Saturday, August 29, 2015

On balanced options

Dave McGrane offers a historical perspective on how deficits for their own sake shouldn't be seen as an element of left-wing or progressive policy, while Excited Delerium takes a look at the policies on offer in Canada's federal election to see how it's possible to pursue substantive progressive change within a balanced budget. But let's examine more closely why it's wrong to draw any equivalence between the Trudeau Libs' platform, deficits and progressive policies (despite their frantic efforts to pretend there's no difference between the three).

Taking the Libs at their word, their current plan is to engage in deficit spending over the next few years, then balance the budget by 2019. So to the extent one might be inclined to prefer a measure of fiscal health other than balanced budgets (such as keeping debt at a stable proportion of GDP), the Libs aren't offering that choice - only a delayed return to balance, with the additional money spent in the meantime being necessarily limited to short-term projects. 

And once the budget is balanced, the Libs are attacking the very idea of national programs such as the NDP's child care plan - which is designed to fit within balanced budgets while actually building a substantial new social benefit in the longer term.

Fortunately, we don't need to look far to see the Trudeau philosophy in action, as his leading provincial proxy is offering up exactly the mix of unfocused short-term infrastructure spending, privatization in the name of false economies and cuts to actual programs implied by the federal Libs' platform. 

The contrast between the NDP and the Libs then represents a classic case of long-term planning with permanent returns, versus instant but fleeting gratification. And Canadian progressives who have seen the Harper Cons deliberately inflict long-term damage on our federal institutions should be wary of settling for the latter.

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Michal Rozworski calls for the election to include far more discussion as to who benefits from our economy as it's designed, and who gets left behind. Michael Wilson examines how Canada's economy has become far less equal over the past few decades. And Michelle Zilio talks to Munir Sheikh about the "made in Canada recession" under the Harper Cons, as a rare divergence between Canada and the rest of the world is seeing us headed in the wrong direction even as the U.S. and other developed countries do relatively well.

- Joanna Smith examines some of the key e-mails showing the Cons' interference with an independent Senate audit. Andrew Mitrovica discusses the Duffy trial and some of the more noteworthy media coverage. Michael Spratt highlights the public's interest in the trial and in assigning responsibility for Harper and his minions, while Michael Harris argues that the Duffy scandal has exposed the Harper PMO as a rogue operation interfering in actual governance. The Globe and Mail notes that the same mindset which led to the initial cover-up is leading the Cons to keep trying to stick their nose where it doesn't belong. And Tabatha Southey riffs off the concept of Duffy as the elephant in the room for the PMOs.

- Colette Derworiz reports on how even basic public-interest information has been shut down during the election campaign. And Kathryn May tells Tony Turner's story as to how a simple protest song has resulted in a scientist being sidelined from his job.

- David Rider reports on the NDP's C-51 push as the election looms 51 days down the road. The Montreal Gazette slams the civil rights abuses inherent in kettling as a crowd control technique. And Michael Geist looks to recent Senate reports for a hint as to just how much worse the Cons' attacks on rights might get if they get the chance.

- Speaking of which, Marc Swelling argues that this fall's election will ultimately come down to the core question of whether voters want four more years of Stephen Harper or not. And while the answer looks to be "no" for the moment, we'll need to make sure that position doesn't change during the rest of the campaign.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Musical interlude

Big Data feat. Joywave - Dangerous

And as a bonus, Tony Turner's Harperman:

On crystallized positions

I've largely held off on discussing federal polls since few of them seem to be out of line with my initial assessment of the election as a three-way race with the NDP in a narrow lead, but with plenty of room for movement during the election campaign.

But EKOS' latest signals that we may have reached the point where more of the same is news in and of itself - particularly for the party which most needs to try to change the direction of public opinion.

While there might once have been reason to wonder whether public assessments of the NDP and Lib leaders would hold up until the glare of an election campaign, those questions seem largely to have been answered. One could have doubted whether Tom Mulcair's high approval ratings would hold up when he was still unknown to a substantial number of voters - but he's still in strong positive territory with only 12% of respondents giving a "don't know" or no response. And while Justin Trudeau likely won't be returning to his honeymoon levels of support anytime soon, he seems to have leveled off at a neutral-to-positive assessment despite being the target of years of concentrated attacks.

As a result, the Cons are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to leadership. Instead of being able to rely on Harper being seen as bland but acceptable by enough people to vote them into office, they now have no choice but to try to attack the credibility of more-popular leaders in a spending-limited environment when the lone spokesperson they dare to put in front of a camera is disliked by two-thirds of the population (and distrusted by even more).

Similarly, the change/no change question seems to have been decisively resolved against the Cons. It may have been possible to point to vote splitting as a factor operating in their favour when enough voters to make up a majority were satisfied with matters as they stood; it's rather more difficult when the wrong-track and change numbers are into the high 60s, particularly when voters don't trust the government's claims as to how the country is doing.

In sum, we've reached the point where people know exactly what they think of Stephen Harper and his party, both in general and in relation to their opponents. And it's hard to see how two more months of the same from the Cons can turn the public in their favour.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Joseph Stiglitz notes that the recent stock market turmoil may be most important for its effect in highlighting far more important economic weaknesses. And Richard McCormack discusses the link between stock buybacks, inequality and economic stagnation - meaning that a plan to eliminate loopholes for stock options may also have positive spillover effects for the economy as a whole.

