Saturday, January 31, 2015

On destructive preconditions

Shorter Elizabeth Nickson:
I'll consider accepting the need for policies to preserve the environment just as soon as we've seen exactly how much gets destroyed in their absence.
(h/t to PressProgress.)

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- James Baxter discusses why there's no reason to buy into the Harper Cons' fearmongering in the first place:
Let’s accept a basic truth: There’s only so much money we’re willing to ‘invest’ in having the government to protect us from bad things and, when you get out of bed in the morning, terrorism is very, very far from the top of the list of dangers you’re likely to face.

The budget for the Department of Public Security and Emergency Preparedness is more than $6 billion and growing by leaps and bounds. Add to that the Department of National Defence, which handles our ‘Five Eyes’ clandestine eavesdropping, and the Department of Justice’s secret courts and prosecuting services and you realize the bill for countering terrorism is at least in the realm of $8 to $10 billion per year. And that doesn’t take into account the less obvious costs that come from missed opportunities and the reduced creativity that inevitably comes with constant surveillance.
(B)efore we allow ourselves to be intimidated by our own politicians into believing we have to be terrified — that we have to give up more of our rights and money to protect us from this new “threat” — why don’t we ask the government to do something more about those old, less politically-sexy scary things … like pollution, medical malpractice, drunk drivers, legal semi-automatics in the hands of idiots, and, yes, bed sores (imagine the lives that would be saved by just a few more nurses and orderlies) … you know the stupid preventable stuff that really kills people all too frequently.

FDR famously said that we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Let’s not lose ourselves, and our country, to politically-motivated hysteria.
- But for those who think there's still some room to give the Cons the benefit of any doubt as to whether there's a meaningful threat to be addressed, Anna Mehler Paperny points out that entirely common actions can be classified as "terrorist" activity under the Cons' alarmist definitions, while Steven Chase and Daniel Leblanc point out that Stephen Harper himself is criticizing opposition parties for caring in the slightest about civil liberties. Jeremy Nuttall describes how the Cons went out of their way to punish the media for trying to ask important questions about their new bill. Stephen Maher discusses the complete lack of oversight for bodies who would be granted the authority to lock citizens up without so much as charging them. And Heather Mallick places the blather about terrorism in the context of Harper's violent insecurity.

- CBC reports on the mass surveillance which is already happening even in the absence of expanded powers for secretive spy agencies.

- Meanwhile, in case there's any question just how careful the Cons are when throwing accusations around, Victor Malarek reports on a $10 million payout to a businessman wrongfully smeared as having exported controlled goods to China. Though to be fair, that means the "lock-'em-up" approach under C-51 might save money in the short term by making sure the innocent are bound and gagged indefinitely rather than being able to plead their case.

 - Finally, Bob Hepburn discusses how the Harper Cons have undermined democracy at nearly every turn since forming government.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Musical interlude

Fuel - Bittersweet

Last chance to weigh in

While there's always reason to be skeptical of the Wall government's consultation processes, there's also plenty of risk in not participating - as a lack of expressed opposition will all too likely be taken as agreement with the Saskatchewan Party's plans.

Which is to say that I'll strongly encourage Saskatchewan readers to participate in the province's consultation on liquor retailing before today's deadline passes.

