Saturday, March 28, 2015

On value assessments

The Great Budget Debate at the Progress Summit of course reflected a thorough clash in values. But there was one note of obvious agreement which makes the conservative position untenable once its implications are drawn out.

All four speakers spent plenty of time talking about the fact that some investments are worthwhile, and acknowledging that the role of government includes assessing which ones justify the use of public money. But Monte Solberg in particular neatly demonstrated how anti-government bias undermines any attempt to carry out that task.

Solberg spent plenty of time on the Cons' usual jurisdictional dodges, arguing at various points that the federal government should step aside in favour of provinces, individuals and businesses as alternate decision-makers. But the claim that the federal government should carry a strong bias toward that course of action is flawed in two key ways.

There are plenty of areas where the federal government does in fact have direct jurisdiction: as long as one recognizes e.g. the importance of First Nations health and education (being some of the areas with the most obvious potential for investment to make a massive difference in outcomes) which have been grossly underfunded due solely to the choice of the federal government. And there's also the reality that economies of scale and collective planning can produce better outcomes than atomized and unfocused spending which provinces and municipalities are happy to facilitate.

That said, it's absolutely necessary to evaluate program effectiveness. But Solberg and Philip Cross both went far out of their way emphasizing their disdain for the civil service which needs to be able to carry out the cost/benefit analysis required to direct spending where it can best serve public purposes.

In sum, one can't plausibly claim to acknowledge the value of focused and efficient spending while rejecting the process needed to provide exactly that on specious ideological and jurisdictional grounds. And the right's failure to reconcile those principles - both in the Progress Summit debate and elsewhere - offers a compelling reason not to consider it credible when it comes to economic planning.

On structures of convenience

The Progress Summit panel on accountability and transparency has covered the issued of power being consolidated in the hands of the executive, as well as the fact that Stephen Harper's actions in that respect only reflect a wider pattern. But it's worth reminding ourselves how that trend is best explained - and considering how to reverse or modify it.

To start with, the desire to avoid accountability has led to additional trends beyond the transfer of power upward. In addition, projects - and particularly the aspects thereof which might give rise to controversy - are increasingly handled by the private sector which isn't subject to access-to-information legislation rather than the civil service which is. And while that's partly driven by ideology, it's also a matter of convenience for governments which think that knowledge about how decisions are actually made runs contrary to their political goals.

The existence of accountability mechanisms for one process thus tends to be treated as reason to use another one. And the answer to that reality may be to extend the reach of our watchdogs: by eliminating that asymmetry in making both executive operations and private decision-making affecting public expenditures subject to access to information and other oversight mechanisms, we can eliminate the incentive to channel power toward them for artificial reasons.

In addition, it's come to be assumed that the process of review by legislators is too ponderous for many decisions, resulting in legislation being developed more as a framework for executive decisions rather than the outcome of a deliberative process as to what choices should be made.

That trend can be reversed by lawmakers themselves to the extent they're willing to buck the trend and pass more substantive legislation. Or alternatively, greater transparency and consultation in executive decision-making - which itself could be required by law - could go a long way toward ensuring that decisions aren't made solely by the executive and its preferred set of special interests.

Identifying the adversary

Not surprisingly, Charles Taylor's keynote address and discussion on political inclusion has neatly highlighted both the importance of finding commonalities at the personal level, and the dangers of government fomenting prejudice toward minority groups. But I'd think it's worth drawing a distinction between the problems being addressed at the personal and the political levels.

At the personal level, it's true prejudice which is best addressed through relationships and shared experience. And we should expect a concerted effort to connect to minority communities to put an end to the underlying fear of the other which politicians may seek to use to their own ends in trying to build a voting coalition through the demonization of others.

But the choice to pursue that path - with the Cons' attempt to conflate Islam in general with an inchoate threat to Canadians serving as a particularly jarring example - arises out of something more cynical and dangerous than individual prejudice based in ignorance or unfamiliarity, and which deserves to be called out as such when carried out as a deliberate strategy.

The best label for it may be something along the lines of exclusionism: the inclination and/or deliberate choice to exacerbate prejudice for the purpose of diminishing the public participation of minority groups. And it should be a relatively easy matter to build consensus around the need to fight along those principled lines, even if each particular case also involves the challenge of countering some level of personal prejudice.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Musical interlude

Big Wreck - Ghosts

On common ground

The Progress Summit's panel on First Nations has included plenty of discussion of the need to identify commonalities between First Nation issues and other groups within Canada. And I'd add that there are plenty more opportunities to draw further connections.

The recognition that the federal government tried to eradicate aboriginal culture (and celebration of that fact that it failed) can surely be linked to the latest attempts to intrude on individual beliefs and practices. And the development gap between First Nations and Canada at large is largely paralleled by a similar divide between other rural or isolated communities which are treated as lacking economic value, and current profit centres.

