Saturday, May 09, 2015

Working across the aisle

Among the other lessons learned from Alberta's recent election, let's point out one more with implications for the federal scene.

While the main opposition parties recognized that they were too far apart in their general policy orientation to justify a formal coalition, both the NDP and the Wildrose Party were happy to point out some of the areas which were ripe for cooperation as part of their criticism of the governing PCs.

In other words, neither tried to pretend that there was no room to discuss post-election cooperation, nor to claim that some areas of disagreement or personal differences rendered it futile to even talk about shared interests. And both were rewarded with improved seat totals - while the majority-or-bust PCs were severely punished.

Which raises a couple of questions for discussion.

How different would the Alberta election have looked if either of the main opposition parties had taken the position that it was prepared to accept continued Prentice government if the alternative was working across party lines?

And if even the Wildrose Party can find areas of common ground with the NDP as part of a shared goal of achieving a change in government, how in the world can the federal Liberals keep a straight face while pretending that cooperation is impossible?

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- CBC follows up on the connection between childhood poverty and increased health-care costs later in life. And Sunny Freeman points out how the living wage planned by Rachel Notley's NDP figures to benefit Alberta's economy in general.

- Meanwhile, William Gardner laments our lack of accurate information on health and well-being in the wake of the Cons' census shredding, particularly among exactly the marginalized communities who are most likely to need help.

- And Richard Thaler reminds us why it's foolish to assume that people and economies can be treated as if they'll operate according to market ideals of perfect information and equality in bargaining power. 

- Gerald Caplan offers a warning to the Notley government as to what it can expect from a corporate establishment which considers itself to be above the will of the public. And in keeping with the theme of this week's column, David McGrane sees the NDP's victory as bringing Alberta's politics in line with those of the other prairie provinces.

- Finally, Andrew Coyne discusses how the Cons managed to fit nearly every possible indictment of their government into a single day's worth of legislative abuses and public deception. And Robin Sears highlights why the next federal election campaign figures to be far less predictable than the government which will be up for public scrutiny.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Musical interlude

Tei Shi - Bassically

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- PressProgress weighs in on corporate Canada's twelve-figure tax avoidance, while noting that the Cons' decision to slash enforcement against tax cheats (while attacking charities instead) goes a long way toward explaining the amount of money flowing offshore. And Oxfam is working on its own Canadian fair tax campaign.

- Robert Frank highlights the complete disconnect from reality which results in most American millionaires claiming that they're in the middle class, rather than representing a privileged few. And Stephen Gordon writes that there's a similar sleight of hand at work in the Libs' "middle class tax cut" which in fact primarily benefits those just short of the top of Canada's income scale.

- Ray Whitaker explains why oversight wouldn't do anything to improve the abuses we should expect under the Cons' terror bill. Alison highlights the pitiful excuses the Libs continue to offer for signing on to C-51. And Amanda Connolly notes that the Cons aren't even waiting for the ink to dry on C-51 before ramming still more powers to arbitrarily restrict Canadians' movements into a budget bill.

- Meanwhile, Jorge Barrera reports on how the RCMP is already treating activist movements in its decision to pathologize Idle No More.

- Finally, Michael Harris discusses why the Cons have every reason to be concerned - and the rest of us can be optimistic - about the NDP's Alberta election victory.

Thursday, May 07, 2015

On private choices

Among the other noteworthy impacts of Rachel Notley's resounding election victory, right-wing governments elsewhere can no longer point to Alberta as the worst offender when it comes to breaking down universal public health care.

And it may not be surprising that Brad Wall is offering to play that role instead, with two-tier access to MRIs representing just the latest attack. But Wall may learn the hard way that if Alberta can topple a political dynasty over its corporatist preferences, Saskatchewan voters are even less inclined to serve as the thin edge of the wedge in destroying one of our province's proudest accomplishments.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Canadians for Tax Fairness crunches the numbers and finds that Canada is losing out on nearly $200 billion in assets being sheltered in tax havens. And David Kotz writes about the need for large-scale restructuring to address the glaring flaws in neoliberal dogma:
Despite the resurgence of neoliberal ideas and policies, there is reason to be optimistic about the potential for progressive change in the years ahead. The efforts to revive and extend the neoliberal model cannot succeed in overcoming the current economic stagnation and restoring normal capitalist economic growth without which a capitalist system becomes unstable. A look at similar periods in history suggests that the free-market form of capitalism, which has prevailed since around 1980, is near the end of its life.
The free-market growth machine gave rise to growing levels of household and financial sector debt along with the spread of toxic financial assets, a process that was unsustainable in the long run. In 2008 the current form of capitalism gave rise to a structural crisis, as had those before it.

