Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your weekend reading.

- Gerald Caplan writes that we all bear some responsibility for growing inequality - and how we'll need to use our electoral power to reverse it:
(S)elf-sacrifice is not going to be the key to reducing inequality, with all the great damage it inflicts on society. Government needs to act, and Mr. Mackenzie offers perfectly realistic policies to any party that is seriously committed to greater equality. For example, the tax break on stock options generously provided by our government is worth a cool half-trillion to the top 100 – a nice day’s “work,” for sure. And since federal corporate taxes, an affordable 29 per cent only 15 years ago, now stand at 15 per cent, we can expect Mr. Mackenzie to report even higher rewards for his hearty band next January.

Anyone who dabbles in the field for even a moment knows there are lots of ideas for reducing inequality. Some are political non-starters but others are quite simple and workable. Knowing what to do is not the issue. The issue, as usual, is the political will to attack the problem frontally. The NDP is so far proposing a distinctly modest increase in corporate taxes, which is more than its opponents. As of now, with an election less than a year away, the big winner once again, and still champion, is inequality.
- Marc Lee rightly challenges the theory that any steps to deal with climate change should exacerbate inequality by being revenue-neutral.

- But Susana Mas reports that the Cons are once again refusing to consider any increases in revenue, and using their failed bet on an oil-dependent economy as an excuse to cut even further into Canada's public services.

- Karl Nerenberg notes that in addition to having the only plan to combat inequality, the NDP is also the only one party is willing to treat voters like adults. But it's worth noting that the NDP isn't the only party with a relatively detailed policy document: the difference is that the NDP has enough respect for members and the public alike to make its policy work readily accessible, while the Cons force non-members to go on a scavenger hunt (or at least search their site from the outside) to find theirs.

- Finally, Stephen Maher recognizes that the greatest threat we face from acts of terror lies in the people who would use the excuse to crack down on civil rights and freedoms.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Musical interlude

Kaskade & Adam K - Raining

Friday Evening Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Oliver Milman reports on research showing how humanity is destroying its own environmental life support systems. And our appetite for exploitation is proving a failure even from the standpoint of the pursuit of shortsighted greed, as David Dayen considers how the recent drop in oil prices - and consequent market forces limiting further production - may affect a financial sector relying on constant expansion.

- Michael Harris offers another look at the real Stephen Harper to counter the barrage of selective imaging we'll see throughout the year. And Bob Hepburn discusses the need to make sure that neither Harper nor a successor runs roughshod over Canada's democracy.

- Rebecca Rolfers interviews Angus Deaton about the connection between corporatism, inequality and poor health:
Q. In your latest book, you take the unusual approach of combining health and income inequality into well-being. Most economists deal with them separately; how do health and income inequality combined relate to economic and social progress?

I think it’s important to recognize that progress is an engine of inequality, and a key fact about progress is that it opens up gaps between people who lead the progress — and therefore benefit from it — and the rest. The principle [sic] criterion for concern about inequality is whether there is a natural spread of the benefits of progress, so that eventually, everyone is better off, or whether the benefits are and remain concentrated among a privileged few. In the realm of health, innovation and social health practices (e.g., avoiding germs, quitting smoking) generally spread in ways that improve life expectancy. I view the greater risk to economic, social and even political welfare to be income inequality.

Q. Can you explain some of the similarities and distinctions between health and income inequality?

Some health inequalities are due to improvements in health technology and knowledge. If those things first go to the better-off and the better-educated and later spread to others, then that is a temporary inequality and not a problem. It’s like the green shoot in the garden: it means spring will come and everything will be green. But if that shoot is just one plant and nothing else ever grows, that is a problem. The same is true of health inequality. If the benefits of health innovation and access never spread, we wouldn’t be very happy about it. Progress tends to come at the price of inequality, at least initially; but eventually we expect that progress to be broadly shared.
- David Climenhaga points out that Alberta's oil development has resulted in nothing of the sort, to the point where the province is now effectively giving its resources away to keep corporate profits up. And CBC reports on research showing the high levels of poverty in Alberta long before resource prices started to fall.

- Finally, Michael Geist weighs in on how the Cons' copyright law has been turned into a distribution mechanism for fraudulent corporate trolling. And even the National Post's editorial board sees that preference for rent-seeking over consumer rights as a bridge too far.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

New column day

Here, on the Wall government's secret attack on overtime pay for retail workers - and how it reflects a preference for the rule of lobbyists over the rule of law.

