Saturday, December 13, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- George Monbiot opines that curbing corporate power is the most fundamental political issue we need to address in order to make progress possible on any other front:
Does this sometimes feel like a country under enemy occupation? Do you wonder why the demands of so much of the electorate seldom translate into policy? Why parties of the left seem incapable of offering effective opposition to market fundamentalism, let alone proposing coherent alternatives? Do you wonder why those who want a kind and decent and just world, in which both human beings and other living creatures are protected, so often appear to be opposed by the entire political establishment?

If so, you have encountered corporate power – the corrupting influence that prevents parties from connecting with the public, distorts spending and tax decisions, and limits the scope of democracy. It helps explain the otherwise inexplicable: the creeping privatisation of health and education, hated by the vast majority of voters; the private finance initiative, which has left public services with unpayable debts; the replacement of the civil service with companies distinguished only by incompetence; the failure to re-regulate the banks and collect tax; the war on the natural world; the scrapping of the safeguards that protect us from exploitation; above all, the severe limitation of political choice in a nation crying out for alternatives.
This is not only about politicians, it is also about us. Corporate power has shut down our imagination, persuading us that there is no alternative to market fundamentalism, and that “market” is a reasonable description of a state-endorsed corporate oligarchy.

We have been persuaded that we have power only as consumers, that citizenship is an anachronism, that changing the world is either impossible or best effected by buying a different brand of biscuits. Corporate power now lives within us. Confronting it means shaking off the manacles it has imposed on our minds.
- Toby Sanger takes a closer look at the disastrous results of Ontario's attempt to use P3 schemes to direct public money into private hands. And Cheryl Stadnichuk discusses how the Wall government's "savings" on public-sector staffing are based on diverting tens of millions of dollars to consultants without any explanation.

- Meanwhile, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms examine the difference between "old power" based on hoarding exclusive forms of authority, and "new power" based on the coordinated application of broadly-held values. But it's worth acknowledging how far there is to go in sustaining the latter.

- Chris Hall reports that after turning the federal government's operations into little more than a cheerleading team for the tar sands, the Cons are accepting zero responsibility for the utter failure of that plan. Which would be laughable enough on its own - but looks doubly so in light of Mike De Souza's revelation that Stephen Harper's Privy Council Office had its fingerprints all over the ad campaigns which have failed miserably in their attempt to greenwash the tar sands.

- Finally, Lana Payne highlights the Cons' need for a bogeyman to deflect attention from their destructive government.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Musical interlude

Hooverphonic - Expedition Impossible

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Aditya Chakrabortty contrasts the myth of the free market against the reality that massive amounts of public money and other privileges are shoveled toward the corporate sector:
Few conceits are more cherished by our political classes than the notion that this is a free-market economy. To the right it is what makes Britain great. For the left it is what they are up against. And for the rich it is what justifies their huge pay packets: after all, they have earned it.

When asked for his view of western civilisation, Gandhi said he thought it would be a very good idea. I feel much the same way about the free market: I’m genuinely curious to see what such a mythical beast looks like. But that term, however widely accepted and advertised, has little to do with today’s Britain. The economy most of us experience – everything from who collects our bins, to how we commute to work, to that new school attended by the kids – is often not a free market at all. Instead, it’s a bog of privately run monopolies; of public projects and services outsourced to businesses for years, even decades, at a time; and massive taxpayer subsidies handed to the corporate sector with fewer questions asked than of disabled people wondering where their living allowance has gone.

Grasp that, and the question of how to tame corporate power becomes easier to answer. If corporations rely on the public for a sizeable chunk of their revenues and power, then we should start asking what they are doing for us in return. Do businesses deserve the privileges given them by society?
In Britain businesses take £85bn a year from the public in grants, subsidies, insurance schemes, preferential credit and government services. That’s the corporate welfare bill as totted up by Kevin Farnsworth, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of York, and he admits it’s on the conservative side. Add on the various subsidies for too-big-to-fail banks and you’re well in excess of a hundred billion. Nor does he include the most fundamental privilege society affords the investors in a business such as Tesco: that of limited liability, which means they only stand to lose the value of their shares, and no more. We could argue for limited liability, but let’s not pretend it’s anything less than a substantial underwriting of shareholder enterprises.
The fashionable thing to say is that in a globalised economy states can’t keep up with businesses. That is to get the relationship the wrong way round. The reality is that states often give businesses their revenues and so their power. More than that: markets are created by states, who provide the infrastructure, the transports and the rule of law.