- Barry Schwartz writes about the meaning of work, while noting that a focus on theoretical efficiency by eliminating all satisfaction from a work day may be leading to worse results for employers and employees alike:
(W)hen given the chance to make their work meaningful and engaging, employees jump at it, even if it means that they have to work harder. Such cases should serve to remind us there is a human cost to routinizing and depersonalizing work. Too often, instead of being able to take pride in what they do, and derive satisfaction from doing it well, workers have little to show for their efforts aside from their pay.
In the face of longstanding evidence that routinization and an overemphasis on pay lead to worse performance in the workplace, why have we continued to tolerate and even embrace that approach to work?

The answer, I think, is that the ideas of Adam Smith have become a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: They gave rise to a world of work in which his gloomy assumptions about human beings became true. When you take all opportunities for meaning and engagement out of the work that people do, why would they work, except for the wage? What Smith and his descendants failed to realize is that rather than exploiting a fact about human nature, they were creating a fact about human nature.

The transformation I have in mind goes something like this: You enter an occupation with a variety of aspirations aside from receiving your pay. But then you discover that your work is structured so that most of those aspirations will be unmet. Maybe you’re a call center employee who wants to help customers solve their problems — but you find out that all that matters is how quickly you terminate each call. Or you’re a teacher who wants to educate kids — but you discover that only their test scores matter. Or you’re a corporate lawyer who wants to serve his client with care and professionalism — but you learn that racking up billable hours is all that really counts.

Pretty soon, you lose your lofty aspirations. And over time, later generations don’t even develop the lofty aspirations in the first place. Compensation becomes the measure of all that is possible from work. When employees negotiate, they negotiate for improved compensation, since nothing else is on the table. And when this goes on long enough, we become just the kind of creatures that Adam Smith thought we always were.
To be sure, people should be adequately compensated for their work. Recent efforts across the country to achieve a significant increase in the minimum wage represent real social progress. But in securing such victories for working people, we should not lose sight of the aspiration to make work the kind of activity people embrace, rather than the kind of activity they shun.
- Tana Ganeva exposes how some of the lucky few most insulated from homelessness and poverty demean the people who struggle to face those obstacles every day. And Jeffrey Simpson theorizes that our politics are lacking for big ideas and generosity.

- Edward Keenan writes that the most disturbing aspect of the G20 police abuses was the eagerness with which the people responsible for maintaining social order abandoned any attempt to preserve democratic rights.

- Finally, Aaron Wherry discusses the "snowflake" organizational model which is developing as the alternative to top-down messaging. And that model may make for an interesting contrast against the Cons' most limited broadcasting structure yet, as candidates are being told not to engage with media, public debates or any other format which could possibly deviate from central messaging.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

On final choices

Following up on this post and some additional discussion, let's take a look at the question of what options would be available to Stephen Harper if he decided he wanted to escape a drubbing at the polls by cancelling the federal election. And fortunately, the answer looks to be "not much".

The Canada Elections Act does allows for a writ to be withdrawn, but only with some important limitations (emphasis added):
59. (1) The Governor in Council may order the withdrawal of a writ for any electoral district for which the Chief Electoral Officer certifies that by reason of a flood, fire or other disaster it is impracticable to carry out the provisions of this Act.
(2) If the Governor in Council orders the withdrawal of a writ, the Chief Electoral Officer shall publish a notice of the withdrawal in the Canada Gazette and issue a new writ ordering an election within three months after publication of the notice.
(3) The day named in the new writ for polling day may not be later than three months after the issue of the new writ.
The key point in this section is that an order to withdraw a writ is available only based on the Chief Electoral Officer's determination that it's impracticable to proceed with an election. And the limitation by "electoral district" is also likely to be significant, as it reflects an intention to account for local disasters rather than a desire for a do-over across the country.

Now, Harper might try either to claim some inherent authority to stop an election in its tracks, or to bully the Chief Electoral Officer into interpreting the provision extremely broadly. But it's doubtful that either the Chief Electoral Officer or Governor General would go along with those types of moves in the face of what the law says (particularly in the absence of any statement that discretion is reserved).

The more real danger is then that rather than using a message of fear to avoid the election altogether, he'd instead try to lean on the last issue where he's had any success turning public opinion in his favour over the last couple of years.

But the example where that's worked may limit the possibility of a repeat performance. After all, the Cons (with the Libs' support) were able to impose their own choice of limitations on rights in the name of security by passing C-51. So an actual attack or threat would only serve as an indictment of the Cons' failure to accomplish what they promised.

Alternatively, the Cons could be planning for an announcement of arrests or C-51 "disruptions" as a means of claiming success. But that would only go so far in changing the subject, particularly if the public has already tuned Harper and his party out for other reasons.

In sum, while we need to watch out for fearmongering as the last arrow in Harper's quiver, it's not clear that it will serve either as an excuse to avoid the polls or a major factor in shifting votes.

On statements of values

It's true that a party's policy book is not the same as its election platform.

But it's also true that there is more to a party than a single campaign or platform. And considering that the difference between a policy book and a platform can be pointed out in a single sentence, I'm hard-pressed to see what the NDP stands to gain by limiting access to the policy goals developed by its members.

On needless machinery

Those of us who have seen the Libs focus much of this year on criticizing the Cons' partisan advertising might be rather surprised to learn they don't think there's any room to cut or redirect any current federal spending, and in fact consider it offensive that anybody might suggest such room exists.

But on a closer look, there's actually a consistent theme behind the Libs' message. While their petition on advertising criticizes the Cons for wasteful spending, it doesn't promise to change anything other than to create a new commissioner position to oversee future publicity - meaning that it could simply increase the cost of continuing ad spending.