With that in mind, I'd think it's worth examining the arguments which can be made to address those issues together. And a couple of related ones can be put forward.

First, Canada (in contrast to the U.S.) is relatively lacking in a meaningful "pro-Constitution" movement. And it's not hard to see how one could be developed which would encompass both treaty and constitutional recognition of First Nations, and the protection of minority rights which are threatened by cynical political intrusions.

In turn, that movement would be all the stronger if we seek recognition and enforcement of greater social and economic rights - which would provide a basis to mandate even reluctant governments to give effect to those rights.

On enduring foundations

The framing panel at the Progress Summit included plenty of ideas as to how the left can shape political debates. But I'll note that it seemed to miss a couple of related issues.

Most notably, there was an almost exclusive focus on reaching out to swing voters rather than framing issues in a way that would actually serve to build the progressive movement in the longer term. But that of course utterly misses the point that one can't afford to completely ignore base-building in the name of appealing to the currently-undecided - as even if one's goals focused solely on the latter, it's impossible to assemble the revenue and volunteer resources necessary to get do so without actually inspiring a reliable group of core supporters.

In addition, the framing issue was approached mostly from the perspective of parties and elections rather than broader movements - a particularly surprising oversight given the context of think-tank event.

On both counts, Paul Saurette stood out in offering insights into how the right has both developed extra-partisan mechanisms to spread the values which can be drawn on at election time, as well as the importance of appealing to emotions which can motivate voters across the spectrum. But there's still plenty of room to expand on the discussion as to how to build frames which stand the test of time - and particularly in a panel which pointed out how terms like "welfare" were turned into negatives by a concerted right-wing effort, that surely has to be a primary consideration in developing a progressive movement.

A seat at the table

Richard Trumka's address and the subsequent response panel at the Progress Summit have aptly addressed issues in trying to strengthen the grassroots of the labour movement. But Trumka's focus on trade agreements also raises a related question which may not easily be dealt with at the grassroots level.

As I alluded to in this week's column, governments are increasingly presuming that big businesses need to be at the table in all kinds of policy development which is even ancillary to the economy.

It may not be easy to tell our corporate overlords that they can't have direct access to decision-makers. But it might be easier to make the case that workers need to play a similar role. So with that in mind, is it viable to make a serious push to ensure that trade agreements and other economic policies are developed only with meaningful labour input and approval?

Dollar for dollar

Thomas Mulcair's Progress Summit commitment that an NDP government will redirect the value of a stock option tax loophole toward families in need will surely make for one of the most important moments of a summit directed at developing exactly those types of ideas.

So it's unquestionably important that Mulcair is willing to take Canada in the direction of redirecting corporate giveaways toward people with a genuine need. That said, it's worth taking a look at the numbers as to how far today's announcement will go.

Canadians for Tax Fairness estimates the stock option loophole at a cost of $1 billion per year. But at least some responses - albeit ones which I'd take with a grain of salt - are questioning whether the net revenue would be less due to offsetting changes in corporate taxes.

And the nominal cost of eliminating child poverty (ignoring for the moment the larger benefits of doing so) is substantially higher than even the raw number: see e.g. the National Council of Welfare's estimates showing the sticker price of ending poverty as a whole at over $12 billion.

What's more, it's not clear that the money raised by closing the tax loophole would go solely to the gap between current sub-poverty incomes and getting families to the poverty line. That's fine in policy terms, as need and inequality don't end immediately at the poverty line - but it means we should be cautious in presuming that every dollar raised will address the immediate goal which provided the context for Mulcair's promise.

Of course, we can also expect positive consequences from the reduction of both inequality and poverty. So it's not hard to see today's announcement as a major first step toward both questioning corporate giveaways, and meeting the goal of ending child poverty. But it likely doesn't represent the end of the story either.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New column day

Here, on the Saskatchewan Party's choice to turn the graduate retention credit into a purely political goodie rather than a program which could conceivably retain Saskatchewan graduates, while at the same time devaluing the very concept of education for its own sake.

For further reading...
- The province's explanation (such as it is) can be found here. And CBC reported on the changes here.
- I allude in the column to Ontario's choice to put tuition policy directly in the hands of employers as reported by Simona Chiose here.
- And Kevin Milligan's analysis of the problems with the Harper Cons' non-refundable tax baubles applies even more to the graduate retention credit.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- In advance of this weekend's Progress Summit, Robin Sears comments on the significance of the Broadbent Institute and other think tanks in shaping policy options:
The Center for American Progress was the wakeup call for progressives around the world. Independent-minded, massively funded, deeply professional, it was created to develop winning agendas for a new Democratic president. Key Obamites trained there. Core strategies and goals were polished there. Their success helped to spawn a third generation of think tanks who understood that to have real impact, good ideas had to be married to credible execution.