So let’s start asking businesses what they’ve done for us recently.
- And Andre Picard discusses why our support for science shouldn't be limited to research with immediate commercial applications:
Government’s role should be to invest tax dollars for the collective good. In science, that means investing where businesses won’t, namely in basic research. A secondary purpose is to direct tax dollars where there are shortcomings and great public need, such as aboriginal health, mental health and repairing environmental damage (as opposed to just extracting more oil out of the ground). The strategy starves already neglected areas.

Whether it ultimately creates jobs or not, innovation is a complex process. It emerges in an environment where there is healthy pursuit of knowledge, an exchange of ideas and no small measure of serendipity.

The scientific environment the federal government has created is precisely the opposite: Scientists are muzzled, more time is spent on bureaucracy required to get funding than on research itself, and the only measure of success is return on investment.
The problem with this approach is that it won’t result in better science or more innovation. On the contrary, it will make scientists shy away from taking risks or from pursuing “paradigm-shifting” ideas (speaking of buzzwords). Instead, they will opt for projects with sure-fire return on investment in the short term, and good political optics that ensure continued funding.

In short, the new science and technology strategy will result in the rich getting richer, and all of us being the poorer for it.
- But the pattern of freebies for the corporate sector is still playing out, as Erika Eichelberger notes in reporting on a giveaway to the financial sector snuck into the U.S.' budget legislation at the behest of Citigroup.

- Carrie Tait and Jeff Lewis report on Alberta's plans to allow tar sands operators to put off cleaning up the environmental devastation they've wrought, while Justin Ling catches the Cons pairing their tendency to criminalize dissent with new and draconian sentencing. And Seth Klein observes that contrary to the Cons' spin, a time of dropping prices is exactly the best time to reevaluate our reliance on resource extraction.

- Finally, Michael Harris reminds us of the Cons' focus on marketing rather than reality. And Mia Rabson offers an update on their continued efforts to keep accurate information from reaching the public.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

New column day

Here, on how the Cons' secretive giveaway of what's left of the Canadian Wheat Board can only be explained by their desire to eliminate collective marketing in favour of total corporate control.

For further reading...
- Janyce McGregor reported on the Cons' refusal to consider allowing the Farmers of North America to bid on the Wheat Board's remaining assets. And Karl Nerenberg followed up on the Cons' excuses in Parliament.
- Dougald Lamont rightly sees the Cons as forcing producers toward the "bozo zone" of racing to the bottom in quality and price.
- And even the Globe and Mail recognizes the dangers of giving away public assets through a secretive process when there are bidders willing to ensure both some return in the short term, and a viable business structure in the long term.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Wray Herbert examines Lukasz Walasek and Gordon Brown's work on the psychological links between inequality, status-seeking and reduced well-being. And Linda McQuaig writes about the harm increasing inequality has done to Canada both economically and socially:
(The OECD's recent) report puts actual numbers on how much growth has been reduced as a result of trickle-down. In the case of Canada, the reduced economic growth amounts to about $62 billion a year — which economist Toby Sanger notes is almost three times more than the estimated annual loss to the Canadian economy of lower oil prices.

But while dropping oil prices are grabbing headlines, the serious negative economic consequences of Canada’s pro-rich economic policies are largely ignored. Certainly the Harper government promises to entrench these policies more deeply if re-elected.
The OECD’s powerful message is clearly of little interest to the Harper government, which is planning to exacerbate Canada’s rich-poor gap by introducing an income-splitting scheme that will benefit rich families almost exclusively. Harper’s plan to provide an additional $60 a month per child to all families won’t be nearly enough to allow the bottom 40 per cent of Canadians to invest meaningfully in their children’s education.

The OECD stresses the need “not only for cash transfers, but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare” — areas where Harper’s planned cutbacks to the provinces will hit hard.