So let's see if we can summarize the opposition parties' take on the hundreds of millions of dollars the Cons have spent on government advertising.

The NDP sees a waste of public money which could be put to better uses, and asks "why not stop?"

On the other hand, the Libs refuse to consider whether cuts might be appropriate, and ask "why not pay more?"

So which of those seems like the more appropriate response? It's up to Canadians to decide.

Keep Quiet - Chess Master At Work

Yessiree, Stephen Harper's choice to impose a longer election period rather than waiting to see whether his party would have a shred of credibility left after the PMO went under the microscope looks more brilliant by the day.

New column day

Here, on Donna Harpauer and the Saskatchewan Party are dismissing their own advisory group's recommendation to work to cut Saskatchewan poverty in half by the end of the decade.

For further reading...
- The StarPhoenix echoes Donna Harpauer's defeatism.
- Danielle Martin and Ryan Meili make the case for a basic income, which appears as one of the advisory group's recommendations. 
- And for a review of the multiplier effects of different fiscal choices, see Mark Zandi's analysis here (PDF) - showing infrastructure spending and income supports accomplishing far more than tax cuts or corporate giveaways.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Michal Rozworski reminds us that austerity in Canada is nothing new under Con or Lib governments, while pointing out what the public needs to do to repel it:
The campaigning Stephen Harper boasts that his tough austerity policies saved the Canadian economy. Lost in the rhetoric are two important facts. As most economists will tell you today, austerity measures are lousy ways to expand jobs and investment. And Harper's Conservatives were just carrying on the work of their austerity embracing Liberal predecessors.

The first round of Liberal cutbacks were quick and deep. A greater share of government expenditures redirected towards debt repayment created additional false scarcity of funds for direct spending. Spending on federal government programs and transfers to provinces, cities, and individuals fell by over five per cent of GDP from 1993 to the turn of the millennium. Spending growth did not just slow: absolute expenditures decreased.

Reduced fiscal transfers to provinces put the squeeze on local governments. Since the 1990s, Canada has seen provincial governments -- not just governed by Liberals and Conservatives, but also by New Democrats -- impose austerity further down the line. Since provinces are responsible for many basics like health, education, and welfare benefits, shrinking transfers have further eroded the working class's social wage. Privatizations, workfare schemes, tuition increases -- all were applied (unevenly) across the country.

Overall, the sharp turn to austerity created a more punitive welfare state. While Canada's economic growth in the mid to late '90s fed off that in the U.S., the character of its reforms was also in line with the Clintonite agenda. There was a similar push to create conditions for business expansion even less encumbered by working class demands. A major strategy was an attack on the social wage -- public spending on goods, services and income supports for people in Canada.
There is now more than one generation that has grown up with austerity and little else. Despite, or perhaps because of this, the youngest generation today is more inclined towards left politics than any other. Yet the space for even modest social-democratic politics has rarely been narrower. This opening and closure exist side-by-side in contradiction. To make the contradiction a productive one, we need an honest appraisal of political forces and how power operates: a political economy of the present.

Upon this foundation, we can create a political space that rekindles the imagination -- one that has less risk of falling into a mythologized, and wholly false, vision of the 1990s. Going back further, we also need to come up with more than simple nostalgia for the postwar prosperity, whose contradictions created the lumbering monster that still chews at our horizons.

Stopping and reversing austerity in Canada, as anywhere, requires an honest assessment of the forces allied in its favour. A consensus that has emerged over decades will not be broken easily. While putting a single man's face to it may be useful to start the conversation, we will need to go further, examining the systemic challenges that prevent a parting with austerity -- whether the slow-simmering kind Canadians are now experiencing, or sharper variants.
- And Bruce Wark follows up by challenging the media's failure to recognize what's already been lost to past cuts.

- Kevin Campbell argues that the success of progressive parties and voters will depend on our ability to highlight their ability to do more for citizens' economic security. And Kevin Lynch points out that plenty of economists are on board to work on economic growth through fiscal rather than monetary policy.

- Sara Mojtehedzadeh reports on a new study from the Atkinson Foundation and Mowat Centre discussing the need for community institutions such as universities, hospitals and municipalities to foster local development rather than needlessly sending money elsewhere.

- Finally, Dan Leger notes that the Cons and their supporters are thoroughly in denial over the facts about the Duffy scandal - though it's hard to see where else they could go without abandoning the party under Stephen Harper. And Chantal Hebert sees the combined scandal and cover-up as reflecting the Harper Cons' core character.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

On biased decisions

It shouldn't come as much surprise that the Duffy trial has revealed that the Harper Cons sought to make the Senate as subservient to the PMO as the Cons' trained seals in the House of Commons:
Mr. Rathgeber said the PMO staffers’ handling of the situation was all too familiar and speaks to a “culture of invincibility” among some of the PMO staff.

“It’s shocking, but it validates everything I’ve ever said about their modus operandi. They have no ethical, or sometimes legal, boundaries and I would say without any doubt that a Senate report into expenses is a higher level of improper interference but that level of micromanagement goes on in House of Commons reports all the time,” he said.

Opposition members have long alleged that since the Conservatives have had a majority on every committee since 2011, no committee report is tabled until the PMO signs off on it.

“There is no part in the Ottawa bubble that they think is beyond their reach or their ability, quite frankly, to manipulate or control,” said Mr. Rathgeber.