In Canada today, the two ‘conviction-based’ parties of left and right as political scientists are wont to label conservatives and social democrats—have thriving think tanks that have played important roles in both the idea baking and the training of a new generation of political activists. The Manning Centre—unlike the Fraser institute—has become less fringe and more effectively political. The Broadbent Institute has quickly found its groove as a forum where greenies, left liberals, New Democrats, and independent activists can hammer out new progressive visions and the tools to deliver them.
The Broadbent Institute’s executive director Rick Smith and his small but impressive team seem so far to have found their footing, pushing the envelope a little, rallying partisans as required, and avoiding the curse of think tanks everywhere: becoming pedantic, boring, and irrelevant. Their annual gatherings of the progressive clans have exceeded most cynical old-timers’ expectations; convening a new generation from outside partisan politics, from the NGO and environmental movements, left liberals and social democrats, and helping them build bonds both personal and political.

Ten years from now—or maybe much sooner—one may expect a proud young minister celebrating the success of a dramatic new initiative, just endorsed by Parliament, telling reporters, “Well, it all started late one boozy night, at the Broadbent summit!”
- Meanwhile, Desmond Cole interviews David Hulchanski on rising inequality in Toronto and elsewhere. And Kate McInturff notes that increased inequality is just one of the harmful results of an obsession with fighting deficits rather than improving the lives of citizens.

- Roy Romanow highlights the imminent dangers facing Canada's health care system if we don't fill in missing pieces including a pharmacare program.

- Raveena Aulakh reports on the Council of Canadians' damning study on the protection of water in Canada. And on the subject of regulatory negligence, Allison Martel finds that CN Rail has seen a massive jump in derailments even as it's carrying more hazardous products including crude oil.

- Finally, Bob Hepburn discusses how Stephen Harper decided to use the politics of fear as his main means of clinging to power. And thwap observes that a reasonable amount of Parliamentary pushback has gone a long way in countering the spin when it comes to C-51.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

History repeating

2008, pre-election: Liberal bigwigs make a ridiculous spectacle of themselves proclaiming that they'll never deign to cooperate with the likes of the NDP.

2008, post-election: Having spent the campaign echoing Stephen Harper's desperate message that a coalition would be illegitimate, the Liberals conclude that they're willing to cooperate after all, only to botch the job.

2011, pre-election: Liberal bigwigs make a ridiculous spectacle of themselves proclaiming that they'll never deign to cooperate with the likes of the NDP.

2011, post-election: Having spent the campaign echoing Stephen Harper's desperate message that a coalition would be illegitimate, the Liberals conclude that they're willing to cooperate after all, only to botch the job.

2015, pre-election: Liberal bigwigs begin to make a ridiculous spectacle of themselves proclaiming that they'll never deign to cooperate with the likes of the NDP.

From all available precedent, we should fully expect the Libs to again walk back their inexplicable aversion to cooperation once the next federal election has passed. But is it too much to ask that they stop wasting so much of their (and our) time and energy convincing themselves not to do what in all likelihood will need to be done to ensure a better federal government?

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Dennis Howlett reminds us that we can raise enough money to strengthen our social safety net merely by ensuring that a relatively small group of privileged people pays its fair share. And Seth Stephens-Davidowitz examines the glaring nepotism which festers in the absence of some policy counterweights.

- But Robert Kuttner offers seven reasons why the 99% keeps losing on policy grounds despite having the obvious theoretical ability to ensure reasonable political outcomes. In a similar vein, Sean McElwee discusses the connection between racism and poverty politics in the U.S.

- Meanwhile, Samara's report card reminds us that Canada too has plenty to improve in ensuring representative and connected government, while Jordon Cooper points out some particularly egregious examples of pandering and spin from all three levels of government.

- Ashley Renders reports on the World Bank's recognition that it's both possible and necessary to decouple economic development from pollution and climate change. And Kai Nagata recognizes that we shouldn't see a liveable natural environment as a matter of partisanship or ideology.

- But Jordan Press writes that while the Cons were warned against eliminating environmental criteria for infrastructure spending, they went ahead with a political decision to treat a healthy environment as valueless anyway. And Ian MacLeod reports on the Harper Cons' political interference to ensure that Canadian art which might not suit the oil sector's agenda didn't get presented around the world.

- Finally, Ralph Surette rightly notes that the Cons are willing - and indeed eager - to tear apart Canada's social fabric in order to cling to power. But I do have to question when this became news.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Entwined cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Ryan Meili reminds us of the harmful health impacts of inequality. And Susan Perry discusses the effect of inequality on health in the workplace in particular:
The rise in income inequality over the past three decades or so is taking a major toll on the general health of American workers — and not just because stagnant or falling wages have made it increasingly difficult for many workers to afford high-quality health care.

For, as a commentary published recently in the American Journal of Public Health points out, income inequality has also been accompanied by changes in the workplace that increase workers’ stress in ways that negatively affect their health.