For further reading...
- See my previous posts here, here and here for background on the story - including the Ministry's directives to staff at the second link.
- And I'll note that selective "flexibility" - defined as workers bending over backwards to serve their corporate overlords - is the Saskatchewan Party's main excuse for cutting workers' overtime pay. And Katie Mazer discusses how that same principle applies elsewhere as the Cons try to force workers from across Canada into marginal jobs in the oil patch.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Scott Sinclair studies the effect of NAFTA on government policies, and finds that it's been used primarily (and all too frequently) to attack Canadian policy choices:
A study released today by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) finds over 70% of all NAFTA investor-state claims since 2005 were brought against the Canadian government and the number of challenges against Canada is rising sharply. From 1995-2005, there were 12 claims against Canada, while in the last ten years there have been 23.

"It appears that the federal government's strong ideological commitment to ISDS and its willingness to settle and pay compensation is encouraging investor-state claims against Canada," says Sinclair.

As of January 1, 2015, 45% of NAFTA claims were made against Canada. Canada has been the target of 35 investor-state claims, significantly more than either Mexico (22) or the U.S. (20). "Thanks to NAFTA chapter 11, Canada has now been sued more times through investor-state dispute settlement, than any other developed country in the world," Sinclair added.

The study notes that although NAFTA proponents claimed that ISDS was needed to address concerns about corruption in the Mexican court system, most investor-state challenges involve public policy and regulatory matters. Sixty three per cent of claims against Canada involve challenges to environmental protection or resource management measures.
- And Thomas Walkom follows up by pointing out that the CETA figures to create even more limitations on democratic decision-making.

- Raksha Vasudevan writes about the Cons' voter suppression tactics aimed at Canadians living abroad. And, Linda McQuaig highlights how Justin Trudeau looms as the main obstacle to proportional representation at the federal level.

- Also on the electoral fairness front, Alice Funke identifies how the Cons have radically altered election spending limits based on the length of a campaign period. But I'd point out in particular (as Alice alludes to) that the effect of that change may be just as much to perpetuate a government's financial advantage as to exploit it: a governing party which had set its advertising budget for an election cycle could turn what would otherwise be pre-writ spending into a rebated expense by starting the writ period earlier.

- Mike Hager discusses how the Cons' restrictions on research funding are suppressing any work into exactly the controversial subjects where greater knowledge would seem essential to policy development.

- And finally, Daniel Beland, Rachel Laforest and Jennifer Wallner discuss some of Canada's worst policy ideas of 2014 - with the Cons' income splitting scheme rightly earning a prominent place on the list.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday Evening Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Jeff Begley criticizes the Cons and the Quebec Libs for their refusal to even recognize inequality as an issue - which of course results in their only exacerbating the gap between the rich and the rest of us:
While Couillard and Harper find the "courage" to attack workers, starting with those in the public sector, they are completely silent when it comes to the growing social and economic inequalities. Worse still, they are working actively to heighten those inequalities!

In our video message over the holidays, I indicated that we hoped this would be a time to think about better ways of sharing our immense wealth. I still think it is the basic mandate of any government to see to it that inequalities are not intensified, and indeed are reduced. And in the public eye, the current levels of inequality are far from acceptable.

The population as a whole, including unionized workers, must show leadership if we want our government to change course. The government is ignoring experts' advice that it's heading in the wrong direction, and is forging ahead with policies that will directly lead to greater inequalities.
- The CP reports that the Cons have once again flipped from insisting it's reckless not to follow the U.S. on climate change the moment the U.S. actually gets something done. And Verda Petry notes that the Saskatchewan Party's reliance on dirty resource development is harming the province both economically and ecologically.

- PressProgress highlights how the Cons are attacking health care in Canada.

- And finally, in the course of setting out strategies for Canada's federal leaders, Tim Harper discusses the strong progressive position Tom Mulcair will need to continue presenting in order to build on the NDP's electoral success in 2015:
Mulcair is an accomplished campaigner and a superior debater.

The party should be better prepared to wage a campaign than ever before.

The Broadbent Institute has brought key members from Barack Obama’s campaign to Canada to speak and have sent campaign workers south to learn from digital and social media gurus who were instrumental in the U.S. president’s back-to-back victories.

The party is working hard to educate workers on voter engagement, fundraising appeals and get-out-the-vote efforts.

None of this will work unless Mulcair follows this rule — be bold, resist the urge to play small ball, refuse to worship at the altar of balanced budgets.