“The fact that Parliament is supposed to be independent from the government and is supposed to be a check on the government is completely perverted in their view. They don’t see Parliament, either the House of Commons or the Senate, as being a check on executive power. They see the government caucus as an extension of PMO communications and their rubber stamp.”
Mr. Beardsley said that near the end of his time in the PMO he could see a shift toward the office “tightening up” and becoming more proactive in its “micromanagement” of issues. He has looked through the emails himself and considers them proof of what was speculated about the change in management under the succession of chiefs of staff leading up to Mr. Wright.
Nor should it come as much surprise that the Cons' political direction has been based on developing excuses to reach a desired outcome, rather than actually applying rules as they stand.

But it's worth highlighting what that combination means for one of their primary attacks on the NDP.

Remember that the only decision-making body which has claimed to find a problem the NDP's parliamentary offices is the uber-secretive Board of Internal Economy - a committee of MPs with a Con majority.

The NDP has gone out of its way to have somebody evaluate its actions other than MPs acting as puppets for the PMO. And the Cons have refused any such neutral assessment.

So let's ask: is there any reason to think the BOIE's Con members operated under anything other than the PMO's instructions in sitting in judgment of a political opponent? And if not, shouldn't the Duffy scandal tell us everything we need to know as to whether that judgment is based on anything more than Stephen Harper's politically-motivated orders?

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Robert Reich discusses the unfairness of requiring workers to take all the risk of precarious jobs while sharing few of the rewards:
On demand and on call – in the “share” economy, the “gig” economy, or, more prosaically, the “irregular” economy – the result is the same: no predictable earnings or hours.

It’s the biggest change in the American workforce in over a century, and it’s happening at lightening speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.
Courts are overflowing with lawsuits over whether companies have misclassified “employees” as “independent contractors,” resulting in a profusion of criteria and definitions.

We should aim instead for simplicity: Whatever party – contractor, client, customer, agent, or intermediary – pays more than half of someone’s income, or provides more than half their working hours, should be responsible for all the labor protections and insurance an employee is entitled to.

Presumably that party will share those costs and risks with its own clients, customers, owners, and investors. Which is the real point – to take these risks off the backs of individuals and spread them as widely as possible.

In addition, to restore some certainty to peoples’ lives, we’ll need to move away from unemployment insurance and toward income insurance.
- Max FineDay writes that while the work structures which are increasing stress on workers may be new, the principle of ensuring that everybody's basic needs are met has is anything but. And Sean McElwee discusses how different our public discourse would look if we heard about the plight of people living in poverty as regularly as we're informed of stock market fluctuations.

- The Star reminds us that the Cons' useless "tough on crime" rhetoric is as empty now as it's ever been.

- Meanwhile, Chinta Puxley reports that Canadians continue to be at risk due to the Cons' cuts to food inspection and other health and safety services.

- Steven Chase exposes the secrecy behind the Cons' plans to sell arms to Saudi Arabia.

- Finally, Bill Tieleman writes that nasty, negative politics only survive because they seem to work - while recognizing that the only way to change that reality is to demand better in numbers which ensure that appeals to the worst in people don't sway enough votes to swing elections.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Downed cats.

Lessons learned

As I noted here, it's well worth comparing what's happening in any given election to any recent precedents. While past performance never guarantees future results, we can tell both what lessons a party has drawn from experience, as well as how strategies change when they don't work out as planned. 

With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the choices which have shaped recent elections where provincial NDP parties were competitive - and how they've been applied at the federal level.

Staying Above The Fray

Let's start with two examples from the leading example of the NDP falling into the traps of a strong opposition party: the 2013 election, where its campaign was seemingly based on the expectation that the best course of action was to avoid doing anything that might stop the Clark Libs from losing the election out of sheer voter fatigue.

On that front, Adrian Dix' party ran a campaign which explicitly branded itself as "positive" at the expense of developing a clear line of criticism of an unpopular incumbent.

Now, any leader wants to be seen as positive to the greatest extent possible, and Tom Mulcair is no exception. But the federal NDP hasn't shied away from directing tough messages at the Harper Cons based on their record - and the result is that the NDP has been doing its part to remind voters why they want change.

Playing It Safe

That said, if the federal NDP has learned a lesson from B.C. about allowing the dangers of failing to present a strong case against the incumbent, it's been quick to shift to other elements of the front-runner strategy which proved fatal for Dix' chances of victory.

For all the mostly-contrived hullabaloo over the NDP's handling of federal leaders' debates, there's one strategic point which should override all others. While there may be rare exceptions (with the possibility of a multi-party ambush in a debate skipped by Stephen Harper looming as a real if minor danger), Mulcair's experience and knowledge should give him a strong likelihood of coming out ahead in debates, particularly those where topics are discussed in detail going beyond Justin Trudeau's first set of talking points. And with the polls showing two other parties remaining competitive, it's hard to see the  case for trying to diminish the impact of debates, rather than pressing what should be a meaningful advantage and taking advantage of the air time and attention.

Likewise, a hair-trigger response to candidate controversy may serve to cut off a story immediately. But the larger risk of alienating supporters should also be taken into account - particularly when star candidates are being rejected for dubious reasons. 

Positioning To The Centre

Another familiar dynamic is playing out in Ontario in particular. There, Kathleen Wynne managed to win a majority in the 2014 provincial election in large part by telling voters that she was the most progressive option, while Andrea Horwath did relatively little to fight that characterization based on a gamble that it would help as much with centrist voters as it would hurt on the left.