What’s striking about the entrenchment of policies favouring inequality is how out of sync they appear to be with popular will.
While the world’s elite may still be slapping their knees and marveling at what they’ve managed to pull off, the fact that the most prestigious international economic bodies have lined up against trickle-down orthodoxy may mean there are now prospects for real change.

At the least, it suggests that, in a showdown with the world’s billionaires and multi-millionaires, the world’s people may actually stand an outside chance.
- Of course, if free money for the rich is a demonstrably foolish policy, the Cons remain all too happy to destroy the evidence. But Tavia Grant reports that we can still see an alarming number of Canadians living with low incomes - signalling that the promise of trickle-down economics remains as empty as ever.

- Stephen Gordon takes a look at the fiscal squeeze Stephen Harper has placed on the federal government. But it's well worth pointing out one more piece to the puzzle, as the eroding resources nominally allocated for public services are increasingly being applied to spin rather than anything which could help anybody besides the Cons themselves.

- Thomas Walkom weighs in on the fallout from the Ontario Libs' failed P3 schemes - including needless debts which the province will be paying off for decades to come.

- Finally, Pablo Iglesias discusses how social justice principles reach far beyond partisan lines - even as they've been applied to turn Podemos into an emerging political force (as both a party and a movement) in Spain:
When you study successful transformational movements, you see that the key to success is to establish a certain identity between your analysis and what the majority feels. And that is very hard. It implies riding out contradictions.
Politics is not what you or I would like it to be. It is what it is, and it is terrible. Terrible. And that’s why we must talk about popular unity, and be humble. Sometimes you have to talk to people who don’t like your language, with whom the concepts you use to explain don’t resonate. What does that tell us? That we have been defeated for many years. Losing all the time implies just that: that people’s “common sense” is different [from what we think is right]. But that is not news. Revolutionaries have always known that. The key is to succeed in making “common sense” go in a direction of change.

C├ęsar Rendueles, a very smart guy, says most people are against capitalism, and they don’t know it. Most people defend feminism and they haven’t read Judith Butler or Simone de Beauvoir. Whenever you see a father doing the dishes or playing with his daughter, or a grandfather teaching his grandkid to share his toys, there is more social transformation in that than in all the red flags you can bring to a demonstration. And if we fail to understand that those things can serve as unifiers, they will keep laughing at us.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Scott Clark and Peter DeVries remind us that any fiscal problems Canada has faced under the Cons have been entirely of Stephen Harper's making:
Harper needed a deficit problem; the fact that the previous government neglected to leave him one was just a short-term inconvenience. From the very beginning his fiscal strategy has been driven by a commitment to his Conservative base and ideology — which demand smaller government by any means — and by a desire to show that he had ‘what it takes’. He desperately wanted to be seen by history as a better fiscal manager than his predecessors.

Harper and Flaherty both believed — as do most modern Conservatives — that smaller government inevitably leads to stronger economic growth. Unfortunately, stubborn reality has once again refused to cooperate with an impractical theory.

The evidence is clear: Cutting deficits does not by itself generate economic growth. The Conservative “growth friendly austerity” strategy has failed consistently, whenever and wherever it has been applied — in the U.S. under Republican administrations, in the eurozone in recent years, by the G20 after 2010 … and in Canada since 2010.

Cutting the GST by two points will go down in Canadian fiscal history as one of the worst public finance decisions ever. It served no useful purpose — apart from giving the prime minister the cover he needed to impose a neo-liberal fiscal orthodoxy that diminished the federal government while failing to generate growth and jobs.

All Canadians paid the price for securing Mr. Harper’s legacy. We’ll go on paying it for while.
- Meanwhile, Brent Patterson points out how another of the Cons' "economic management" themes - that of constantly pushing trade agreements which entrench corporate power at the expense of the public - seems designed to prevent the development of an effective national pharmacare plan.

- Andrew Jackson notes that it's silly to think that markets can address climate change without some strong public policy leadership. But of course, for the Cons (and other petro-politicians), the only acceptable time to consider the well-being of the planet is never. And indeed, Mychaylo Prystupa reports that the Cons' kangaroo-court National Energy Board is positively bragging about its elimination of any public voices from regulatory decisions about pipelines.

