Saturday, October 11, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- The Star criticizes the Harper Cons' selective interest in international cooperation - with war and oil interests apparently ranking as the only areas where the Cons can be bothered to work with other countries. And Catherine Porter reports that the Cons have demonstrated their actual attitude toward global cooperation and development by making huge cuts to foreign aid.

- Geoff Dembicki interviews Corinne Lepage about France's rightful resistance to oil lobbyists. But while it's well and good for individual countries to register their willingness to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, that doesn't much help when multilateral agreements limit a country's authority to act on its values. And on that front, Brent Patterson laments the impact of CETA on oil and gas regulation, while Murray Dobbin writes that the CETA looks like a prime example of a step taken solely for the benefit of the oil industry and other corporate interests:
While there has been attention paid to some key provisions of CETA -- such as its investor state rules, its impact on Canadian drug pricing and its curbs on governments' ability to buy local -- there has been almost nothing in the media about CETA's chapter on domestic regulation. But a new Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report on CETA suggests there should be, because the articles of that chapter seem designed to kill efforts to regulate the resource industry. In other words just as governments need to get deadly serious about reducing our dependence on fossil fuels they are tying their own hands through new restrictions on their right to regulate.

CETA's domestic regulation chapter would be more aptly called "Gifts for the Oil and Gas Industry." These CETA provisions are so biased in favour of corporations it is easy to picture industry execs sitting at the elbows of CETA's negotiators, guiding their pens as they draft the agreement. Short of an international treaty banning all government regulations outright, CETA gives the oil and gas industry virtually everything it has been asking for, for decades. Of course these anti-regulation gifts are also available to other sectors, including the mining industry, but given the special place in Harper's universe reserved for Alberta's oil patch it's not hard to see where the impetus came from.
CETA places an absolute value on the ease with which corporations can get approval of their projects. It demands that parties ensure "that licensing and qualification procedures are as simple as possible and do not unduly complicate or delay the supply of a service or the pursuit of any other economic activity." (Art. 2, Sec. 7) Requiring that oil and gas companies do environmental assessments, archaeological studies or get approvals from different levels of government is clearly a process that could be made simpler by doing away with these requirements altogether. Obligations to consult with the public and First Nations certainly complicate the regulatory process and cause delays.

Whether or not governments have simplified their licensing processes to the absolute maximum extent possible and are not causing "undue" delays or complications would be up to a panel of trade lawyers to decide in the event of a dispute. They could look at examples from the most deregulated jurisdictions to determine what is "as simple as possible." China, for example, allows corporations to ignore requirements for environmental impact assessments (EIA) and just pay a small fine after the fact.
- Katherine Scott writes about the challenge of identifying and measuring poverty, but rightly concludes that we should be seeking to eradicate it in any form. And Carol Goar discusses how the Cons' war on science has resulted in the destruction of extremely important work on the spread of poverty in Canada.

- Meanwhile, Mike De Souza highlights the Environment Commissioner's findings about the Cons' gutting of federal environmental review processes. 

- Finally, Gerald Caplan observes that the Cons' hype of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights is in stark contrast to their contempt for the real thing.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Musical interlude

Moloko - The Time Is Now

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Linda McQuaig discusses the radical difference between how Canadians want to see public resources used (based on the example set by governments elsewhere), and the determination of the Cons and their corporate allies to instead fritter away every dime of fiscal capacity the federal government manages to find:
Last week, Germany completed its plan to provide free university tuition to all its students. It’s an idea that no doubt would excite the hopes and dreams of young people in Canada — which explains the need to snuff it out before it catches on.

Certainly, it’s the kind of big idea that powerful interests here are keen to keep off the radar as Ottawa finds itself flush with surplus cash — $6 billion next year, with bigger surpluses expected in future years.

Accordingly, a phalanx of right-wing think tanks is gearing up to ensure that, after years of cutbacks and austerity, ordinary Canadians don’t get any wild ideas about spending that surplus money on national programs that would greatly improve their lives — programs that could, for instance, provide them with affordable access to universities, child care, home care, public transit, adequate pension benefits, a pharmacare plan, unemployment insurance benefits that are actually available to people who are unemployed, etc...

Suppressing such aspirations in Canadians has long been the stock-in-trade of right-wing think tanks and the corporate interests that fund them. And they’ve been hugely successful in keeping these sorts of generous public services and benefits — which are the norm in most northern European countries — well off the agenda here.
(W)hen Ottawa started generating big surpluses in the late 1990s, it quickly began slashing taxes — particularly on corporations and high-income earners. As a result, Ottawa now collects about $50 billion less in taxes per year than it would have if it hadn’t done all that tax-cutting, according to labour economist Toby Sanger. That has deprived governments of the revenue they’d need to provide the kind of enhanced public programs many Canadians probably would like.