With this history in mind, what might emerge today? If history repeats itself, there may be another round of restructuring within the bounds of a capitalist system. One possible version would be a new nationalist and statist form of capitalism that brings renewed economic expansion and stability while maintaining employers' currently dominant position in the labor market, a development that would not be favorable for the majority. If the labor movement and other popular movements gain strength, the prospect of a new form of regulated capitalism based on capital-labor compromise may arise. Big business becomes willing to compromise only when threatened by a growing progressive movement.
- Vibrant Calgary offers a look at the first steps toward a poverty elimination strategy for that city. And Charles Hamilton reports on the work being done by Saskatchewan's poverty reduction strategy committee to develop a long-overdue plan.

- But it of course doesn't help when money budgeted for social services is then left to wither on the vine - as happened for nearly $100 million in federal funding last year.

- Justin Ling reports on the Cons' decision to rid themselves of yet another overly-effective watchdog, as Canada's Correctional Investigator Howard Sapers is being cast off for pointing out the abominable conditions in Canadian prisons.

- And finally, Doug Cuthand discusses how C-51 is designed to stifle dissent by the environmental movement, First Nations and other Canadians.

New column day

Here, on how the rise of Rachel Notley's NDP serves largely to bring Alberta's political system into step with those of its regional neighbours.

For further reading...
- Murray Mandryk had previously pointed out why we should be cautious about reading too much into the Alberta results. But the most important distinction looks to be that Saskatchewan is currently functioning as a pure two-party system - so the support level which won Rachel Notley a resounding majority would leave the NDP on Saskatchewan's opposition benches.
- Dan Arnold and Andrew Coyne both confirm that a progressive victory in Alberta shouldn't be too much of a surprise.
- Finally, Jeremy Nuttall examines how the NDP's win may affect the federal political scene, while Tim Harper and Chantal Hebert also weigh in.

On first steps

Dru Oja Jay, David Bush and Doug Nesbitt, Graham Steele and Karl Nerenberg have already offered their suggestions on the first steps for Rachel Notley's Alberta NDP government (and the progressives hoping for it to produce positive change). But I'll offer my own take based on one overriding principle: having earned power by showing that Alberta's citizens have more say in their own province than they've come to expect, the NDP should govern so as to enhance both the perception and the reality of public involvement in governance.

So what might a plan for government look like based on that starting point?

The largest advantage the NDP has at the moment is the popularity of Rachel Notley. And there are two radically different ways of handling her public stature.

On the right in particular, the typical strategy is to keep a leader far above any interaction with opponents or the public: see how rarely a Stephen Harper or a Brad Wall appears in any setting which could be considered real life rather than carefully-scripted threatre. And that might make sense for a party whose general principles involve having the public's betters make decisions on their behalf.

But the NDP can't expect to succeed as that type of party: remember how the "keep your head down and wait for an inevitable second term" plan worked in Nova Scotia. And Notley's mass appeal offers an opportunity to encourage public engagement even after election day.

I'd thus consider it to be worth treating the time before the Legislature returns as a continuation of the campaign, with Notley engaging in continued public outreach not to pursue votes, but instead to encourage people to stay involved in their government over the next four years (and beyond). And Alberta's existing social activists will be natural allies in that effort.

Having Notley in the public eye may result in some material for criticism. But I don't see any realistic way around the fact that Notley will ultimately come under attack by well-funded opponents. And her best chance of maintaining a strong leadership profile in the long run is to translate her immediate popularity into a movement ready and willing to push back on her behalf.

Meanwhile, on the policy front, it's fairly clear that the Alberta public voted for the NDP based on a platform intended to ensure that all groups, including the resource and business sectors, make a fair contribution to the province's finances. And by all indications, those policies are even more popular than the NDP is as a party - meaning that there's no reason to see calls to sacrifice the NDP's platform to the confidence fairy as anything but trolling.

Beyond the explicit terms of the platform which would obviously form the basis for a first throne speech and budget, I'd then be looking for input from all possible corners: reaching out at least to MLAs of all parties in the short term in developing the current legislative agenda, and setting up public deliberation processes so that future plans are developed with an expectation of public input.

Finally, the NDP also has an opportunity to take the lead on accountable government - giving Albertans what they want in examining the actions of the PCs, while also demonstrating more openness to scrutiny. On that front, I'd be tempted to promise steps to strengthen Alberta's freedom of information system, including resources to start making both past and future records available as a default position - the former ensuring a steady flow of material to remind Albertans why they're so glad the PCs are out of office, the latter to confirm that the NDP is offering something better.

Of course, there's much more to be done in terms of reaching out to all kinds of groups (including to talk down the more reasonable business types) and assembling the machinery of the Notley government. But the NDP's main decision for now is whether to go into hiding or build on its momentum - and I'd consider it well worth the party's while to make hay while the sun shines.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

On rebuilding projects

I'll have plenty more to say about last night's resounding Alberta NDP election victory in posts to come. But for now, here's a quick take on what comes next for the PCs.

