Saturday, June 14, 2014

On sucker's deals

Shorter Brad Wall:
But what you less-sophisticated, not-so-business-savvy people don't understand is this: when you pawn the furniture, you get CASH MONEY UP FRONT. How can that be anything but a great deal?

Update: On further reflection, this calls for a photoshop:

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne discusses the need to address inequality through our political system. But that will require significant pressure from exactly the citizens who have decided they're not well served by today's political options - and Trish Hennessy's look at Canadian voter turnout reminds us of the desperate need for improvement.

- Meanwhile, Tim Harford points out just how far we've gone in focusing on dollars over all other considerations - as even Scotland's referendum on independence is being spun mostly as a matter of dueling fiscal projections rather than community, culture or other policy questions.

- Tavia Grant's report on the deadly legacy - and continued danger - of asbestos is well worth a read, particularly for this reminder that the Cons' offical policy is to promote the material which serves as Canada's largest source of workplace deaths:
In asbestos policy, Canada is at odds with other developed countries, almost all of which have both banned asbestos and launched national campaigns to educate their citizens on its dangers.

Regarding exports and imports, Canada’s long-standing position is that “safe and controlled use” of the mineral poses little risk to human health.

Health Canada’s website maintains that chrysotile (the form of asbestos mined in Quebec) is safer than other types of asbestos, and that asbestos poses risks only when its fibres become airborne and “significant quantities” are inhaled. It plays down the causal relationship between asbestos and some forms of cancer. The website does not inform Canadians that asbestos is the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths. (In contrast, the U.S. Acting Surgeon General, Boris Lushniak, reminded the American public in April that there is no known safe level of asbestos exposure.)

Between 2006 and 2011, Canada was the only developed nation to oppose bringing asbestos under the control of the Rotterdam Convention, a United Nations-sponsored treaty, signed in 1998, that requires the exporters of hazardous substances to disclose the risks.

Indeed, the Conservative government has been a stalwart friend of the industry. “Only the Conservative party will defend this industry here and everywhere in Canada,” Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in Quebec on the campaign trail in 2011. While the Tories were fighting international efforts to restrict trade in asbestos, the government was simultaneously spending millions to remove asbestos from the Parliament buildings and the prime minister’s residence.
- In a similar vein, PressProgress finds that the Cons' cheerleading for the oil sector has reached the point where they're trying to paint the extraction and burning of dirty fossil fuels as a win for the environment. Mitchell Anderson discusses Canada's massive subsidies to big oil (as well as the Cons' pathetic attempts to pretend they don't exist), while Mike de Souza finds that the National Energy Board is spending twice as much moving its offices into a sinkhole as it could muster for new pipeline monitoring, and the CP finds that Alberta's new environmental policy for fracking is "do what you want". And Bruce Johnstone writes that the Cons can't be taken seriously on climate change.

- Finally, David Dayen discusses the astroturf effort to challenge Elizabeth Warren's work in making student loan payments more affordable.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Musical interlude

Darren Porter - Terraforming

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Neera Tanden points out that a wide range of citizens rely on a strong safety net at one time or another - and suggests that it's long past time to start discussing how important social programs have been in our own lives:
I believe we have a historic opportunity to address poverty today, because the interests of low-income people and the middle class are converging. Median wages—the wages of middle-income earners—have been stagnant for twelve years. People recognize there is growing inequality in this country and that something is amiss when companies are doing well but people aren’t—when dividends, stock prices, and CEO salaries rise but wages don’t.

And while we have a clear opportunity to make the connection between the interests of people in poverty and the interests of the middle class, we have our work cut out for us. Conservatives have successfully pitted people in the middle against people struggling near the bottom. They are skilled at exploiting economic anger and anxiety, fear and distrust. For example, they have convinced many Americans that many people who turn to the safety net want to be on welfare rather than having a job. This mistaken notion is particularly troubling right now, when the hardest-hit communities face high unemployment rates of 20 to 30 percent. Conservatives say we have to break up the safety net or people won’t pursue jobs. But the truth is those jobs just don’t exist right now. So the real effect of these heartless policies will be more people hungry, more people homeless, and more children with fewer opportunities to succeed—children just like my brother and I.