Tax-slashing has been the pattern in Canada for decades. It has left Ottawa, in recent years, collecting less in tax revenue as a percentage of GDP than it has at any point since 1940. No wonder we can’t afford European-style social programs. Public revenue has been vanishing into the pockets of corporations and the very rich.
- Meanwhile, Robert Kuttner traces the factors which led to a more equal distribution of wealth after World War II - and which unfortunately have had far less impact on more recent economic developments.

- Ian Welsh notes that global inequality and needless austerity are making ebola into far more of a threat than it should be. And Richard Murphy charts how the UK's move toward needless government-slashing resulted in the reversal of what looked to be an economic recovery.

- Andrew Gage and Michael Byers examine how climate change may create enormous risks for the oil industry (and governments who rely unduly on it as an economic engine). And Aaron Wherry muses about how much more we'd be doing about climate change if only it could be solved through combat.

- Finally, Ludvic Moquin-Beaudry discusses how the NDP's continued strength in Quebec flows from the desire of voters to play a significant role - and have a strong voice - on the federal political scene. And Graeme Truelove highlights the NDP's use of smart parliamentary tactics to raise the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women even as the Cons seek to stifle any debate.

On universal freedoms

I won't wade too far into the sudden discussion of political advertising raised by the Cons' plans to change copyright law to favour political advertising, as Michael Geist has largely captured the most important points. But I will raise one quibble with Geist which hints at a more reasonable legal reform.
My criticism of the government here is not in seeking to protect political speech by ensuring that the law features sufficient flexibility to allow for appropriate uses without permission. Rather, it stems from the view that there are far better policy approaches available than an awkward self-interested exception.

As a starting point, I think the government should simply rely on existing law. With a robust fair dealing provision and a cap on liability for non-commercial infringement, the risk of an infringement claim is low.  This proposal may be a solution in search of a problem and we would do better to test the boundaries of the current law rather than bury an exception in a budget bill.

Alternatively, if the government is convinced that fair dealing does not fully cover political speech, the far better approach would be to establish a full fair use provision in Canada. A fair use provision offers the benefits of applying in all circumstances (not just political advertising) and would be available to all users (not just political parties and candidates). Moreover, it would ensure that usage would be subject to a fairness analysis, which this exception does not appear to do.
Now, I can appreciate the argument for a broad fair dealing exception to copyright law. But some of the distinctions highlighted by Geist might well be justified in the case of a type of speech which as long been acknowledged as lying at the core of our fundamental freedoms: if political speech is indeed of central importance even as compared to other forms of speech, then it's not clear that the fairness analysis applied in other contexts should limit the use of information for political purposes.

As a result, I'd see the crucial points of attack against the Cons' plan arising out of two areas: the fact that it applies only to political advertising rather than any type of public discussion, and the difference between "all users" and "just political parties and candidates".

In their proposal, the Cons have effectively confirmed that they see political discussion as being conducted solely by paid partisan actors, for the benefit of paid partisan actors. And by implication, members of the public are limited to being passive viewers of the ads generated by the parties.

But there's no reason why we should accept that distinction. Instead, any recognition of the importance of political speech should lead us to want all citizens to have the ability to make use of publicly-available information to share their views - whether or not they're operating under a a party banner, and whether or not they can afford to fund an advertising campaign.

In other words, if we want to ensure that broadcast materials are properly available to inform a full public debate, then there's no reasonable basis for carving out special privileges for partisan advertising. Instead, material should be equally available to parties, individuals and other political actors alike for use in whatever medium they see fit. And if the Cons intend to use copyright law to amplify their own preferred message distribution channels while comparatively silencing others, that - not any concern about the editorial decisions of the media - should be the more important objection to their attitude toward democracy.

[Update: In a followup post, Geist makes much the same point.]

Thursday, October 09, 2014

New column day

Here, on the Cons' presumption that any individual who breaches the social contract must be punished with a total lack of freedom - and their curious lack of any similar principle when it comes to corporate wrongdoing.