I had earlier wondered whether the PCs might effectively take a majority-or-bust position in contrast to the other parties.

Going into last night, the NDP and Wildrose Party each had reason to draw something positive out of winning, say, 20 seats and/or a role as the Official Opposition. And that may have implied some willingness to put resources into achieving those outcomes even if it meant falling short of winning power.

But having started with a majority government, the PCs spent the entire campaign sending the message both that nothing less would do, and that they were close to achieving that result no matter what the polls said. And they seem to have campaigned accordingly - making no pleas to save the furniture or offer a platform for rebuilding.

What's more, they did prove the polls wrong to some extent - coming in second in the popular vote where the last wave of projections saw them plummeting below the Wildrose. But that wasn't enough to save more than a handful of seats - a disconnect which might be explained if the PCs directed proportionally more of their efforts toward losing battles in seats which might have represented the margin between forming government and not.

Obviously, the end result didn't make for a situation which Jim Prentice wanted to bother facing. But it's an open question whether other Alberta PCs share his disdain for the work of building in opposition - and the answer will likely determine the identity of the NDP's main opponent in election cycles to come.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Sean McElwee offers a new set of evidence that the right-wing Republicans who run on the economy in fact do it nothing but harm. And David Dayen discusses how Bernie Sanders may be able to push the U.S.' policy discussion into a far more positive area by forcing both parties to confront the failure of corporatist economics.

- But David MacDonald warns that Justin Trudeau and the Libs are trying to force Canada into a limited choice between tax baubles for the upper class. And Chantal Hebert too sees Trudeau as doing little more than offering a second small-c conservative party for voters.

- John Barber and the Globe and Mail note that bill C-51 is being rammed through Parliament by the Cons and Libs alike even though it's never been justified even in principle, let alone in its specifics. And as the Libs accept the argument that we have to hold our noses and vote for anything the Cons say will address national security, Tabatha Southey points out that similar legislation has actually made the public less safe when it comes to crime.

- Meanwhile, Alice Funke exposes how another bill strong-armed through Parliament by the Cons has gone awry, as Canadians could be on the hook to reimburse seven-figure bills for by-elections which have been called to last until this fall's general election.

- Finally, Neal Irwin highlights the fact that an employee can achieve exactly the same advancement by giving the false appearance of working long hours as by actually working those hours. But most significant is this point about the significant of overwork:
But the fact that the consultants who quietly lightened their workload did just as well in their performance reviews as those who were truly working 80 or more hours a week suggests that in normal times, heavy workloads may be more about signaling devotion to a firm than really being more productive. The person working 80 hours isn’t necessarily serving clients any better than the person working 50.

In other words, maybe the real problem isn’t men faking greater devotion to their jobs. Maybe it’s that too many companies reward the wrong things, favoring the illusion of extraordinary effort over actual productivity.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Couched cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Branko Milanovic discusses how rent theory fits into the glaring gap between productivity and wages:
Bob Solow explored a couple of days ago another possibility. Going back to his own initial work on the theory of growth, some 60 years ago, Solow asked the following question: why did we assume that there is perfect competition and that factors are paid their perfect completion marginal products? We knew, continued Solow, that there were monopolies; moreover, the theory of imperfect competition (Chamberlin and Joan Robinson) existed since the 1930s. Solow said: “I could not find a good reason, but since theory and facts were broadly in accord, nobody bothered much with the assumption”. That is, until recently. How can we explain, continued Solow, a sustained and significant divergence between nonfarm sector productivity and real wage? Despite some quibbles about the measurement of the two, there is no doubt that the they have diverged. But that goes against everything we thought we knew! (I am paraphrasing Solow here.)

However, if you assume a model of imperfect competition, where in addition to labor and capital being paid their marginal product, there is also a rent (due to the fact that price is greater than the marginal revenue product), the issue becomes: how is that rent going to be distributed between labor and capital? And until the early 1980, due to trade union density (“The treaty of Detroit”), relative shortage of labor, trilateral (government-capital-labor) negotiations etc., the rent was divided in a way that favored labor. But with the decline of the unions, ideological assault on labor (the Reagan revolution) and a huge expansion of available wage-labor worldwide (as China and Eastern Europe rejoined the world economy), the bargaining power of labor waned and that of capital increased. Consequently, the share of capital in national income increased, and productivity growth got decoupled from real wage growth.
In Solow’s view, the determination of what share of the rent goes to labor and what to capital is not solely political. It depends also on their relative scarcities (or put it the other way round, on the reserve army of the unemployed). But political factors do play a role too: power of trade unions, ideology, who controls the government, probably fear or not of a social revolution. So, as these political factors have receded, or more exactly, have moved in a direction adverse for labor, the division of the pie has become more favorable to capital.
- Dylan Matthews offers a useful survey of views on a basic income. And Scott Santens points out that a basic income is entirely consistent with the goals of the labour movement.