For my family, as for many American families, the safety net was a bridge that carried us through hard times. That’s why it’s important that I tell my story.
When we take on the assumptions and stereotypes directly—and actually look at the lives of poor people—we see in fact that their lives are full of struggle (including the struggle to navigate a welfare system that seems designed to make it as hard as possible for people to receive benefits).
- Alex Boutilier writes that the Cons are now scrambling for accurate labour market information in an effort to figure out what to do with temporary foreign workers - after having slashed exactly that type of data collection as part of their war on evidence. But as Andrew Coyne points out, there's a fairly obvious answer if the Cons are willing to let newly-arrived workers have a future in Canada by eliminating the "temporary" part of their designation, rather than wanting to make sure they remain disposable at an employer's behest.

- Meanwhile, Paul Adams discusses how Stephen Harper has become a leading figure for climate denialists around the globe (much to Canada's embarrassment):
More than anything, Abbott admires Harper because he sees him as a world leader in the fight against doing anything meaningful to contain global warming.

Like Harper, at one time Abbott was close to being an outright climate change denier. “The argument (behind climate change) is absolute crap,” he once remarked.
Nowadays, Abbott, like Harper, could best be described as a “skeptic”. He acknowledges that climate change is occurring but doubts the role that carbon emissions play in it. He got into a scrap with a UN climate change official and Australia’s own Climate Council over the possible link between climate change and his country’s unusually severe wildfires last October.
(Abbott took a page out of Harper’s book by abolishing the state-funded Climate Council, whose mission is to provide independent scientific information...)
Like Canada, whose economic dependence on dirty tar sands oil has grown under Harper, Australia has an emissions problem. In fact, Abbott seems bent on increasing the growth of his country’s coal industry, which is closely linked to China’s economic expansion.
That’s why Abbott is joining Harper in forming a cabal of nations trying to slow efforts to contain emissions. He is trying to repeal the carbon tax imposed by Gillard. And he has been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s recent climate-change initiative.
As chairman of the G-20 meeting slated for November in Brisbane, Abbott is resolute in keeping climate change off the agenda.
- Finally, Justin Ling reports on the Canadian military's extensive monitoring of Idle No More protestors. And CBC finds the Cape Breton and Central Nova Scotia Railway to be rather less subtle in its efforts to shut down any discussion of rail safety - including by threatening elected officials with legal action if they say or do anything about crumbling rail lines.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

New column day

Here, on how the City of Regina has taken a first step - but only that so far - in making sure that new development doesn't result in the perpetual subsidization of developers by current residents.

For further reading...
- Shawn Fraser's thoughtful post on the new interim phasing and financing plan is here. And the plan was approved (PDF) (with an amendment for a single project) earlier this week.
- The Calgary study on the time it takes for a neighbourhood to start providing net benefits to a city is discussed here.
- And for those with reading time to spare, the full report from Regina's administration can be found here (PDF). Among the points referenced in the column, I'll highlight two.

First, there's the limited scope of participation in the study:
The Administration engaged the Regina & Region Home Builders’ Association (RRHBA), developers, and major landowners of the 300K growth areas. Four in-person sessions were held and two opportunities for written feedback were provided.
This was then matched by the one-sided turnout at the Executive Committee meeting which considered the report:
The following addressed and answered questions of the Committee:
-        Stu Niebergall, representing the Regina and Region Home Builders Association;
-        Bob Linner and Pat Mah, representing  North Ridge Development Corporation;
-        John Nostrand, Rev. Jerven Weekes and Daryl Brown, representing Rosewood Park Alliance Church;
-        Paul Moroz, Ned Kosteniuk and Evan Hunchak, representing Dream Development;
-        Kevin Reese, representing The Creeks;
-        Blair Forster and Chad Jedlic, representing Harvard Developments; and
-        Lorne Yagelniski, representing Kensington Greens Corporation
Second, here's the contrast between the respective views of the administration and the participating developers on the issue of municipal debt:
[The] Administration concluded that the City cannot afford to continue to pay for growth-related capital projects in accordance with the current...policy...without phasing growth. The reason for this is there would be too many projects that require SAF funding that would not generate the required revenue to pay for the projects until years after the capital expenditure had been made. This would result in the need for the City to exceed its debt limit and taxpayers to take on significant risk. Furthermore, based on the current policy, the City, and thus taxpayers, would be required to generate considerably more tax revenue to pay for its share of the plan, approximately equivalent to a one-time 7 per cent mill rate increase.
A number of Stakeholders reject debt limitations as a rationale for the need to phase development or increase SAF rates. Alternatives suggested include requesting an increase to the City’s debt limit or allocating more of the available debt to financing development.