If you're looking for a strong general message to send as to the importance of preserving our current system, you'll find one at Keep Liquor Public. I've chosen instead to focus on the opportunity to build on what we already have in the public sector; you can draft your own message either through the province's survey form or by e-mail.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- PressProgress notes that the Cons' economic track record is one of eliminating well-paying jobs in favour of lower-wage, more-precarious work. And Jim Stanford follows up on why we shouldn't believe the Cons' spin about deficits:
I think that a more fruitful and principled line of attack on the government’s approach would focus on these obvious fiscal and economic errors by the government:
  • The October tax cuts were premature; it is tax cuts, not oil prices, which have jeopardized the attainment of a balanced budget.  The Conservatives broke their own promise in implementing tax cuts before the budget was even balanced.  (Breaking their promise, not running a small deficit per se, is their key point of vulnerability.)  In fact, as I show in the Globe and Mail column, the federal budget would be balanced right now, even with lower oil prices, were it not for the accelerated first-year tax cuts which the government was so anxious to rush out the door before the election.
  • The October tax cuts are socially and economically damaging.  The CCPA’s fabulous analysis of the perverse distributional effects of income splitting (here and here) is already making this case in spades.
  • The government’s response to falling oil prices has revealed confusion and internal division.  Joe Oliver delayed his budget to some unspecified future date (April or even later); perhaps he will actually “table”the budget on the hustings .  Oliver has said that there will be no further spending cuts to offset the loss in revenue, and that the government can use its (phony) $3 billion contingency fund to protect the balanced budget.  Employment Minister Jason Kenney, in contrast, said the exact opposite in public: suggesting that incremental spending cuts might be required, and that the $3 billion cushion would not be drawn down (since it is intended, he argued, for true “emergencies”).  Treasury Board President Tony Clement, meanwhile, also hinted at surprise reductions in spending — channeling Pierre Trudeau in saying “Just watch us” reduce spending.  Clement’s record in consistently underspending authorized operational budgets (part of the government’s “austerity by stealth” strategy).  These mixed messages indicate a breakdown of discipline within Conservative ranks, and send confusing signals to consumers and investors alike.
  • Most fundamentally, the government’s macroeconomic and industrial emphasis on making Canada an “energy superpower,” investing so much fiscal and political capital to facilitate energy megaprojects (including fruitless pipeline proposals), vilifying critical voices, and inadequately responding to the negative side-effects of the oil boom on other sectors, has left Canada’s economy unduly vulnerable to an oil price decline that was always inevitable.
My response, therefore, to the question “Will low oil prices push Ottawa into a deficit,” is therefore: “Who cares? The real issue is the government’s failure to use its fiscal and other tools to strengthen the recovery and create jobs. That’s the real mismanagement.
- Jordan Press exposes the Cons' waste of tens of millions of dollars to suppress information from the Canadian public. And Paul Withers reports that while the National Energy Board has stopped allowing citizens to participate in actual assessment hearings in the name of efficiency, it has no qualms about using public money to cheerlead for the pipelines it's supposed to be regulating.

- Meanwhile, Charlie Samuda discusses the need to crack down on tax evasion to ensure the privileged few pay their fair share. And Matt Taibbi writes that the financial sector is back to its old habit of exploiting the public, while fighting the suggestion that advisers face an obligation to put clients' interests first.

- Jeffrey Simpson rightly wonders why our political debates involve little discussion about people living in poverty who have the most to gain or lose from government policy choices. And Natasha Pel comments on how Canada's wealthiest province is doing little to deal with poverty.

- Finally, Rick Salutin points to Syriza's victory in Greece as an example of how the public can overcome the supposedly-inevitable prioritization of profits over people:
Why Syriza won. The short answer is: they put people first. I know all parties say that but (a) they only say it and (b) they only say it at elections. Syriza said and did it. Because they're not just a party but a coalition of parties, groups and movements, they naturally extended into communities and helped people with real needs. This in turn proved they weren't like other parties, just in it for power. That near cliché translated into real policies.

The EU/Germany clearly put numbers (of euros owed) first, as Greece's new finance minister says. So the debate was over priorities. If people prevail, austerity fails. It turns out austerity wasn't inevitable, like a law of nature; it was a question of values.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

New column day

Here, on how Saskatchewan residents should be able to count on secure housing, rather than being shunted into stopgap social housing by the Wall government.

For further reading...
- The provincial government's announcement that affordable housing in Saskatchewan is no more can be found here. And the NDP's response is here.
- For information on the temporary nature of the social housing program that's left, see here (PDF):
For families, social housing is intended to be short-term until a family is able to afford to buy or rent a home in the private housing market.
- The background to the Saskatchewan Party's sell-off of provincial housing unit is found here - which also refers in glowing terms to the Deveraux Homes development which was then handed over to the developer for use as for-profit housing.
- Finally, the study referenced in the column as to the relationship between financial security and reduced individual stress is discussed here

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Jim Stanford reminds us that any drama as to whether Canada's budget will be balanced this year is entirely of the Cons' own making through pointless tax slashing:
Running spending cuts since 2011 now total more than $14-billion a year. Canadians experience real consequences from those cuts every day: shuttered veterans’ offices, deteriorating statistical data, questionable railway and food safety, ridiculous waits for statutory benefits and more. Federal government employment has plunged by 47,000 jobs since 2011 – explaining much of Canada’s lousy job-market performance. These sacrifices were not necessary. Worse yet, the government is throwing away the savings with its tax-cut agenda.

Indeed, if the government truly believed that balancing the books was the most important priority, we could be back in the black right now, never mind next year. Before opening the cookie jar in October for income-splitting and other giveaways, Ottawa was headed for a $3.3-billion surplus for the fiscal year ending March 31. Falling oil prices knocked $1.2 billion off that balance, according to the PBO, leaving a $2.1-billion surplus. But the government spent $3.2-billion on the immediate first-year cost of the tax cuts – pushing itself back, incredibly, into deficit. Without the tax cuts, the budget would already be balanced, even with low oil prices.