For further reading...
- I've dealt with issues relating to mandatory minimum sentences plenty of times before, while the likes of Dan Gardner and John Moore have taken them on directly. But see examples of the Cons' unduly strict individual sentencing being struck down here and here
- Richard Blackwell reported on the SNC-Lavalin's demand to be held above the law here. And Armina Ligaya discussed its place on the World Bank's corruption blacklist here.
- Again, David Dayen discussed the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's rare step in preventing an abusive business from increasing its operations.
- But in case anybody's under the illusion that Canadian governments are doing anything of the sort, Justine Hunter reported here on the B.C. Libs' flouting of access-to-information legislation in dealing with reports about the Mount Polley dam collapse and spill, while the Star discussed the Ontario Libs' willingness to suppress investigation and inspection reports about private medical clinics.
- And finally, John Nicol and Dave Seglins report on the attempt of rail operators to return to the single-person crews that contributed to the Lac-Megantic explosion, while the new derailment, spill and fire near Wadena offers yet more reason to question whether we should trust the private sector to tell us what's necessary to keep rail transport safe.

On abuses of power

Shorter Ontario Libs:
It turns out that the public sees privatizing power as only slightly more desirable than the plague. But to ensure a swift transition of profits toward the private sector, we're fully prepared to falsely claim those are our only two options.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Eugene Lang discusses the importance of fiscal choice in the lead up to the 2015 federal election. And Don Cayo reminds us that the Cons' determination to hand free money to the wealthy - most recently through income-splitting and increased TFSA limits - means that everybody else has to pay more for a lesser level of public service.

- Jordan Press reports on the latest conclusions from Canada's Environment Commissioner, who finds the Harper Cons predictably doing nothing whatsoever to meet greenhouse gas emission targets. And Karl Nerenberg looks at the Environment Commissioner's findings in more detail:
Commenting on the fact that the government's sector-by-sector regulatory approach will not achieve the greenhouse gas emission reductions it promised at Copenhagen in 2009 (which were weaker than Kyoto), Gelfand looked straight at the cameras and said:

"When you make a commitment you need to keep it. It is very difficult for Canada to expect other countries to meet their commitments when Canada can't meet its own."

The new Environment Commissioner added that the Conservatives' sector-by-sector regulatory approach is not working, especially since regulations for the oil and gas sector, promised in 2006, are still not forthcoming.

She did reveal, interestingly, that the Harper government has had draft oil and gas regulations sitting on a shelf for about a year; but that it has only consulted very narrowly and privately on those -- and only with one province.

When asked if that province was Alberta, Gelfand pointedly did not say no.

The new Commissioner was withering in her critique of that closed-door approach to policy-making. She said that in dealing with a matter as grave as climate change the government must be open and transparent with the public and with Parliament, and must consult widely.
- Meanwhile, Lauren Krugel highlights the findings of Alberta's Auditor General to the effect that the province is similarly failing to even monitor the environmental effects of tar sands development.

- Jason Demers studies Saskatchewan's desperately overcrowded jails. And the Star-Phoenix makes the case for a stronger focus on rehabilitation, rather than simply warehousing prisoners.

- Finally, Paul Adams criticizes the Cons' insistence on forcing Canada into the latest Iraq war without a plan. And Tim Harper writes that the Harper sales pitch for war was based purely on patriotism and fear rather than any reasonable analysis of options.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Lookout cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Ezra Klein discusses how a corporate focus on buybacks and dividends rather than actually investing capital leads to less opportunities for workers. Nora Loreto offers her take on precarious work in Canada. And Lynne Fernandez and Kirsten Bernas make the case for a living wage in Manitoba and elsewhere.

- Paul Krugman writes that if the Republicans manage to take both houses of Congress, we can expect them to turn voodoo economics into the default means of evaluating policy choices.

- Murray Mandryk crunches some numbers and finds that the main effect of the much-ballyhooed SaskPower carbon capture and sequestration project is to transfer a massive amount of money from the public to the oil sector. And SaskWind follows up by pointing out that it's already possible to secure better value for money investing in wind power.

- Andrew MacLeod exposes how the B.C. Libs want to take another step in silencing non-profits - this time by giving outsiders (and particularly those with enough money to fund constant court proceedings) the ability to force any non-profit to comply with their view of the public interest. And Vaughn Palmer notes that it's nothing new for the Clark Libs to bully people using the power of the state and the public purse.

- Finally, Karl Nerenberg writes that the purpose of the latest Iraq war is simply to defend the legacy of failure arising out of previous ones. And the Star-Phoenix' editorial board argues that it's time to stop the march to war before it's too late.

Monday, October 06, 2014

On political calculations

I haven't seen anybody else question the most self-congratulatory aspect of Stephen Harper's position on a new Iraq war, and at least a few commentators seem to have been willing to swallow it whole. So let's address the question of which leader has the most obvious political reason to position himself the way he has:
I urge all Members to consider and support the motion we have presented. I do this, Mr. Speaker, in recognizing that, in a democracy, especially one approaching an election…there is rarely political upside in supporting any kind of military action, and little political risk in opposing it.
Of course, for an opposition leader, Harper is right to recognize that there's little upside in falling in line behind a government call to arms. But for the government, the calculations are rather different: instead, one might make the argument that based on past performance, any PM seeking re-election should be giddy about the prospect of both a bump in personal support, and the ability to label opposition parties as unpatriotic for disagreeing on any issue.