Thursday Morning Links - #VoteOn Edition

This and that for your Thursday (and Ontario election day) reading...

- Joseph Heath makes the case against Tim Hudak's PCs in particular, and the shift from public to private goods in general:
(I)t’s fairly clear what the PCs are planning. They are proposing a general shift in Ontario away from consumption of public goods towards increased consumption of private goods. For example, they aren’t making any noises about privatizing things, shifting production out of the public sector into the private, but where the general profile of consumption would be the same. They are proposing that we actually produce and consume less of the sort of goods that are best produced by government: in particular, less primary education, less environment protection, less public transit, and no provincial pensions. This will be done in order to lower taxes, so that people will have more disposable income, to buy various private goods.

Now I guess it’s worth noting that the PCs have not even tried to make the case for this (nor has Coyne, really, although we did get into it a bit once). In other words, they haven’t said one thing about why they think that it would be good for us, as a society, to shift consumption away from public (or quasi-public, you know what I mean) toward private goods. And at first glance, I’m not sure what that case would be. I’ve spent a fair bit of time in middle-class suburban homes in Ontario, and when I look around there, I don’t usually say to myself “you know what these people really need?… more shit from Costco.”

So if you were to put it in the form of a debating club proposition: “be it resolved, that what the people of Ontario need is more private goods and fewer public goods” I would be more than happy to take the negative. In fact, when I hear people complaining about their various work-life/financial woes, I find that a large fraction of them can be traced back to a chronic undersupply of public goods.
(O)ne of the central characteristics of the public goods whose level of supply is being debated (primary education, reduced congestion, better air quality & other environmental goods) is that they are not subject to competitive consumption. As a result, increasing the supply of these goods stands poised to generate real, sustained increases in individual welfare. This is a point that has been made most persuasively by Robert Frank (in various place, including here, here and here). The pervasive tendency in our society will be to underestimate the severity of negative externalities (precisely because they are not priced) and to overestimate the value of market goods (because we ignore positional effects). This is sufficient to license a general presumption that, whatever the politically achievable level of government spending, it is probably too low, relative to the actual consumption preferences of citizens. Further reducing it will do absolutely nothing to solve the problems that people hope to solve with it, and is likely to produce nothing but unnecessary suffering.

So that is why a Conservative government would be bad for Ontario — because their basic plan, if implemented, would make life worse for pretty much everyone.
- And Linda McQuaig points out that Hudak's obviously-flawed math is far from the only problem with his party's plans to crush Ontario's wages and working conditions:
This folksy persona has tended to obscure two key things about Hudak that have become evident in the current campaign: He remains committed to anti-union legislation aimed at making Ontario more like Arkansas, and he’s capable of a breathtaking level of cynical dishonesty.

His claim that he will create one million jobs isn’t just based on faulty arithmetic — it’s based on nothing, really.

And yet, even after his numbers were exposed as grossly inflated (multiplied erroneously by eight), Hudak simply shrugged, trotted out platitudes (“economists never agree”) and refused to acknowledge the fraudulent nature of his jobs claim.

Hudak is extremely anti-union. He used to be up-front about this, openly advocating that Ontario adopt so-called ‘right to work’ legislation — laws found primarily in the U.S. south which are aimed at curbing unions.