It’s not prudent to count your chickens before they hatch. The Conservatives were so anxious to lock in tax cuts and corner the opposition that they consciously pushed the budget back into the red. Now, with plunging oil, that deficit looks bigger. No wonder Finance Minister Joe Oliver is delaying his budget.
- Tavia Grant reports on how the shredding of the long-form census has created serious data quality issues for. But the Cons may not have noticed in light of their propensity for ignoring any evidence which doesn't fit their political plans.

- Jennifer Ditchburn reports that Canada's independent offices of Parliament want nothing to do with the Cons' plans to disqualify anybody with an interest in government from seeking to improve it. And Doug Howat notes how the bill fits into the Cons' wider pattern of trying to attack messengers rather than defending policy choices.

- Charles Blow calls for the U.S. to take much-needed action to reduce child poverty. But Bryce Covert notes once again that any economic growth is being funnelled into the pockets of the 1% rather than benefiting the general public.

- Finally, Helena Smith reports on Syriza's first days in office and Greece, and notes that we now have confirmation that a government can deliver on transformative promises.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Kate McInturff and David Macdonald address the need for an adult discussion about how federal policies affect Canadian families. And Kevin Campbell writes about the importance of child care as a social investment. 

- Vincenzo Bove and Georgios Efthyvoulou study how public policy is shaped by political budget cycles - with more popular social spending getting emphasized around election time, only to face a threat as soon as the vote is held. And Scott Clark and Peter DeVries identify a distinct increase in the smoke and mirrors being used by the Cons to hide Canada's true budget picture in an election year:
Since the fall — when the prime minister promised tax cuts he hadn’t paid for — everything on the fiscal front has changed, except this: The budget remains the key document in the run-up to the election. Except now, the budget won’t be saying what Harper wanted it to. He wanted it to tell the story of his steady management of the economy since the 2008 recession. Instead, it’ll be about convincing Canadians the government had a plan B all along. Since the furor over Kenney’s comments strongly suggests a government at war with itself, that could turn out to be a tall order.

The PM has never liked budgets. He never saw them as a means to articulate a vision of the economy and the country. To Harper, a budget is a PR document — and a Trojan horse for pushing through legislative changes that have nothing at all to do with the budget.
It’s this kind of economic outlook that makes Canadians nervous — and they’re right to be. They need facts, not slogans. They need a budget that provides an honest, realistic assessment of our economic and fiscal prospects. They need to know that the government is taking a serious look at its fiscal policy and asking how it can be adjusted now to strengthen growth and job creation, while maintaining a sustainable fiscal structure over the medium term.

That’s what they need. Here’s what they’re likely to get: More slogans, more shallow optics and the spectacle of a Department of Finance tying itself in knots to at least show a balanced budget in 2015-16.
- Desmond Cole examines the Cons' dismal treatment of immigrant detainees. And the CP reports on their disregard for court rulings finding refugee health funding cuts to be unconstitutional.

- At the same time, Barrie McKenna writes that the Cons are once again going out of their way to support corporate corruption - this time by relaxing rules for businesses which have committed crimes abroad. 

- Finally, Ralph Surette discusses why it's time to end the Cons' reign - while suggesting #ThrowTheRascalsOut as an appropriate campaign hashtag.

On blissful ignorance

Shorter Lawrence Herman:
Just because Newfoundland and Labrador learned the hard way that Stephen Harper can't be trusted doesn't mean it has any right to warn anybody else that Stephen Harper can't be trusted.
(For a more reasonable take on how we should expect countries to react to the Cons' duplicitous negotiations and undue preference for corporate power, see the Telegram's editorial.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Cradled cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Will Hutton writes about the connection between inequality and the loss of any moral or social purpose in public life:
Britain is beset by a crisis of purpose. We don’t know who we are any longer, where we are going or even if there is a “we”. The country is so passionately attached to past glories because there are so few to celebrate in the present. The crisis is compounded since we have been told for 30 years that the route to universal wellbeing is to abandon the expense of justice and equity and so allow the judgments of the market to go unobstructed. Private decisions in markets supposedly are morally and economically better than any public or collective action. As a result the sense of the “we” that binds a society together and gives us reason to belong is being lost. We take refuge in looking after number one, because there is no sense in, nor reason for, doing anything else.