Give us real solutions to income inequality and this country’s sorry record on climate change.

Don’t play in the same sandbox as the others.

Layton was barely on the map when the starting gun sounded in 2011.

New Democrats are on the map now, but they will fall off if they timidly work around the edges instead of defiantly offering Canadians real choice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Lounging cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Hugh Segal discusses the need for an open and honest conversation about poverty and how to end it. And to better reflect Canadians' continued desire for a more fair society, Roderick Benns makes the case for a basic income as Canada's next major social program.

- Matt Bruenig writes about the U.S.' income inequality as compared to other developed countries- and it's well worth noting that Canada's distribution is only slightly less distorted than the U.S.'.

- Margo McDiarmid reports on the Cons' latest steps to block any evaluation of the environmental damage done by the tar sands. Dennis Gruending rightly points out that environmental activism will be of limited use if it can't influence government policy, as the major challenges we face demand more coordination than citizens alone can muster. And PressProgress notes that Canada is missing the boat when it comes to developing the renewable energy which will power the world in the decades to come.

- Finally, Jennifer Hollett argues that it's long past time to get rid of our embarrassing leaders. And Michael Harris observes that Stephen Harper remains at the top of that list, with his party's "rage over reason" attitude serving as a particularly important basis for concern.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Stephen Burgen reports on Thomas Piketty's view that it's long past time for voters to have anti-austerity options where none existed in the past. And along similar lines, Murray Dobbin sets out the stark choice facing Canadians:
Canadians will have to continue to watch their Scandinavian neighbours use the wheel and prosper while we remain captives to the free market priesthood. Norway is the logical choice of neighbour to compare ourselves to, if you can stomach it. In Canada we have virtually given away our energy heritage through criminally low royalty rates over a period of some 70 years. Norway bargained hard with oil companies to develop its relatively newfound resource -- and kept ownership of it. The result, as reported in The Tyee last year, is a heritage fund of (as of a year ago) $909,364 billion (Canadian). That puts tiny Norway $1.5 trillion ahead of us and while each Canadian has a $17,000 share of our $600 billion debt national debt, each Norwegian has a $178,000 stake in their surplus. Norway puts aside a billion dollars a week from its oil resource.

But all that oil money aside (literally), Norway actually funds its government services through taxes which its citizens gladly pay. And why not? As Mitch Andersen reported, "Norwegians enjoy universal day care, free university tuition, per capita spending on health care 30 per cent higher than Canada and 25 days of paid vacation every year." We, on the other hand, live in a country where a third of citizens believe in Harper's fiscal self-flagellation, in an extremist religion that calls upon us all to deliberately impoverish ourselves. Hallelujah.
- Meanwhile, Carol Goar notes that we could build a stronger society by ensuring that the wealthiest among us pay their fair share:
For decades there have been sporadic calls from economists, think-tanks and opposition MPs to jack up tax rates for the privileged elite. The response of the finance department is best captured by a 1985 remark from then finance minister Michael Wilson. “Canada has an acute shortage of rich people,” he told the Canadian Economics Association, dismissing the budgetary impact as negligible.

That mindset prevailed through five Conservative and Liberal governments although no politician has expressed it as bluntly as Wilson. It still holds sway, despite a dramatic widening of the gap between rich and poor; a proliferation of self-styled “supermanagers” who rake in 170 times as much as the average worker; and a deepening sense of injustice among young people, victims of corporate cost-cutting, struggling wage earners and worried middle-class families.

It is true, as Wilson observed, that imposing higher taxes on the ultra-rich wouldn’t produce a fiscal bonanza. But it would slow the growth of inequality, ensure high-income earners pay their share of the cost of running the country and give the stalled majority a stake in Canada’s economic success. It would also bring Canada’s tax code into the 21st century. When the current rules were enacted, a salary of $137,000 put an individual in the economic stratosphere. Stock options were unheard of. The distribution of wealth was relatively stable.

None of those assumptions pertain to today’s socio-economic landscape.
- Keith Reynolds discusses another scathing report on P3s - this time from British Columbia, where a provincial cheerleading agency has regularly avoided considering publicly-owned options in order to make privatization look palatable.

- Aurin Squire notes that many in New York are far better off as a result of police refusing to enforce "quality of life" offences.