By preventing companies and unions from signing contracts with an automatic dues check-off, such laws make it difficult for unions to survive, leaving workers with little clout to push wages much above the U.S. federal minimum of $7.25 an hour. (In Arkansas, the state allows a lower minimum wage of $6.25 an hour.)
It is this preposterous decision to multiple by eight which has captured most attention and caused Hudak to be ridiculed about his math.
But the whole package is riddled with ludicrous assumptions based on Zycher’s (and presumably Hudak’s) belief that by increasing “economic freedom” to the level of Arkansas and Mississippi, Ontario’s GDP per capita will grow — even though our GDP per capita is already higher than these economically “freer” states and Hudak has said he won’t introduce the anti-union laws that allegedly increase “economic freedom” anyway.
- David Reevely looks behind the surface of a "decline your vote" astroturf site, and predictably finds a right-winger trying to convince marginal voters they shouldn't bother with democracy. And Alison makes clear that it's the politicians least interested in serving the public - Hudak's PCs - who would benefit if citizens give up in the ridings targeted for voter demobilization.

- Which is naturally just fine with some of our corporate media overlords, as Jesse Brown offers an inside scoop on the owner-mandated orders to override the Globe and Mail's editorial board to hand Tim Hudak an endorsement - followed by a sad attempt to claim the endorsement actually reflected editorial judgment rather than orders from on high. But of course the real controversy is that a union representing media workers had the nerve to express its own opinion.

- In what's surely unrelated news, Canada's corporate class is corrupt even by its own account. 

- Finally, Johannes Wheeldon sets out the options available to Ontario's political parties after today's election - with a particular focus on the (seemingly likely) event that no party holds a majority. Bill Tieleman observes that strategic voting tends to benefit precisely the party one wants to stop. And for those looking for more reading material on the Ontario election, Ron Waller's blog is a great place to start - particularly in reminding us just which party actually offers an alternative to Hudak's corporatism.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Exploratory cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Richard Shillington studies the Cons' income-splitting scheme for the Broadbent Institute, and finds that it's even more biased toward the wealthy than previously advertised:
• The average benefit of income splitting across all households is only $185, though nine out of 10 households will receive nothing. When one factors in the $3 billion cost in lost federal revenues that will result from this tax policy, income splitting stands to impose net costs on many Canadian households.

• To gain from income splitting, a family with children under 18 must have two parents in different tax brackets to share income. Thus single parent families (20.2%) and those with partners in the same tax bracket (28.9%) are automatically excluded from benefitting. The detailed calculations accounting for available refundable and non-refundable tax credits estimate that 54.1% of families would see no benefit.
Where significant benefits do accrue, they are to higher-income families, particularly those in a traditional model. This policy, which benefits a higher proportion of families in some provinces than others, stands to increase income inequality in Canada.
Which leads in turn to Rick Smith's observation:
"If the government set out to specifically design a policy to make inequality worse, this would be it," Smith said.

"This policy is an inequality generating machine."
- But then, the Cons would hardly be alone in pursuing increased inequality as a policy goal, as Toby Sanger highlights the Hudak PCs' proposed handouts to millionaires at the expense of the general public:
The biggest beneficiaries of corporate tax cuts would be the most profitable of Ontario’s large corporations and, in particular, banks, insurance and other financial service companies. Almost 40 per cent of the tax benefit would go to Ontario’s finance, insurance, and real estate sector, which only employs one out of 13 Ontario workers. This industry would get a tax break estimated at $957 million a year, rising above $1 billion by 2019 and totaling $7.6 billion over eight years.

The other top four industry sectors that would gain the most are trade, with about $3 billion over eight years, manufacturing with an estimated $2.4 billion, and professional services with an estimated $2.2 billion. Almost 80 per cent would go to these four industry sectors: a total of over $15 billion over eight years.

Ontario and federal corporate income and capital tax cuts over the past decade have already reduced the taxes paid by these four sectors by about $7 billion annually. And how much has total employment increased in these four sectors in return for these massive corporate tax cuts over the past decade? A grand total of minus 8,000 jobs – and that’s during a decade when total employment of other sectors in Ontario increased by over 650,000.