At the federal level, Justin Trudeau's claim to the "progressive" title is even more laughable than Wynne's (which has itself proven illusory). But we can see the same line of attack being developed by the Libs. And while the federal NDP has plenty of progressive policy in its platform, I'm not sure we've yet seen as strong a response as will be needed to avoid the same fate.

Sticking With What Works

Finally, while the most recent B.C. and Ontario elections ended in disappointment, Rachel Notley's breakthrough victory in Alberta offers a shining example as to how the NDP can expand its reach beyond what might be seen as possible even at the start of an election campaign. But what's most worth taking away from Alberta's result is that Notley didn't have to substantially change course from the NDP's longstanding beliefs to achieve that result.

Rather than sacrificing ideas like a royalty review, a fairer tax system, action on climate change or an increased minimum wage to political expediency, Notley stuck with a progressive platform consistent with the NDP's values. And whatever backlash there was from the corporate sector served mostly to bolster the message that it was time for change.

Similarly, the federal NDP has made it this far by running on principles, not running from them. (Surely anybody pointing to C-51 as the source of many of the Libs' troubles can't ignore the risk - and reward - involved in Mulcair's fierce opposition to it.) And we should thus expect the NDP's push for its first federal government to feature a strong and distinct statement as to the progressive direction Canada should take.


In 2008, a floundering candidate for public office made a fool of himself by turning serious economic danger into an opportunity to showboat, only to find that nobody was buying his self-proclaimed leadership (Heilemann & Halperin, Game Change at p. 384-385):
McCain set off back to the Hilton. In the car he called Bush and informed him of his decision, and asked if the president would hold a meeting at the White House for him, Obama, and congressional leaders to discuss the bailout bill. Bush feared such a meeting would inject a destabilizing dose of politics into a fragile situation. He told McCain that his intercession would undercut Paulson and wasn't likely to help solve the problem. After hanging up, Bush instructed his aides, Find out what's going on here. But before they had a chance, McCain was on TV, standing at a lectern at the Hilton, announcing the suspension and calling on Bush to convene a conclave.
The news of McCain's suspension drew gales of derision from the press. No one was willing to give him the slightest benefit of the doubt...that his motivations were anything less than craven...

McCainworld had assumed that the suspension would be viewed as an authentic, characteristic act of putting country first. But...McCain was now seen as a typical, and faintly desperate politician - and his campaign a campaign of stunts.
In 2015, the same is happening in Canada:
Was there any concrete economic reason for Stephen Harper to call Stephen Poloz yesterday, as global stock markets continued their gyrations?  And then to have his office subsequently issue a cryptic and rather foreboding statement about the conversation?

Of course, Prime Ministers and central bank governors talk to each other every now and then — but these conversations, for obvious reasons, are rarely publicized.  And since we are in an election campaign, the meeting was all the more odd.

Poloz himself has no control over the actions of the markets.  And his response to any macroeconomic damage that results is limited to monetary policy adjustments (the next Bank of Canada interest rate decision is September 9), over which the Prime Minister is not supposed to have sway.

The Prime Minister himself can’t do anything about the market chaos, either.  Once the writ has dropped, the government switches into “caretaking” mode, and has no discretionary policy-making authority.

And there was nothing in yesterday’s gyrations, stomach-churning as they were for the buy-low-sell-high crowd, that indicated a need for emergency action by either the government or the Bank.  If anything, it was “par for the course” for speculative markets which are always driven by alternating waves of greed and fear.

So what was the point of the call?  Political optics, obviously — which explains why the PMO’s subsequent spin effort was more important than the phone call itself.

Politicians always follow the “look busy” rule: when bad things happen, they have to be seen to be responding, even if there is little likelihood their actions will have any effect. 
Which raises the question: who will be cast as Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber as the Cons' campaign follows the McCain path?

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Howard Elliott writes about the need for senior levels of government to help address the housing needs facing Canadian communities. And the report from Saskatchewan's advisory group on poverty reduction includes housing among its key priorities as well (while also favouring work on a basic income).

- Meanwhile, Armine Yalnizyan reminds us that the Cons' destruction of the census is making it far more difficult to identify and address social problems.

- Justin Ling documents the latest example of Stephen Harper's utter contempt for the concept of accountability, as national media outlets are being required to pay the Cons $78,000 for the privilege of asking a single question on Harper's campaign tour. But Sandy Garossino writes that there's ample reason for Harper and other Cons to face more questioning they can't avoid as the scope of the Mike Duffy bribe and cover-up is exposed in open court.

- Michael Harris worries about the connections between the Cons and the RCMP. And Jim Bronskill reports on the latest effort to give police virtually unrestricted access to Canadians' personal information, while Jordan Pearson points out why the public has reason to be worried about the possibility.

- Finally, Robert Reich criticizes the shift away from requiring corporations to pay a fair (or any) share of the cost of building the societies they exploit.

Monday, August 24, 2015

On cautionary tales

I've previously offered my take on why all opposition parties - including the Libs - should and will ultimately vote the Harper Cons out of power when given the chance. But I'll note that Don Lenihan's argument toward the same conclusion actually offers a reminder why there's reason for concern.

Whatever lesson one wants to take from C-51 and Eve Adams (among so many other stories), one can't claim for a second that they offer examples of Justin Trudeau and company valuing the support of progressive voters over cynical measures to appease the right. And there's been no evidence that the Libs have learned much in the meantime.