Which means that some war - any war - can easily be seen as Stephen Harper's best chance of shaking up a political scene which had turned against him in order to create some hope of appealing to somebody beyond his rapidly-shrinking base.

But what about the long-term political dangers of owning the war for himself? Well, those would never really materialize to the extent Harper could strong-arm other parties into co-owning the war. And even then, the choice to limit Canadian involvement to air strikes makes any bloodshed unlikely in the time leading up to the next federal election.

So the Cons' chosen level and type of involvement in the new Iraq war makes a world of political sense, allowing Harper to start up the jingoism with minimal risk of losses. But by the same token, it looks rather less logical to the extent anybody actually feared that ISIS was the existential threat Harper claims it to be. 

Now, one can fairly make the point that the other parties' choices are also consistent with rational political positioning. But a leader as hyperpartisan as Harper - whose party has the most to gain from pushing military action of any kind, and the most to lose from not forcing the issue - should hardly be taken seriously when he claims that political upside isn't at the centre of his own choices.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Sean McElwee is the latest to highlight how only a privileged few benefit in either the short term or the long term from unequal economic growth:
Milanovic and van der Weide decided to investigate how inequality affects growth across the income spectrum. They used a state-level survey conducted once every decade to estimate annualized income growth at different income percentiles. What the researchers find is that the old story of “trickle down” economics have no support in the data — instead, inequality boosts growth only for the rich.
When the authors dug deeper and looked at individual states, they found that, “inequality is negatively associated… with subsequent real growth for the population located below the 25th percentile, and positively with growth for the population belonging to the top decile.” In simple language: Inequality benefits the rich and harms the poor. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats — just the luxury yachts.

Using the data the authors have developed, we can discover what growth would look like in a more equitable society. The chart below shows annual income growth between 1960 and 2010 by percentile in yellow. The chart is sloped upward, meaning that the income of the richest grew by 1.8 percent each year, while the growth of the poorest grew by .7 percent each year. However, if inequality was reduced by one standard deviation (the difference between Connecticut and South Carolina) across the country, income growth for the poor would more than double, to 1.6 percent each year.

This has important political implications. First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. Inequality benefits the rich immensely. Second, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats has been so utterly disproved it should be embarrassing to state in public. 
- Meanwhile, Jim Stanford argues that the Cons' continued insistence on demonizing organized labour is backfiring as the public realizes the importance of voices standing up for workers:
Where unions were once portrayed as greedy and unruly, they now survive (and even win) by successfully positioning themselves as defenders of public interest and universal rights. This reframing of the union message has been essential in their recuperated influence. Unions cannot be seen as “special interest” groups, enriching their own members at the expense of consumers or taxpayers. They must be seen as an institutional bulwark on the side of all those who work for a living, defending vulnerable people within a social order that is increasingly lopsided. As unions succeed in that effort, the political value of union-bashing will continue to erode.

But this lesson will likely be lost on the federal Conservatives. They are desperate to change the political channel, and eager to throw one more bone to their strident base. In that case, it is safe to expect more anti-union rhetoric in the year ahead.
- Kaylie Tiessen points out that the Ontario Libs are right back to ill-advised austerity economics - only this time with less fanfare about their real cuts to public services.

- Carol Goar discusses Scientists for a Right to Know as one of the crucial actors in restoring the principle the scientific research should be both carried out in the public interest, and treated as public knowledge. But Mike De Souza reports on why the Cons don't want the facts getting out - as they tend to involve political staffers insisting that civil servants falsify advice any time the truth proves inconvenient to their political message.