- Atul Gawande discusses how a U.S. medical system which doles out unnecessary treatment in the name of profits produces both higher costs and worse health outcomes. And Sabrina Tavernise connects Baltimore's poverty and poor health - which have been allowed to fester for decades - to the rightful frustration of citizens.

- Eric Jaffe argues that investment in transit does plenty of good for a city's development - including by providing a far more reliable pool of workers for employers. But Jordon Cooper writes that instead, Saskatoon (like far too many other Canadian cities) is set up to make transit more costly than driving for residents.

- Finally, Mitchell Anderson writes that Alberta voters are rightly asking what's happened to the promised benefits of an oil boom.

Monday, May 04, 2015

On personal protections

Where Brad Wall will admit just one "lapse in judgment" in his office's deliberate release of Peter Bowden's personal information for political purposes, I can count several - with a staffer's working for Wall in the first place, following his instructions, and expecting not to be thrown under the bus for Wall's decision looming high on the list.

Fortunately for Wall's staffers, they're apparently being granted far more privacy protection than the whistleblowers they're being paid to attack.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Justin Wolfers discusses new research showing how location has a dramatic effect on the future of young children. And it's particularly striking that the negatives of moving seem to outweigh any positive effects of a surrounding neighbourhood for older children - suggesting that if there's any truth to the theory that poverty is merely a stage on the way to relative wealth for a meaningful number of families, then those families may systemically be in the worst circumstances when it does the most harm.

- Meanwhile, Denis Campbell reports on how austerity has cost lives in the UK. Kelly Crowe writes about user comments on discount drug cards which serve largely to highlight the lack of any consistent prescription drug availability in Canada. And Ryan Meili rightly argues that any talk of improving or revitalizing a neighbourhood needs to involve improving conditions for the people who are there - not driving them out for the benefit of others.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh starts a series on precarious work in Ontario by contrasting the total commitment expected of part-time employees against the nonexistent prospect of work offered by retail employers. And while Anand Giridharadas reports on one possibility to smooth out incomes for people facing precarious work, the concept of a business extracting a fee for a more predictable income is hardly one we should prefer to an effective social safety net. 

- On that front, Bill Curry discusses new polling showing that Canadians widely support a strengthened Canada Pension Plan.

- Finally, Carol Goar offers a reminder that there's still a long way to go in pursuing gender equality around the globe - and that in fact matters have been getting worse in Canada over the past couple of decades.

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Michael Kraus, Shai Davidai and A. David Nussbaum discuss the myth of social mobility in the U.S. And Nicholas Kristof writes that inequality is a choice rather than an inevitability:
Yet while we broadly lament inequality, we treat it as some natural disaster imposed upon us. That’s absurd. The roots of inequality are complex and, to some extent, reflect global forces, but they also reflect our policy choices.

In his new book, “The Great Divide,” Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, includes two chapters whose titles sum it up: “Inequality Is Not Inevitable” and “Inequality Is a Choice.”

“I overheard one billionaire — who had gotten his start in life by inheriting a fortune — discuss with another the problem of lazy Americans who were trying to free ride on the rest,” Stiglitz writes. “Soon thereafter, they seamlessly transitioned into a discussion of tax shelters.”

Say what?

We as a nation have chosen to prioritize tax shelters over minimum wages, subsidies for private jets over robust services for children to break the cycle of poverty. And the political conversation is often not about free rides by corporations, but about free rides by the impoverished.
- Sean Illing duly calls out David Brooks' attempt to paint the effects of systemic poverty as personal moral failings. And Jason Silverstein notes that racial health disparities have everything to do with social conditions rather than genetics.

- Anita Burke comments that we should be embarrassed by the pathetic response to the English Bay oil spill and resulting environmental damage. But Stanley Tromp reports that the spill didn't tell the U.S. anything it didn't know, as it's been concerned about the Cons' neglect of the possible effects of marine oil spills for years.

- Meanwhile, Dean Beeby reports that the Sierra Club is just the latest environmental group coming under attack by the CRA.

- Adrian Morrow reports on polling showing that Ontarians want nothing to do with the Wynne Libs' privatization schemes. And rightly not, given how a similar plan to shuffle funding into corporate profits rather than the public interest is harming public transportation safety in Ontario and Saskatchewan alike.

- Finally, Jonathan Goldsbie offers another take on George Lakoff's advice to progressives in framing political messages.