If $7 billion in annual tax cuts provided by the McGuinty, Harper and Martin governments didn’t lead to any job growth, it’s hard to believe that Hudak’s additional corporate tax cuts of almost $2 billion a year will do any better.
- And Hudak is being particularly obvious about his distaste for those worse off by refusing to even discuss the idea of reducing poverty - even after his party was shamed into supporting anti-poverty legislation not long ago.

- Meanwhile, Andrew Coyne looks at the prospect of another false majority in Ontario's election, and questions why Canadians still put up with first-past-the-post politics which can cause wild swings in governance based on small numbers of voters.

- Finally, Adam Riggio discusses the effect of creeping privatization and corporate funding on Canadian universities.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Buttonwood weighs in on the disproportionate influence of the ultra-rich when it comes to making policy choices which affect all of us:
But the analysis backs up earlier work by Larry Bartels of Princeton, author of a book called “Unequal Democracy”, and the general thesis of the late political scientist, Mancur Olson, that government can be in hock to special interests. This may be truer in America than elsewhere since its campaign-finance laws are so liberal: $6 billion was spent on the 2012 elections. This system forces candidates to spend much of their time raising money from the wealthy and from business. Even if no direct quid pro quos are involved, candidates may simply absorb the views of the better-off by osmosis.

The danger is of a vicious cycle in which politicians adopt policies that favour the better-off; this gives the wealthy more money with which to lobby politicians, which leads to more favourable legislation and so on. The surge in inequality over the last 30 years could perhaps be attributed, in part, to this process.
(Though of course I'd dissent from the column's conclusion that the most important problem with a concentration of wealth and power at the top is that it might cause people to start questioning their betters.)

- Joe Fantauzzi discusses how austerity has been used to attack social connections in Ontario and elsewhere. Kev reminds us of the disconnect between continued (though not enhanced) productivity gains and stagnating wages since the neoliberal revolution took hold. And Russell Jacoby contrasts Thomas Piketty's call for somewhat improved equality against Karl Marx's focus on a struggle over ownership:
(E)galitarianism as an idea and demand also contains an element of resignation; it accepts society, but wants to balance out the goods or privileges. Gays want equality, the right like everyone else to marry. Fine, but marriage is still marriage, the imperfect institution that society cannot give up or improve upon. R.H. Tawney, the British leftist historian, noted the limits of equality in his 1931 book Equality, a broad defense of egalitarianism. The working class movement, he writes, puts its faith in “the possibility of a society,” where a higher value is placed on people and a lower value on money. But that movement is liable to fall short. “When it does so, what it is apt to desire is not a social order of a different kind, in which money and economic power will no longer be the criterion of achievement, but a social order of the same kind, in which money and economic power will be somewhat differently distributed.” This straightforward sentence cuts to the heart of the matter. Equalizing pollution pollutes equally, but does not end pollution.
Piketty anchors inequality in what he calls “the central contradiction of capitalism,” the disjuncture between the rate of return on capital and the rate of economic growth. Inasmuch as the former inevitably eclipses the latter, favoring existing wealth over existing labor, it leads to a “terrifying” unequal wealth distribution. Marx might not disagree, but again his focus is on work, which is where inequality originates and plays out. Marx argues that the accumulation of capital leads to partial, casual and permanent unemployment. It would be difficult to declare that these are not pressing realities in the world today, but they do not surface in Piketty.

Of course, Marx begins with a different proposition: labor as the source of wealth. Again, today this might seem quaint, but also signals something about capitalism that hardly is resolved. Capitalism both requires and dispenses with labor. In other words, capitalism both hires and, increasingly, unhires. It needs workers as it expands, but sheds workers as it cuts costs and automates, reducing its work force. Marx discusses at length how an advancing capitalism produces “a relatively redundant working population.” This takes two basic forms, releasing workers already hired and ceasing to add new workers. As a consequence capitalism produces “disposable” people or a reserve army of unemployed. As wealth and capital advance, so do the underemployed and unemployed, the truly unequal.
- Meanwhile, Brad Hornick examines the link between the resource economy and class politics in British Columbia:
It is not "the people" that are at the forefront of championing this fossil fuel economy against any alternatives. It is the corporate CEOs, the shareholders, the investment bankers, the marketing companies, the corporate lawyers, the conservative pundits that lock us in to this particular future against any substantive alternative.