The inevitable consequence is a decline in public integrity and a new carelessness about others. This amoral deficit of integrity takes many guises. It is sky-high executive pay, out of proportion to effort or contribution. It is the phone-hacking scandal. It is the too frequent lack of duty of care to workforces and customers alike. It is the careless, indiscriminate sale of so many of our public and private assets. It is the unwillingness to find ways of investing in ourselves, while we look so regularly to foreigners to revive our industries or build our infrastructure. It is the crisis of trust in our politicians. It is the uncontested acceptance that our children confront a worse world than we faced ourselves – from the size of mortgage they will need to buy a house to lower pensions.

The principal obstacle to the recreation of a sense of we – and along with it the shared vision, ambition and purpose for the country which is the necessary precondition for the extensive reforms that are needed – is inequality. Inequality is like a slow-growing but untreated cancer; it can grow with little apparent effect for a long time while the sufferer lives in happy ignorance. Occasionally there may be unexplained physical weaknesses and complaints that suggest something is awry, but other, less alarming explanations than cancer seem both more likely and comforting. Then suddenly the cancer begins to metastasise with catastrophic effects, but it is too late to stop its now obvious spread, and the implications are often fatal.

Societies, unlike individuals, do not die. But the cancer of inequality produces results that are equally catastrophic.
- From that starting point, it makes sense that the very people who have secured their positions by exploiting amorality might have trouble seeing how to address it. But Paul Mason sees Greece's election as an example of how citizens can peacefully and democratically revolt against the mindset that people must be sacrificed to economic gods.

- David Macdonald studies how Canada's economic picture would look if First Nations weren't deliberately cut out of it. And Jason Warick reports on Ken Coates' call to share resource revenue with First Nations.

- Edward Keenan highlights the CRA's selective crackdown against charities whose causes don't fit the Cons' politics.

- And finally, Michael Harris discusses how the Harper Cons' distaste for any accurate portrayal of their government is all too consistent with how truth-tellers are being treated around the globe:
The next prime minister of Canada has either got to let Canadians in on what is really happening in this country and this world, or see the profession of politics fall into permanent disgrace. It won’t be lousy voter turn-out we’ll be talking about then — it will voter turn-off and the extinction of democracy, Alberta-style.
What is happening in Stephen Harper’s Canada — the hoarding and choking-off of information, the outright lying — is going on in many of the aging, decrepit democracies in the West. The establishments of several countries have effectively decided that they are above the law — and often cite national security threats to justify anti-democratic and, in some cases, thoroughly illegal behaviours.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Larry Elliott writes that at least some business leaders are paying lip service to the idea that inequality needs to be reined in. But Alec Hogg points out that at least some of the privileged few are using their obscene wealth to remove themselves from the rest of humanity, rather than lifting a finger to help anybody else.

- Meanwhile, Joseph Stiglitz observes that sheer stubborn stupidity on the part of austerians is doing untold damage to the global economy. But Jon Henley notes that in advance of Syriza's election victory, a new social movement in Greece had already been showing how much good collective action can do - suggesting that citizens are rightly resisting the claim that there's nothing to be done to improve their plight.

- Scott Gilmore reminds us of Canada's shameful history of mistreating First Nations.

- Mitchell Anderson comments that contrary to its oft-repeated promise, Alberta has indeed blown another oil boom.

- Finally, Andrew Coyne laments the Libs' choice to join the Cons in refusing to do anything about climate change. And Joseph Heath points out that the environmental damage we're leaving for future generations to address far outweighs the financial deficits which are so often used as an excuse for inaction:
Oliver knows that deficits are neither here nor there from the standpoint of intergenerational equity. What he actually has is a standing preference for smaller government. So when government revenue falls, this gives him an opportunity to reduce the size of government, by cutting expenditures. The idea that “deficits are immoral” is just a convenient way of selling the public on this reduction in the size of government, without having to make the case for smaller government (which is a tough sell).

This is all pretty standard. I guess what makes it extra-cynical is that we are, as a matter of fact, confronting a serious problem of intergenerational justice right now, in the form of climate change. And not only are we failing to do what’s right for our children on this file, we are doing the exact opposite of what’s right. So it is obvious that a moral concern about the welfare of future generations carries absolutely no weight with the Harper government. If it did, we would be debating what to do with all the revenue being generated by new federal carbon taxes. This is what takes Oliver’s remark out of the realm of run-of-the-mill-cynical and into the realm of deeply-cynical.

Finally, just an exercise for fun. There are lots of arguments out there, suggesting that we should not be particularly worried about climate change — that things will somehow take care of themselves. Try to find one single argument for inaction on climate change that is not also an argument for ignoring government deficits.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


A couple of earlier posts have started a bit of a discussion about the messages which will be most effective in convincing voters - and particularly swing voters - to shift their votes away from the Harper Cons. But I'll take the opportunity to turn the discussion over to a wider audience through Twitter.