Those changes include a less stable job market, work weeks that repeatedly exceed 40 hours (for individuals working full time as well as for those working two or more part-time jobs), work schedules with unpredictable or irregular hours, greater “job intensification” (employers requiring workers to take on more tasks and responsibilities with less pay), lack of paid sick leave and higher out-of-pocket health costs (which erode discretionary income).
- Meanwhile, Andrew Dobson and Rupert Read write that it's time to stop pretending that growth for its own sake in a developed economy serves any useful purpose - especially when a top-heavy approach exacerbates inequality. But then, Chuk Plante points out that inequality acts as a barrier to development in any event. And Naomi Klein reviews Steve Fraser's The Age of Acquiescence as nicely describing the need for concerted public action to overcome the concentration of wealth and power.

- Matthew Ingram rightly argues that we shouldn't be willing to accept unfettered Internet surveillance as the new normal, while Christopher Parsons reminds us that we're already subject to monitoring and disruption without a law authorizing anything of the sort.

- Haroon Siddiqui makes the case that we should be far more scared of the Cons than of the phantoms they're trying to invent for political purpose. And Joseph Heath discusses Stephen Harper's warmongering under circumstances where it makes no sense at all to obsess over military buildup:
Canada does not need a fighting military. Americans often accuse other Western nations, particularly some European states, of free-riding on U.S. military power. And while this may not be true of some nations, it is certainly true of Canada. Part of what’s nice about having the world’s largest undefended border with the U.S. is that they would never tolerate the invasion of Canada by a hostile power. As a result, we have to be prepared for minor border skirmishes, but we don’t really need to have a full-scale military, sufficient to defend the country from attack.

The fact that the Canadian military is essentially otiose provides one way of understanding our past enthusiasm for peacekeeping – at least it provided some rationale for maintaining something like an able fighting force. Take away the peacekeeping, and what becomes the new raison d’ĂȘtre for the Canadian military? The Conservative government has yet to provide one — indeed, it seems not to be even aware of the need to. The boyish enthusiasm for the military that you find in the current government is essentially a matter of personal temperament and political ideology, but it lacks any underlying national or geopolitical rationale.
- Finally, Michael Harris weighs in on the reemergence of Reform's most irresponsible elements. Susan Delacourt wonders whether early-career Stephen Harper would recognize what he's since become. And Jeremy Nuttall reports on Harry Smith's work to ensure that the Harper Cons don't stay in power any longer than we can avoid.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Michael Babad writes that we should be glad to see jobs being created in the public sector since the private sector is doing nothing to offer opportunities for Canadians. And Andrew Jackson discusses how Quebec's progressive economic model has served it well, while offering an example which other provinces should be eager to follow.

- Konrad Yakabuski weighs in on the need for pharmacare to make an essential element of health care universally accessible. But while Brent Patterson agrees that we should be pursuing pharmacare, he also warns that ill-advised trade agreements may complicate its implementation.

- BJ Siekierski points out that two top Statistics Canada officials see our economic problems as revolving primarily around the working class rather than the middle class, while PressProgress finds even Harper loyalists questioning an income splitting scheme designed to benefit those who need its least. And Paul Rosenberg discusses the challenges of fighting back against voodoo economics:
“The problem with our politics is President Obama and the people who surround him, don’t represent an alternative to trickle down economics, they are trickle-down-lite,” Hanauer told me. “They’re sort of kinder-and-gentler trickle-down economics. They can talk a little bit about the importance of the middle class, but, in my opinion, they haven’t quite seen clearly that they’ve gotten cause-and-effect reversed. They still think that a thriving middle class is an effect of growth, a consequence of growth, and the truth is in a technological, modern economy, a thriving middle class is the cause of growth…. The middle class creates rich people, not the other way around.”

This used to be well-understood by everyone. During America’s long post-World War II boom, the incomes of all levels growing approximately equally—though slightly slower at the very top. “That’s how you sustain virtuous cycle of increasing returns which capitalism can be. Capitalism can be constructed in a way so that everyone does better all the time. It’s a beautiful thing,” Hanauer said. “But if the power dynamics change in really extreme ways, as they have in the last 30 years, and all of the value of enterprise is sucked out by a few owners and the senior managers, then you basically killed the goose that layed the golden egg.” That’s what stock buybacks are all about.
- The CP reports that even the Calgary Chamber of Commerce is concerned about the vast amounts of resource wealth wasted by the province of Alberta.

- Finally, Chris Chambers reports on Amnesty International's polling into the effects of mass surveillance - which show both relatively little support for a Big Brother state, and a high risk that people will be reluctant to access needed information when it's in place. And Nora Lamontagne and Justin Ling offer a must-read on the massive waste of time and resources poured into infiltrating and investigating a small group of Quebec leftists.