Of course, it would be for the best if the Libs decided that they should consider a "storm of anger...among friends and allies" as reason to think carefully about a choice. But in light of their track record, I wouldn't hold my breath - meaning that our best hope to get the Libs on board probably lies in political calculations rather than any newfound concern for progressive principle.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Paul Krugman theorizes that our recent pattern of economic instability can be traced to a glut of accumulated wealth chasing too few viable investments:
On the surface, we seem to have had a remarkable run of bad luck. First there was the housing bust, and the banking crisis it triggered. Then, just as the worst seemed to be over, Europe went into debt crisis and double-dip recession. Europe eventually achieved a precarious stability and began growing again — but now we’re seeing big problems in China and other emerging markets, which were previously pillars of strength. 

But these aren’t just a series of unrelated accidents. Instead, what we’re seeing is what happens when too much money is chasing too few investment opportunities.
What’s causing this global glut? Probably a mix of factors. Population growth is slowing worldwide, and for all the hype about the latest technology, it doesn’t seem to be creating either surging productivity or a lot of demand for business investment. The ideology of austerity, which has led to unprecedented weakness in government spending, has added to the problem. And low inflation around the world, which means low interest rates even when economies are booming, has reduced the room to cut rates when economies slump.

Whatever the precise mix of causes, what’s important now is that policy makers take seriously the possibility, I’d say probability, that excess savings and persistent global weakness is the new normal.

My sense is that there’s a deep-seated unwillingness, even among sophisticated officials, to accept this reality. Partly this is about special interests: Wall Street doesn’t want to hear that an unstable world requires strong financial regulation, and politicians who want to kill the welfare state don’t want to hear that government spending and debt aren’t problems in the current environment.

But there’s also, I believe, a sort of emotional prejudice against the very notion of global glut. Politicians and technocrats alike want to view themselves as serious people making hard choices — choices like cutting popular programs and raising interest rates. They don’t like being told that we’re in a world where seemingly tough-minded policies will actually make things worse. But we are, and they will.
- Paul Weinberg reminds us that Canada is losing billions of dollars each year in tax avoidance, and hopes that our opposition parties can agree to combat the problem.

- Dean Beeby reports that the Cons know full well that Canada's retirement system is woefully inadequate compared to other development countries - even as they defiantly stand in the way of anybody trying to ensure income security for seniors. Sharon Murphy points out that the Cons' budgets have consistently worsened poverty and inequality. And Jerry Dias recognizes that the NDP's plan for a $15 federal minimum wage represents an important step in the right direction.

- Aaron Wherry traces both the origins and the spread of the Mike Duffy scandal to Stephen Harper's need for total control. Mohammed Adam argues that voters need to hold Harper accountable for both the crimes and the cover-up emanating from his office. And Don Butler reports on how the Cons steamrolled over any public discussion about an anti-communism memorial.

- Finally, Yves Smith contrasts rhetoric and reality when it comes to free trade, and points out that economic development in the U.S. and elsewhere has resulted from smart planning rather than laissez-faire dogma.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