That is why we can say that we are not in this together, that this great problem we are now facing is not "anthropogenic" climate change. All humans do not all equally contribute to the problem of climate change. Nor do we all equally invest in the system that leads to climate crisis. The crisis we presently face is "capitalist" climate change, driven by those who champion a certain kind of economy that serves the interests of a certain group of people.
Fossil fuel capitalism operates within neo-liberal economics and politics where even the pretense of social solidarity and justice has been increasingly abandoned. But the climate crisis is opening up political and ideological space to discuss the entire system we live in (that is, the centrality of capitalism). There are signs that both economic crisis and ecological destruction are de-legitimizing political systems and helping people to question capitalist ideologies that ignore the social and ecological costs of fossil fuels.

It is because this system excludes populations from both economic activity and political participation that new antagonisms and struggles are developing. One only needs to observe among many other examples the plebiscite in Kitimat, the growing challenges to Kinder Morgan in Burnaby, or the intervention by the UN special rapporteur, James Anaya, over the concerns of proposed projects in First Nation territories.

There are political and activist forces coalescing today within British Columbia to challenge not just fossil fuel interests, but also the systemic forces that drive large capital. They are challenging fossil fuel capitalism at the point of production and extraction, and attempting to network allies amongst the traditional environmental forces.
- Ron Waller takes a look at the unrepresentative nature of first-past-the-post politics - but also rightly cautions Ontario voters against falling for "strategic voting" scams.

- Finally, Sean Holman offers a reminder that Daniel Therrien isn't the first federal Privacy Commissioner to represent a controversial appointment - though the Cons, like the Libs before them, have chosen not to make the selection process more palatable. And Robyn Benson argues that we have no reason at all to trust the Cons when it comes to our privacy.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Robert Reich proposes that the best way to address corporate criminality is to make sure that those responsible go to jail - rather than simply being able to pay a fine out of corporate coffers and pretend nothing ever happened.

- And Shawn Fraser suggests that Regina developers should pick up the tab for the costs they impose on the city - even as the city itself has opportunities to both better shape residential growth, and turn a profit through its own own development corporation.

- Meanwhile, the CP reports on the clash between biased markets and free speech - as Greenpeace was rejected in its effort to purchase billboard space from the same business which didn't hesitate a second to provide a platform for climate change denialists.

- Andrew Coyne writes that Stephen Harper is racking up scandals and abuses of power at an unprecedented pace. But Chantal Hebert notes that none of the Cons' manipulations can help them avoid responsibility for governing - including by deciding between serving their oil-industry masters and listening to the public about the Northern Gateway pipeline.

- Susan Delacourt takes note that political parties are increasingly looking to brand themselves through means that have nothing to do with politics - while identifying what that says about their seeming mandate to discuss policy choices:
When a political ad arrives through the mail, does the average citizen pore over its contents to determine who paid for it? Again, probably not. A marketing-research fact sheet distributed by Canada Post a few years ago said that the response rate for all direct-mail advertising — not just political ads — was a scant 2.18 per cent. Political parties, in short, might be better off mailing those pamphlets directly to the local recycling stations.

The trick these days, it seems, is to make political advertising look like something slightly more useful: a World Cup schedule, for instance, or the front page of a newspaper.
Advertisers, private or political, are always going to try to slip their sales messages into products that are useful to consumers or citizens: pens, T-shirts, newspapers, World Cup schedules. 
A harder question, though, is why political advertising is held in such low esteem that it now has to masquerade as something more relevant to Canadians. Educating the public doesn’t have to be a mission that’s gone entirely out of fashion.
- Finally, Vaughn Palmer reviews the B.C. Libs' consistent pattern of bad faith in dealing with teachers.