- Adrian Morrow reports on the Ontario Auditor-General's findings that public-private partnerships have cost that province upwards of $8 billion in public money compared to simple public management.

- Finally, Frances Russell points out how the Cons go out of their way to eliminate precisely the voices which would ensure that public policy benefits everybody, rather than only the privileged few:
Harper now faces a wide swath of civil society groups opposed to his government on everything from shockingly mean-spirited assistance to wounded veterans to wanton disregard for the environment to authoritarian disdain – and deep antagonism -towards the forms and traditions of parliamentary democracy.

Never content with just opposing his adversaries, Harper enjoys pre-empting them, beating them up with a totally unexpected attack.

As prime minister, he frequently uses private members bills to begin the softening up process.

Take, for example, the Conservatives’ visceral – and obviously intensely personal – antagonism to organized labour. Harper is moving swiftly to destabilize and disempower Canada’s trade unions. Using the ruse of a backbench Conservative MP’s private member’s bill as the cover, the legislation will force unions to publicly disclose the names and salaries of all employees earning more than $100,000 a year and reveal how much of their time each spends on political activities, lobbying and other non-labour relations work.

Noticeably missing from this purported concern for union members is any actual changes to ensure workplace rights and protection for Canadian workers. And, of course, there is not the remotest indication of similar disclosures being required from the corporate side of the economy.

What better way to try to weaken, divide and destabilize Canada’s House of Labour than perpetrating a Hobbesian war of all against all by stirring up internal strife between leaders and members and between unions with strong and progressive collective agreements and those struggling with weaker and less robust ones forced to exist on the fringes?

With the Harper Conservatives, it’s always win-win for corporations and the well-to-do and lose-lose for everyone else.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- The OECD reports on the relationship between equality and growth, and concludes that rising inequality is as toxic for economic development as it is for our social fabric. And David Rider discusses how increasing inequality is manifesting itself in several Toronto neighbourhoods.

- Meanwhile, Daniel Tancer finds finds that Canada' workers receive a significantly lower share of income than in other developed countries:
Our modern economy is anything but egalitarian, and labour’s share of income has been shrinking for decades as business profits soar while wages stagnate.

On this measure, Canada is actually more unequal than the U.S.

According to the ILO's global wage report, released last week, Americans — by a small margin — take home more of the country’s national income than Canadians do.

Labour’s share of income in the U.S. was 56.4 per cent in 2013, compared to 56 per cent for Canada.

A small difference, but unexpected, given that most other measures (such as income distribution) show Canada is considerably more equal than the U.S. when it comes to wealth.

In fact Canadian labour's share of income is among the lowest of the developed G20 countries, with only Italian and Australian workers taking home a smaller share of the income pie.
labor share of income
Most developed countries have been seeing that number slide for years. The ILO’s chart going back to 1991 shows all of the developed G20 economies seeing labour’s share of the income pie shrinking over the years.
- But unfortunately, the trend is instead toward workers' efforts instead being siphoned off to further enrich our corporate overlords - as in the case of pension funds which are being handed over to the financial sector with no accountability whatsoever.

- Mike De Souza exposes the Cons' failure to bother hiring staff to ensure rail safety.

- Finally, Shawn McCarthy reports on Environment Canada's conclusion that Canada will miss by far even the new and modest targets set by the Cons after they took power. And Isaac Tamblyn proposes that it's time to start ignoring climate change deniers in making policy - though removing them from far too many seats of government would seem to be a necessary first step.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Will Hutton compares the alternative goals of either shrinking government to the point where it does nothing or harnessing it to meet everybody's basic needs, and explains why we should demand the latter:
A financial crisis has been allowed to morph into a crisis of public provision because the government of the day will not lift a finger to compensate for the haemorrhaging of the UK tax base. What the state does is not the subject of a collective decision with concerned weighing of options. Instead, it’s an afterthought, with the greater priorities a reduction in public borrowing and freezing or lowering tax rates.