On weak attempts

Following up on these earlier posts, here's a quick look at the last of the messages Bob Hepburn thinks the NDP may face from the Cons in particular as the election campaign progresses.
2) Tax-and-spend image: NDP loyalists consider this issue as “trite,” but already Harper is hammering away at it, claiming Mulcair would raise taxes and spend countless billions on programs such as a national $15-a-day child care plan. Already, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been mocking the NDP, saying it doesn’t know what the tax rates are, “it just knows everybody’s taxes have to be higher.” Expect lots more of this in the weeks ahead.
Precedent: Very strong, as it represents the Cons' consistent message about all parties at all times. But that doesn't necessarily help in dealing with a specific opponent.
Relationship to Salient Issues: Strong to the extent it fits the Cons' economic message.
Credibility: Moderate due to the Cons' own propensity for spending money on far less worthwhile ends.
Likely Responses: Moderate to strong. Any criticism that figures to be neutralized by a party's platform is always risky, and nothing about the message would go beyond what the NDP is already preparing for.
Spillover Effects: The one major problem for the Cons is that they've similarly been using this message against the Libs. So it doesn't serve to single out the NDP - and the fact that it hasn't been enough to push voters into the Cons' column already suggests that it will have limited effect no matter how many times "NDP" is cut-and-pasted into existing ads and stump speeches.
3) Pipeline and oilsands projects: Mulcair is in a tough spot here, having to convince voters he is pro-development at the same time as having to deal with NDP voters who vehemently oppose oil pipelines and want to leave oil from the Alberta oilsands in the ground. Critics have already seized on this issue, suggesting Mulcair says one thing in Quebec about the proposal to move western oil through the Energy East pipeline to eastern refineries and another thing elsewhere in the country.
Precedent: Strong due to the Cons' constant harping about oil development. And the Cons will surely have an eye to the most recent B.C. election as an example of opposition to pipelines opening a party up for criticism - though as noted below, the NDP has already distinguished that precedent.
Relationship to Salient Issues: Moderate to strong to the extent oil is seen as synonymous with the economy, though that itself is up for question.
Credibility: Weak to moderate - not because anybody doubts the Cons' desire to push oil development at every opportunity, but because they've utterly failed in the approach. If the worst one can say about the NDP is that it will match the number of pipeline projects completed under the Cons, that's hardly a compelling attack.
Likely Responses: Moderate. In addition to pointing out the Cons' record, the NDP will figure to continue with its message from the debates about approving and encouraging development where it fits with a credible environmental assessment.
Spillover Effects: Moderate. The hope for the Cons would be to force the NDP into responding at the same time to Green and Bloc demands to signal disapproval. But the danger is that as in the first leaders' debate, Mulcair and the NDP will only look reasonable and thoughtful compared to the "build everything!" and "build nothing!" positions on either side.  
4) Lack of an experienced, senior team: Mulcair wants to portray the NDP as a government-in-waiting, with a strong team of potential cabinet ministers. Mulcair has indeed recruited few high-profile candidates and Harper has already criticized the Quebec NDP caucus as ineffective and lacking any stars. In recent days, though, Mulcair has recruited Andrew Thompson, a former Saskatchewan finance minister, to run in Toronto against federal Finance Minister Joe Oliver and former MP Olivia Chow to run in Toronto against sitting Liberal MP Adam Vaughan. 
Precedent: None to minimal. There's been little groundwork on this other than a few scattered comments, and I'm not sure of any precedent for a party with a popular leader and policies suffering electorally due to criticism of potential cabinet appointments. (Consider the relative strength of the federal NDP today compared to, say, the Alberta version before this year's election where the same criticism was raised.)
Relationship to Salient Issues: None to minimal. At best the message fits with the Cons' branding of Harper as a steady hand, but it's directly contrary to their primary criticism of Mulcair's political career.
Credibility: Minimal, particularly with most of the Cons' already-thin list of stars sitting this election out.
Likely Responses: Strong. As noted by Hepburn, the NDP is regularly unveiling new star candidates (with Anne Lagace Dowson joining the list today) - meaning that a focus on this message only sets a party up to be refuted.
Spillover Effects: None.
5) Internal splits within the NDP: The NDP is divided internally between old-style lefties dismayed by the party’s move to the mushy middle and by pragmatists, including Mulcair, who see a more centrist route as the only path to victory. So far, Mulcair has been able to keep this split under wraps, but if the polls start to slip then these divisions could start to crop up in a big, public way. 
Precedent: None. In fact this is inherently an internal factor, meaning there's little reason to think the Cons or any other party will be seen as doing anything other than trolling in trying to raise it.
Relationship to Salient Issues: None to minimal. (At best it might fit with a message of not yet knowing the NDP.)
Credibility: #weareearlcowan
Likely Responses: Minimal. Obviously the NDP will be working on holding its movement together as every party does, but as long as that proceeds as expected there would be nothing much more to do in response to this particular attack.
Spillover Effects: None.

In sum, the list of "weaknesses" presented by Hepburn consists of a couple of easily-foreseen policy choices for which the NDP has already prepared strong responses, and a few which fall short of passing the laugh test. So while it's worth preparing for the ones which might matter, there's no reason to consider them as new reasons for concern.

On separation anxieties

Following up on this post, let's take a look at the first of Bob Hepburn's theorized lines of attack against the NDP - which gets its own separate post since it needs to be analyzed in radically different ways depending on the party who launches it:
Worse, the Conservatives are expected to unleash a furious barrage of attacks on Mulcair’s perceived weak spots, or vulnerabilities. 

These weak spots include:
1) Quebec separation: Many Canadians could never vote for Mulcair because of the NDP’s policy that Quebec could split from Canada with a referendum vote of just 50-per-cent-plus-one. Mulcair insists he is “proud” of this policy and says he would rip up the federal Clarity Act that declares Quebec can start the process to separate only if a “clear majority” of voters in the province voted for secession. NDP supporters dismiss voter concerns over Mulcair’s position as “overblown.”
The most significant bit of wishcasting by Hepburn is the concept that the Cons might be the ones to make this a main campaign issue. But to see why they wouldn't, let's first ask what would happen if they did.

Precedent: None. The Cons' consistent message - exemplified in their choice to preempt Michael Ignatieff's "nation" resolution, and repeated as recently as the most recent leadership debate - is that they'd rather not talk about sovereignty, rather than wanting to promote it as a key issue.

Relationship to Salient Issues: None. The Cons have branded themselves around the economy and security; a sudden turn to campaign on national unity would undermine that message entirely and require starting from scratch.

Credibility: Moderate. Again Harper has gone out of his way not to amass much of a track record one way or the other - but at the very least, this would be a rare issue where the Cons' history in office wouldn't work against them.

Likely Responses: Moderate. We know the NDP's answer from the exchange between Mulcair and Trudeau in the first debate. And while Harper might be able to introduce a few more twists by owning the issue himself, the most likely outcome of a two-way contest would be for Mulcair to fight the issue to a draw nationally by pointing to his own referendum involvement and the NDP's success in wiping out the Bloc.

But of course, there's more than one other party in the race. Which brings us to...

Spillover Effects: Potentially immense - and here's the reason why the Cons wouldn't figure to touch the NDP's Quebec policy as a core issue.

Aside from having all other parties and leaders drop out of the race, it's hard to imagine a single event that would favour the Libs more than for the Cons to use their superior war chest to turn the campaign into a contest with a Trudeau-led Liberal Party over who gets to play Captain Canada. And there's little reason to think the Cons' plan involves handing the Libs a path back to power they wouldn't enjoy otherwise.

In sum, the upside for the Cons in raising sovereignty as an issue would be minimal, while the downside would be massive. But let's look at the alternative scenario where the party which actually stood to benefit from changing the channel had to put its resources into doing so.

How would the test change in evaluating the Libs' option to put sovereignty front and centre?