- Finally, Lana Payne comments on the broken relationship between the Harper Cons and the veterans who were used as political props for so long. And Tim Naumetz reports that a minor cabinet shuffle has done nothing to change the Cons' preference for silencing veterans rather than listening to them.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On predictable arrangements

Aaron Wherry nicely summarizes the possible outcomes of the next federal election so the rest of us don't have to. But let's take a moment to consider what we can expect if we indeed have a hung Parliament, requiring parties to deal with each other to determine who will hold office.

To start with, Michael Den Tandt's theory about the NDP having any interest in propping up continued Con government is utterly out to lunch. But CuriosityCat's Lib spin is far from the right way to look at the NDP's position as well.

No, Jack Layton's tenure as leader (and rise to the position of Leader of the Opposition) isn't a cautionary tale. And that's precisely because Layton refused to make the type of deal Den Tandt sees as possible.

Here's Layton's first-hand account as to what happened when discussions after the 2004 election shifted from merely amending the Throne Speech, and turned to the possibility that Stephen Harper could become prime minister as head of a new government (Speaking Out Louder at p. 341-342):
I asked Mr. Duceppe what he thought would happen if the prime minister refused to accept such an ultimatum. He replied that a government defeat so soon after a general election meant the Governor General would have to turn "to one of us" to form a government. We both knew that meant Stephen Harper and his Conservatives. I asked Mr. Duceppe if he could accept such an eventuality. He was not only clear that he could, but he would.

Stephen Harper, while less inclined to brinksmanship, nevertheless warmed to the seduction of Mr. Duceppe's strategy. Under this scenario, Mr. Harper would become prime minister in an informal alliance with the Bloc. Unthinkable? Not to either Mr. Harper or Mr. Duceppe. The Bloc leader was willing to strategize for Stephen Harper to become prime minister, despite the Conservatives' many negative policies...Mr. Duceppe and the Bloc would have been key players in any Harper coalition, demanding significant dismantling of our collective capacities as Canadians as the price of his support. That dismantling was something that would coincide nicely with Mr. Harper's ideological and visceral distaste for any federal government oversight or ability to intervene in any social or economic programs administered by the provinces but utilizing federal tax dollars.

Realizing immediately the full magnitude of what was at stake, I knew I had to walk away. I was not about to participate in any scheme cooked up by the Bloc and the Conservatives that would put the country in the hands of Stephen Harper.
So Layton rightly concluded that installing the Cons in power was antithetical to the values he had been elected to promote. And he held to that position throughout the minority Parliaments from 2004 to 2011 - while the Bloc and Libs took turns supporting Harper (or running for the hills) when faced with opportunities to avoid Con government through a vote in Parliament.

There's no reason to think the NDP would change its view from the position it has held since 2004, as Thomas Mulcair has taken up Layton's mantle in defending the concept of a coalition in pursuit of progressive government. And if anything, the large group of Quebec MPs elected in no small part to maximize the chance of building an alternative government would have all the more reason to hold to the position.

We can thus expect the NDP to be strongly motivated to remove Harper from power if any opportunity presents itself.

And as I've noted before, there should be ample room for a deal between an NDP which is primarily focused on ensuring progressive policy outcomes, and a Lib party which is built primarily around personal advancement (and which is prepared to change its policies at the drop of a hat in pursuit of that end).

If the NDP ranks ahead of the Libs with enough combined seats to form government, it will be in a position to offer Justin Trudeau and his entourage a place in the cabinet to start shedding their "inexperienced" label - and likely wouldn't have much trouble fitting a prominent Lib platform plank or two into a governing agenda.

Similarly, if the Libs finish with more seats than the NDP, there's reason to expect the NDP to focus on having as much of its platform as possible implemented, while the Libs would try to maintain as much personal profile as possible while offering enough of a role in Cabinet to satisfy (and make use of) the NDP's strongest performers.

Of course, it's not clear that Trudeau shares Michael Ignatieff's intention of shedding the Cons' government given the opportunity. And that's where there's some significant risk for progressive voters: the stronger the Libs' perceived likelihood of approaching a majority in a subsequent election, the greater the danger that they'll leave Harper in power.

But there's plenty of reason to think it will be possible for the NDP and the Libs to work out a deal if both want a change in government. And there's no basis at all to worry that the NDP will be the party holding up that process.

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Joan Walsh discusses Elizabeth Warren's work on improving wages and enhancing the strength of workers in the U.S., while Jeremy Nuttall interviews Hassan Yussuff about the labour movement's work to elect a better government in Canada.