- Finally, Lorna Dueck asks whether we're still the Canada which once went out of its way to offer a home for refugees, while Erna Paris notes that there's also far too much mean-mindedness in Canada's past which is being echoed by today's government. And the Star is similarly appalled that the Cons are refusing to restore health care for refugees in Canada in the face of a court order requiring them to do so.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Andrew Jackson takes a look at some dire predictions about the continued spread of inequality, and notes that we need to act now in order to reverse the trend. And UN Special Rapporteur Magdalena SepĂșlveda Carmona discusses how more progressive tax policies - including a focus on maximizing revenue - are needed to support both greater equality and the effective exercise of human rights:
States must realize the full potential of tax collection as a tool to generate revenue for the fulfilment of human rights obligations and to redress discrimination and inequality. Human rights principles regarding participation, transparency, accountability and non-discrimination should be followed throughout the whole revenue-raising cycle. For this purpose, States should:

(a) Seek to increase tax revenue in a manner compatible with their human rights obligations of non-discrimination and equality, and increase the allocation of revenues collected to budget areas that contribute to the enjoyment of human rights;
(i) Take strict measures to tackle tax abuse, in particular by corporations and high net-worth individuals;
(l) Ensure that extractive industries are subject to appropriate tax rates and export duties, and that the human rights of affected communities and future generations are protected in the exploitation of natural resources;
(n) Ensure the public revenue raised from the financial sector is commensurate to the sector’s profitability and the risks it generates; implement a financial transaction tax, and consider allocating the revenues specifically to expenditure that can contribute to the realization of human rights;

(o) Implement regulations that prevent the role played by the financial sector in aiding tax evasion and profit-shifting.
- Meanwhile, Tom Sandborn highlights the role of unions in pushing us toward greater equality and social health. Sherri Torjman and Ken Battle criticize the Cons' determination to go in exactly the wrong direction by dumping piles of free money on wealthy, one-income households while ignoring social needs.

- Nicholas Keung exposes the policy of "medical repatriation" under which employers exploit migrant workers in Canada until they become ill or injured, then fire them and send them home to be somebody else's problem. In related news, Lord Everyman Conrad Black is convinced that every worker is protected to the point where there's no need for organized labour.

- Mariana Mazzucato discusses how public investment is needed to support economic progress based on research and development rather than exploitation and rent-seeking:
Silicon Valley is a result of massive direct public investments (not subsidies) along the entire innovation chain—from basic and applied research to late stage commercialization. While venture capitalists, mythologized by Renzi, pursue short-run profits, focusing on an early ‘exit’ through either an IPO or a buyout, the US government has proved to be the patient public financier, providing (through a decentralized network of state agencies) patient high risk finance to companies like Compaq, Intel and Apple. And today is supplying the same kind of finance to green companies like successful Tesla, which recently received a $465 million guaranteed loan, and less successful Solyndra which received a $500 million loan: in the innovation game you win some lose some.
Pretending instead that innovation will come to Italy by simply lowering tax, and reducing regulations—especially around the labor market of course (the usual easy target)— ignores this history. Ironically Renzi is selectively copying only one thing from the US: the much criticized 2012 Jumpstart Our Businesses Act (JOBS Act). And it is no surprise he got such a welcome in the City this week given that it is precisely these kind of policies that create one of the most dysfunctional aspects of modern day capitalism: socialization of risks, privatization of rewards. The US JOBS Act attempted to provide risk averse venture capitalists with even less investment risk, by relaxing financial disclosure requirements for smaller firms (those with less than $1 billion in annual revenue). It also legalized ‘crowd funding’, meaning that VCs can recruit a wider range of investors (and individuals) when taking firms public. How this can generate actual job growth – when it seems tailored to ensure that VC investors can reap massive returns on small firms touting government technologies – is difficult to know.   Indeed there is an increasing army of small firms that complain about how they lose out from VC’s speculation and short-termism.

If Renzi wants to bring innovation and dynamism to Italy he must yes make Italy more efficient, but also move beyond the sole focus on ‘rigidities’. The discussion should move towards a debate on the types of long-term investments that are needed, by the public and private sector alike, and to crucially ask Italian business and finance to step up to the game. Don’t suck up to the City (and Italian finance) but ask the financial sector to stop lobbying for lower capital gains, which is only making them more short-term, and to actually co-invest with you in the long-term areas that smart innovation led growth requires. Ask Italian business to stop asking for subsidies and handouts, stop complaining about red tape and decide to co-invest alongside government in the opportunities which will shape Italy’s innovative future. And when told by conservative economists that all he needs to do is to cut tax, he should be picky and focus on reducing taxes on hiring labor—not on capital gains—and then remind them that the tax rate paid by the top earners was close to 90% under President Eisenhower, a US Republican and ex military general—hardly a communist—who reigned in the USA in an era in which some of the most important investments in innovation were made
- Finally, Haroon Siddiqui recognizes that Stephen Harper is always up for whatever war is on offer, making it impossible to believe his claim that every single time the push for military action is based on a unique or genuine threate. Boris points out that the best-case scenario in getting involved in Iraq now is to be stuck in an indefinite containment and suppression mission. And Peggy Mason argues that the consistent choice to pursue war over engagement in the Middle East only figures to make matters worse.