All the state can spend is what is left after those two greater priorities are met, and if it has to shrink to pre-modern levels then so be it. The market will provide: charity will alleviate suffering; people will get by; the roof will not fall in. Lifting taxation can never be considered to close the gap. It is, it is alleged, both economically self-defeating and immoral.
(T)here is never a weighing up of the benefits of raising taxes against a particular use for public spending, nor any strategic long-term programme of investment.

This is bad enough in ordinary times, but when a chancellor refuses to consider raising taxes as the tax base collapses it is a recipe for disaster. It results in a minimal state, with implications for prisons, schools, courts, policing, legal aid, care, security and defence that are profound. Some of this could be avoided if, as both Labour and the LibDems propose, capital investment was not lumped in with current spending so that virtuous borrowing could be separated out. The country may also get lucky: wages stop stagnating and income tax receipts rise.

But the bigger truth is that if Britain wants the scale of public activity congruent with a civilised society, it has to be paid for.
There is a different future, and our politicians of the centre and left have to argue for it, but they must accept it has to be paid for. This has become an existential divide. Politics and political argument have never mattered more.
- Meanwhile, Bill Curry notes that the Harper Cons are matching their UK cousins by "balancing" a budget only based on unexplained and implausible assumptions which make it all too likely that we'll end up losing important public assets at fire-sale prices.

- Linda Tirado offers her observations on the high cost of being poor. And Adam Walsh discusses the difficulties faced by the people left behind in boom times.

- Tony Burke writes about the need for both more fair taxation and stronger collective bargaining to ensure that workers benefit from economic gains.

- Finally, Michael Harris highlights the Cons' cynical attempt to cling to power by replacing any expectation of effective government with a non-stop spin cycle.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Excuses, excuses

Shorter Leona Aglukkaq:
It's absolutely essential that we align our greenhouse gas emissions policies with the U.S. if that means delaying regulations which could limit pollution from the tar sands. Also, it's absolutely essential that we refuse to align our greenhouse gas emission policies with the U.S. if they're committing to targets which could limit pollution from the tar sands.

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Walden Bello discusses the need for our political system to include constant citizen engagement, not merely periodic elections to determine who will be responsible to implement the wishes of the elite:
Even more than dictatorships, Western-style democracies are, we are forced to conclude, the natural system of governance of neoliberal capitalism, for they promote rather than restrain the savage forces of capital accumulation that lead to ever greater levels of inequality and poverty. In fact, liberal democratic systems are ideal for the economic elites, for they are programmed with periodic electoral exercises that promote the illusion of equality, thus granting the system an aura of legitimacy.
To reverse the process requires not just an alternative economic program based on justice, equity, and ecological stability, but a new democratic system to replace the liberal democratic regime that has become so vulnerable to elite and foreign capture.

First of all, representative institutions must be balanced by the formation of institutions of direct democracy.

Second, civil society must organize itself politically to act as a counterpoint and check to the dominant state institutions.

Third, citizens must keep in readiness a parliament of the streets, or “people power,” that can be brought at critical points to bear on the decision-making process: a system, if you will, of parallel power. People power must be institutionalized for periodic intervention, not abandoned once the insurrection has banished the old regime.
- As a prime example of the problems with the status quo, Eric Lipton exposes how U.S. Republican elected officials see their main job as repeating and amplifying the message of their oil-sector backers. Bronwen Tucker points out that the Harper Cons are likewise taking the side of the tar sands over people and the planet. And Dean Baker notes that the most recent set of international trade agreements goes far beyond even earlier versions in limiting health and environmental regulations.

- Meanwhile, Tyler Cowen offers some suggestions as to how technology could blunt the impacts of income inequality. But it's hard to see how those theoretical possibilities would accomplish much if not accompanied by a concerted effort to spread the benefit around - rather than merely being allowed to evolve in ways that favour the people in control of current capital and technology.

- Indeed, David Kynaston observes that a shift toward private education has only exacerbated inequality in the UK. And every bit of attention and funding directed toward corporatized education represents resources not put toward something more important - such as food for hungry children.

- And finally, the ILO reminds us that it's corporate decision-making rather than anything beyond employers' control that's led to the growing gap between the executive and shareholder classes and people working for a living.