- Bob Hepburn argues that getting rid of the Harper Cons is a first step toward regaining some faith in our political system. And Scott Reid worries that Stephen Harper's cynical view of government in anybody's hands may have spread to Canada's electorate - though while there's plenty of work to be done in the longer term, the short-term Con message of "you shouldn't trust government!" would seem to be readily supplemented with "especially this one!".

- Speaking of which, Joanna Smith catches Chris Alexander interfering in a response to questions about the Cons' immigration mess. And the argument that it's too much work to actually track outcomes hardly speaks well to the Cons' supposed management skills.

- Toby Helm reports on Ed Miliband's plan to set up a Living Standards Index to measure well-being beyond GDP alone as part of a push to show that right-wing orthodoxy misses the impact of the economy on the vast majority of people. And Ron Lieber observes that gross inequality can be toxic for the people who grow up with extreme privilege.

- Finally, Guy Dauncey responds to Sarah Petrescu's series on poverty in Victoria by pointing out that we'll need some big ideas to eradicate it altogether - though I'd note that he may miss the most important one.

On overtime losses

Those readers who follow my law blog will already be familiar with this week's news about the Saskatchewan Party government's attack on overtime pay for retail workers. But I'll take some time to assemble the full story here.

Historically, a "day" for the purpose of calculating overtime for Saskatchewan workers has been defined as any consecutive period of 24 hours. All Saskatchewan workers have been entitled to overtime if they are required to work more than 8 hours in any such period.

As part of its response to the Saskatchewan Party's employment law review process, the Retail Council of Canada wanted to change the definition of a "day" for the purposes of calculating overtime pay. (Unfortunately, the actual submission - along with everything else associated with the massive consultation process which resulted in a wholesale revision of Saskatchewan labour and employment law - has been wiped from the Ministry's website. But a summary of the RCC's position can be found in its followup submission here.)

The RCC wanted a "day" redefined to mean only a calendar day (or any other single 24-hour period set by an employer). That means that a worker could be required to work up to 16 hours out of 24 - say, a 4 PM-12 AM shift one day and an 8 AM-4 PM shift the next - without receiving a nickel of overtime pay.

The government declined to act on that submission in actually drafting the new Saskatchewan Employment Act (SEA).

Like the previous Labour Standards Act, the SEA explicitly states that for the purposes of the calculation and payment of overtime, a "day" means "any period of 24 consecutive hours". And nothing in the new Employment Standards Regulations - which were released without debate and with minimal consultation, but would at least have provided some public notice of planned changes - alters that definition or its application in any way.

In other words, the Ministry didn't offer any warning whatsoever that it planned to slash overtime pay for retail employees. And as late as October 2014, the Ministry published its new employment standards guide for employers (PDF) - which confirmed at page 19 that the existing rules governing "short-shifting" (as the RCC calls multiple shifts in a 24-hour period) hadn't changed.

But while the Wall government didn't make any change in the law or even offer any public notice that the Ministry might change its position, it directed the Ministry's staff to apply the RCC's interpretation to retail workers - rationalizing that the SEA was supposed to offer more "flexibility" to employers in cutting overtime pay even if if offered no authority whatsoever to change the law. And while that direction wasn't offered until December 12, staff were instructed to apply the RCC's interpretation to all hours worked after April 29, 2014 - the day the SEA was proclaimed in force.

In effect, the Saskatchewan Party secured passage of the SEA by assuring workers that it wasn't attacking employment standards. But it's since started telling employer groups, along with the public servants charged with enforcing the law, that the proclamation in force of the SEA means that all bets are off when it comes to employment standards.

As noted on my law blog, I'll be working on gathering more information both about this particular interpretation (which only became public because the RCC decided to brag about having won secretly what it couldn't win through a proper democratic process), as well as any other changes the Ministry has made in employment standards or other worker rights since the SEA came into force. But the clear takeaway for now is that Saskatchewan workers have reason to worry that the agency charged with enforcing their rights is receiving secret orders to attack them instead.

Update: I'll clarify a couple of points which I made on the law blog, but haven't yet noted above.

First, the change in interpretation didn't actually change the law: theoretically, employees should still have been able to claim the overtime provided for under the SEA. But they'd have had to fight the Ministry's interpretation through an adjudication and appeal process, representing a significant barrier for employees who don't have time or money to fight over the rights which are supposed to be protected by law.

And second, the Ministry did abandon its "pilot" interpretation last week, but only after it had been brought to light.