overall economic trends. In other words, it may be simply that during that time, strong growth and a falling poverty rate happened to take place simultaneously for unrelated reasons. And there presumably is some level of poverty below which the official poverty rate will never fall, driven by people whose problems run much deeper than economics.

But the facts still cast doubt on the notion that growth alone will solve America’s poverty problem.
The reality is that low-income workers are putting in more hours on the job than they did a generation ago — and the financial rewards for doing so just haven’t increased.

That’s the real lesson of the data: If you want to address poverty in the United States, it’s not enough to say that you need to create better incentives for lower-income people to work. You also have to devise strategies that make the benefits of a stronger economy show up in the wages of the people on the edge of poverty, who need it most desperately.
- Kate Allen reports that 300 scientists have teamed up to call attention to the flawed assessment process applied to the Gateway pipeline, while Kai Nagata theorizes that the Cons might well scrap the project themselves. But I have my doubts about that theory in light of the Harper Cons' continued devotion to Keystone XL even as it produces a constant flow of shutdowns, leaks and spills.

- Meanwhile, the Montreal Gazette laments the Cons' continued climate change obstruction.

- PressProgress offers ten reasons to be worried about the Cons' disregard for privacy. Colin Horgan recognizes that while the Cons' arguments against an effective census were nonsensical in that context, they would represent a strong case against the accountability-free sharing of personal information which the Cons now want to ram into law. And Michael Harris discusses how fits into Harper's Genghis Khan-like view of power.

- Frances Russell writes about Canada's descent from being internationally admired for its model democratic system, to serving as a cautionary tale.

- Finally, Seth Klein points out how modest tax increases on the wealthy could fully fund needed improvements to B.C.'s education system. But naturally, the Clark Libs are fully focused on attacking the province's teachers instead.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Kidding cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Gary Engler explores Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century from the perspective of a reader who's far more skeptical than Piketty about the prospect of tinkering around the edges of our current corporatist economic system. And Seth Ackerman writes that Piketty's observations look like compelling evidence challenging the doctrine of marginal productivity theory which is taken as an article of faith by laissez-faire fundamentalists.

- Meanwhile, Bill Moyers interviews Joseph Stiglitz about corporate tax evasion. And Michael Madowitz points out what we should have learned about austerity economics by now:
There are three major lessons for policymakers from this research:
  1. Direct government intervention during recessions, either through deficit-financed tax cuts or deficit-financed increases in government spending, is a more powerful tool for fighting recessions than we realized before the Great Recession.
  2. In a slack economy, or one that is operating below its potential, austerity—taking money out of the economy to balance government budgets—is especially bad policy. Whether via tax hikes or cuts in government spending, contracting the government’s budget during a recession reduces gross domestic product, or GDP, by more than the size of the cuts—possibly as much as three times more.
  3. The costs of doing nothing can be permanent and much higher than we previously thought: U.S. GDP is currently 10 percent below its prerecession 2014 projection, and many economists believe that we have reached a new normal. If this is true, austerity could cost the U.S. economy more than $1 trillion in economic activity every year, even after we have fully recovered from the Great Recession.
The most important development in economic research during this recession has been a better understanding of how short-term labor markets affect the long-run size of the economy. It is simply not the case that recessions have only transitory effects on an economy. This is a profound, if counterintuitive, lesson for policymakers: The prudent approach during a recession may be much more aggressive fiscal and monetary activism than we are used to.
- PressProgress reminds us of the Cons' obstructionism on climate change - which of course looks all the more silly now that the U.S. is taking far stronger action than Canada ever has. And Aaron Wherry suggests that we'd be better off moving past the Cons' vocabulary barrier to discuss the costs and risks involved in climate change policy.

- But Joyce Nelson discusses the connection between fossil fuel lobbyists and right-wing politics which largely explains the Harper Cons' continued determination to stand in the way of any action on climate change.

- Finally, Robyn Benson sounds the alarm about the Cons' plans to attack pensions for current and future retirees alike:
Target benefit plan,” eh? What’s next—a target wage plan?

“We’ll try to pay you $22 an hour like the contract says. But if things get tight at budget time, we might have to drop that to $14 or so. OK by you?”

No. Not OK.