Precedent: Moderate to strong. This is one of the few areas of the Libs' historic brand which hasn't been thoroughly eroded other than by the passage of time - though that's probably more of a factor than the Libs would want to admit.

Relationship to Salient Issues: None to minimal. Aside from the Bloc, no other party would have any incentive to talk about sovereignty any more than it absolutely has to - which means that if the Libs direct their resources toward the issue, they risk completely missing the factors which actually lead voters to make their decisions.

Credibility: Moderate to strong. To the extent the Libs and Trudeau feign outrage over connections to the sovereigntist movement their hands aren't clean either, but again this remains a relatively strong part of their brand.

Likely Responses: Moderate. The NDP would figure to both challenge Trudeau's own vagueness and defend its own position to the extent necessary, but wouldn't have much reason to match the Libs statement for statement if the rest of the campaign is being fought elsewhere.

Spillover Effects: Strong. Again, the crucial calculation for the Libs will be the opportunity cost of using their limited resources on this rather than other issues.

Even without another party raising the issue, a campaign focused on sovereignty could represent the Libs' best chance to turn the election toward more favourable terrain - particularly if they prefer a high-risk push for immediate power to a multiple-election strategy. But if the NDP can build its campaign around a largely uncontested appeal to promiscuous progressives who mostly want to see Harper gone while the Libs speak past voters on an issue seen as outdated and irrelevant, this could also be the Libs' speediest path to oblivion.

In sum, if we see sovereignty treated as a major issue in the balance of the campaign, it figures to be at the Libs' urging, and presents as much opportunity as it does risk for the NDP. Which isn't to say I'd be surprised to see it happen - only that we shouldn't presume it would reflect a weakness in the NDP's planning.

On messaging tests

Following up on yesterday's post, I'll make clear that nobody should hold any illusions that the NDP's opponents will abandon their own efforts to pursue seats simply because the NDP holds a strong position for the moment. And on that front, Bob Hepburn floats a few trial balloons as to messages which the NDP's opponents may try to use against it.

It's certainly worth discussing and being prepared for the attacks we're most likely to see. But while Hepburn merely labels a laundry list of possible messages as "weak spots" without any critical evaluation of their effectiveness, the likelihood that somebody will try to use a particular theme is a radically different question from whether they'll succeed.

For now, let's discuss some of the factors which we should take into account in making that assessment - to be followed in a later post by an evaluation of Hepburn's mooted messages.

Precedent: There's a reason why the Cons' attacks on Lib leaders have regularly started years before the next federal election campaign. People (and particularly those not making a concerted effort to follow a subject) tend to remember negative messages while eventually forgetting the identity of the messenger - meaning that a message will likely have a far greater effect if it can draw on some pre-existing theme. In addition, precedents can also tell us something else about the actual resonance of a particular message: if a message has managed or failed to achieve its intended purpose before, that offers an important indication as to whether it's likely to succeed if tried again.

Relationship to Salient Issues: Any new attack on the NDP will have to be made in the context of the political scene as it stands now. We have plenty of polling as to what voters are concerned with at the moment - and while a party can certainly try to shift the public's attention, it will face a more difficult task if it has to first change the subject before making its pitch.

Credibility: As I note above, over a longer time frame people tend to forget the source of negative messages. But that doesn't hold true in the short term - and in distributing a message widely for the first time during a campaign, a party would take a grave risk in ignoring the likelihood that its own credibility on an issue will be challenged. (To be clear, this category can include both accuracy and plausibility - it obviously includes the question of whether a statement is factually wrong, but also whether the message is likely to be believed in light of its source.)

Likely Responses: Just as we can't assume anybody will give the NDP a free pass, nor can anybody launching a new attack pretend that the NDP's experienced campaign team won't have some replies at the ready. And one can't assess the strength of one without taking the other into account.

Spillover Effects: Finally, a line of criticism may have radically different effects on different voter pools, and may also influence views of different parties beyond the intended target. While a message is likely to raise questions within a particular group, it surely can't be labeled a success if it does anywhere near as much to crystallize the NDP's support elsewhere or to help its ultimate strategic interests.

Obviously there are plenty of other factors which can be taken into account. But I'll apply this test to Hepburn's list of supposed weaknesses to start with - and it's worth keeping it in mind as new themes are introduced throughout the campaign.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Laurie Penny argues that Jeremy Corbyn's remarkable run to lead the Labour Party represents an important challenge to the theory that left-wing parties should avoid talking about principles in the name of winning power - particularly since the result hasn't been much success on either front.
- Trevor Pott discusses Canada's popular backlash against an unaccountable and security state, particularly when it's deployed primarily to silence dissenting political views.

- Bruce Johnstone writes that contempt for the law is par for the course from the Harper Cons. And Bruce Livesey reports on one of the Cons' latest batch of hand-chosen economic advisers - whose qualifications consist of lying about her past to take a position with a scandal-plagued energy company with a regular history of consumer and regulatory abuses.

- Murray Mandryk points out that the Cons' angry, old base - as epitomized by Earl Cowan - figures to be a hindrance rather than a help in trying to win over swing voters. But as Bruce Campion-Smith notes, the Cons may be counting more on limiting opposition voters' access to the polls than on actually earning support.

- Finally, the Star's editorial board chastises Kathleen Wynne for her ill-advised attacks on Tom Mulcair. And Dan Darrah examines Justin Trudeau's choice to complain about the NDP's progressive policies instead of presenting any meaningful plans of his own.