In addition to ideas for overall themes, I'd also think it's worth showing how they can be to use. Here's an example as to how one suggested by Sub-Boreal might be applied in practice:

[Message based on the work done by End Immigration Detention.]

Obviously, Sub-Boreal's suggestion is one which can be applied to multiple issues with appropriate modifications. And while single-issue messages are worth discussing as well, it's worth focusing particularly on themes which can serve as an overarching message in nearly any area of political discussion

Again, though, I'll offer a reminder that the goal isn't only to present a message which a particular party could choose to echo. Instead, it's to develop themes which will resonate across party lines to nudge voters away from the Cons, with a particular emphasis on those who may have supported the Cons in the past but be open to voting differently.

The hope is to generate both new ideas, and suggestions as to improve and apply the ones put forward already. And the ultimate goal is to develop some memes which can at least be passed along through social media - and maybe progress to a pre-writ ad campaign - to define Stephen Harper for the Canadian public as the next election approaches.

Sunday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Sunday reading.

- Nicholas Kristof writes about the empathy gap which causes far too many wealthier citizens to devalue those who don't have as much. Jesse Singal observes that the primary effect of wealth on well-being is to reduce downside rather than improve happiness - signalling that we might be best served pursuing policies aimed at improving financial security across the income scale. And Lucy Mangan discusses what's missing from the people who refuse to understand the effect of poverty - particularly when they're best positioned to do something to alleviate it:
Politicians, for example, are apparently completely baffled by Poor People’s propensity to do harmful things, often expensively, to themselves. (That’s politicians of all stripes – it’s just that the left wing wrings its hands and feels helplessly sorry for Them, while Tories are pretty sure They are just animals in need of better training.) The underclass eats fast food, drinks and smokes, and some of its more unruly members even take drugs. Why? Why?

Listen, I always want to say, if you’re genuinely mystified, answer me this: have you never had a really bad day and really wanted – nay, needed – an extra glass of Montrachet on the roof terrace in the evening? Or such a chaotic, miserable week that you’ve ended up with a takeaway five nights out of seven instead of delving into Nigella’s latest?

You have? Why, splendid. Now imagine if your whole life were not just like that one bad day, but even worse. All the time. No let-up. No end in sight. No, you can’t go on holiday. No, you can’t cash anything in and retire. No. How would you react? No, you’ve not got a marketable skills set. You don’t know anyone who can give you a job. No. No.
I don’t understand how the people in charge of us all don’t understand. If you are genuinely unable to apply your imagination and extend your empathy far enough – and you don’t have to do it all at once; little by little will suffice, but you must get there – then you are a sociopath, and we should all be protected from your actions. If you are in fact able and choose not to, then you’re something quite a lot worse.
- But if the privileged can't be convinced to care about fellow human beings in their own right, Larry Elliot notes that they're at least taking notice of the economic costs of inequality. And Tony Berman theorizes that we've reached the point where there's no avoiding some action to level the playing field when it comes to standards of living.

- Unfortunately, neither empathy nor common sense is forthcoming from the Fraser Institute, which is determined to undermine incomes and increase workplace discrimination by undermining the public-sector employers which have made some progress on both fronts.

- And the Saskatchewan Party too seems determined to spend its political capital making life worse for the people who have least - with a new attack on affordable housing serving as just the latest example. Which only matches the track record of other right-wing governments who promise to sell off social housing in order to increase the available stock - only to deliver only on the part which privatizes incomes without benefiting renters.

- Finally, Chantal Hebert discusses how historical two-party systems have eroded in both Canada and the UK, while highlighting the stark difference in reaction by most Canadian parties (though not all) to the possibility of minority government:
A poll published earlier this month reported that one-third of U.K. voters feel they were better served by the coalition than they would have been by a majority government.

The experience has undeniably provided supporters of smaller parties with an added incentive to stick to their original choice, in the hope that they could secure a position of influence in a hung Parliament.

Meanwhile in Canada, Harper and Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are about to spend the next campaign on the same anti-coalition page.

Harper will again plead that the only way to ensure that the Conservatives are not robbed of an election victory by a scheming opposition is to give his party an unassailable majority.

The Liberals will continue to rule out — as Trudeau did in a year-end interview — the option of joining the NDP in a coalition government, the better to convince New Democrats seeking regime change to move over to them.

The losers will be the voters who will once again be held hostage to a winner-take-all approach to parliamentary democracy.