Workplace pensions are, in fact, deferred wages. They’re a forced savings plan that permits, or should permit, retired Canadians to live decently. A defined benefits plan (DBP)—what our members presently have—is a contract: in return for making regular contributions, a set retirement income, with indexing for inflation, is guaranteed.

Enter Kevin Sorenson, minister of state for finance. He has a brand-new scheme in hand, and he wants to sell it to employers in federally-regulated industries and Crown Corporations. He calls it a “shared risk plan,” but it’s no such thing. It’s just shifting risk onto employees and pensioners.
Eroding pension plans by shifting risk onto vulnerable employees and retirees with limited ability to absorb income cuts is quite in keeping with the Harper government’s determination to lower the boom on public sector workers and improve the profitability of their corporate friends in the private sector. Instead of showing leadership by improving retirement income security for all Canadians, it wants to “level down,” threatening young workers and seniors across the country. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- David Graeber writes that unfettered capitalism will never tame itself, but will instead need to be countered by a sufficiently strong counter-movement to seriously question its underpinnings. And Thomas Frank follows up with Graeber about the warped incentives facing workers as matters stand now:
I think the spotlight on the financial sector did make apparent just how bizarrely skewed our economy is in terms of who gets rewarded and for what. There was this pall of mystification cast over everything pertaining to that sector—we were told, this is all so very complicated, you couldn’t possibly understand, it’s really very advanced science, you know, they are coming up with trading programs so complicated only astro-physicists can understand them, that sort of thing. We just had to take their word that, somehow, this was creating value in ways our simple little heads couldn’t possibly get around. Then after the crash we realized a lot of this stuff was not just scams, but pretty simple-minded scams, like taking bets you couldn’t possibly pay if you lost and just figuring the government would bail you out if you did. These guys weren’t creating value of any kind. They were making the world worse and getting paid insane amounts of money for it.

Suddenly it became possible to see that if there’s a rule, it’s that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you’re paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people’s lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling  obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded.
- Meanwhile, Jared Bernstein writes about the damage done to our public policy by an undue willingness to accept simplistic (but false) assumptions:
(I)t’s widely argued that government actions that set wages or regulate commerce create “inefficiencies.” Regulate an industry and capital will flee; raise the national wage floor and employers will leave the market (or, in Piketty’s world, handily substitute machines for workers). Increase a marginal tax rate and workers will supply less labor; investors, less capital. Form a union and the unionized firm will face competitive disadvantages that will put it out of business. Provide a safety net benefit to someone and they’ll work less. Tax a polluter and you’ll crash GDP. Tax a financial “innovator” and credit markets will dry up.

Conversely, cut back on a tax rate, a safety net program, the minimum wage, the unionization rate, financial oversight, and growth, jobs, and liquidity will flourish.

I’ve been arguing against these positions for decades, backed by considerable empirical evidence showing that moderate changes to tax rates, minimum wages, union density, the safety net, regulatory oversight and so on trigger nothing like the disasters their opponents claim and can yield important benefits (which is not to say there are no “negative impacts” at all). Yet the bar to win the anti-interventionist argument is set remarkably low. You don’t need evidence; you can just cite “basic economics.”
As another Thomas—Pynchon—said: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Progressives have all kinds of ideas to shape a more equitable primary distribution. But those ideas will never get much oxygen if we remain voluntary trapped in the cramped debate of a short-sighted economics.
- And Murray Dobbin comments on how the concurrent slashing of government revenues and public services is leading to dystopian outcomes.

- Stephen Maher reports on Stephen Harper's latest abuse of appointment processes, as the Cons ignored the advice of their own selection committee in order to appoint the least experienced and most deferential possible candidate to act as the federal Privacy Commissioner. Dean Beeby notes that the Cons are still illegally collecting background information on access-to-information requesters long after promising to stop. And Scott Harris discusses how the Cons' compulsive secrecy includes refusing to clarify even points which have long been public - such as their nine-figure payoff to Newfoundland and Labrador in an effort to push CETA.

- All of which leads into Chantal Hebert's sudden insight into the Cons' wanton destruction - even if that may be something less than news to many of us.

- Finally, Rod Sweet writes about the oil industry's attitude toward the risks of new and untested operations - and why we shouldn't be surprised when BP-style disasters result:
The rapid expansion of deep water drilling worried him. “I had ongoing concerns with the risk of deep water drilling operations, concerns that started back when I was at Chevron,” he writes.

“They stemmed from just too many things going on simultaneously within the industry. The deep water rig fleet expanded by close to 300% over several years along with much turnover between drilling contractors and so I worried about the erosion of the level of competency that we were accustomed to, particularly at the driller and tool pusher levels.

“These deepwater wells are very complicated. There are downhole conditions that even very intelligent people struggle accurately to asses. The time when you had a drilling foreman who has seen everything and knows what to do in every situation is long gone.”

In his article Lacy insists that when it comes to disasters like Macondo the assumption that ‘this won’t happen’ still pervades the industry...

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Sunday Afternoon Links

This and that to end your weekend.

- Lana Payne challenges the Big Lie that right-wing politics are anything but antithetical to broad economic growth. Dennis Howlett weighs in on the Cons' choice to make the rich even richer through their tax policy. And Daniel Tencer juxtaposes the boom in Canadian corporate profits against the continued economic difficulties facing most people.

- Meanwhile, Paul Krugman notes that the most prominent attempt to challenge Thomas Piketty's work represents nothing but inequality denialism. And Auriandra compares the policy views of the 1% with those of the American public - making for a particularly important contrast given the propensity of the U.S.' political system to ignore the latter in favour of the former.

- But political capitulation to the wealthy few comes at a significant price. And Ian Welsh discusses the connection between the lack of parties offering a meaningful response to neoliberalism, and the rise of the fascist right in Europe:
Neo-liberalism is an effective ideology and set of policy prescriptions: not because it produces good outcomes for the majority of people (that’s not its purpose), but because it creates a constituency (oligarchs and their supporters/retainers) who are able to maintain it in power.

All ideologies eventually come to an end, however.  The oligarchs hate real left-wingism far more than they do fascism.  They have crushed the left.  Because no new coherent ideology can arise due to oligarchical control over the mechanisms of dissemination, all that remain are old ideologies.

Given no real and viable left-wing parties to vote for; given the failure of what they are told are left-wing policies (as with Obama being called a left-winger when his economic policy has been to give trillions to oligarchs); people will vote for the only other option: the hard right—the neo-fascists.

They are, at least, against the status quo.  The UK-IP wants to leave the EU.  They want less “free” trade.  And so on.  Given no other option for actual change, people opt for the parties actually offering it, even if those parties are noxious.
- Finally, George Monbiot highlights the cost of giving in to the doctrine of perpetual material growth:
The trajectory of compound growth shows that the scouring of the planet has only just begun. As the volume of the global economy expands, everywhere that contains something concentrated, unusual, precious, will be sought out and exploited, its resources extracted and dispersed, the world's diverse and differentiated marvels reduced to the same grey stubble.

Some people try to solve the impossible equation with the myth of dematerialisation: the claim that as processes become more efficient and gadgets are miniaturised, we use, in aggregate, fewer materials. There is no sign that this is happening. Iron ore production has risen 180% in 10 years. The trade body Forest Industries tells us that "global paper consumption is at a record high level and it will continue to grow". If, in the digital age, we won't reduce even our consumption of paper, what hope is there for other commodities?

Look at the lives of the super-rich, who set the pace for global consumption. Are their yachts getting smaller? Their houses? Their artworks? Their purchase of rare woods, rare fish, rare stone? Those with the means buy ever bigger houses to store the growing stash of stuff they will not live long enough to use. By unremarked accretions, ever more of the surface of the planet is used to extract, manufacture and store things we don't need. Perhaps it's unsurprising that fantasies about colonising space – which tell us we can export our problems instead of solving them – have resurfaced.
The inescapable failure of a society built upon growth and its destruction of the Earth's living systems are the overwhelming facts of our existence. As a result, they are mentioned almost nowhere. They are the 21st century's great taboo, the subjects guaranteed to alienate your friends and neighbours. We live as if trapped inside a Sunday supplement: obsessed with fame, fashion and the three dreary staples of middle-class conversation: recipes, renovations and resorts. Anything but the topic that demands our attention.

Statements of the bleeding obvious, the outcomes of basic arithmetic, are treated as exotic and unpardonable distractions, while the impossible proposition by which we live is regarded as so sane and normal and unremarkable that it isn't worthy of mention. That's how you measure the depth of this problem: by our inability even to discuss it.