Saturday, October 03, 2015

Saturday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your weekend reading.

- Alex Himelfarb highlights the vicious circle the Harper Cons have created and driven when it comes to public services:
Today’s austerity is not a response to fiscal crisis. The 2012 budget demonstrated that it’s about redefining the purpose of government, about dismantling, brick by brick, the progressive state built by governments of quite different stripes in the decades following the Second World War. Implied is a very different notion of our shared citizenship, of what binds us together across language, region and community. The message was clear: government will ask less of Canadians and Canadians should expect less from government, a kind of bargain-basement citizenship.

We see this in the extent to which cuts target services for the most vulnerable: refugee claimants cannot get medical care; migrant workers cannot access benefits they’ve paid into; prisoners lose the meagre wages that might have helped them reintegrate when released; the unemployed have less access to employment insurance; veterans have less access to essential services.
We lag in tackling inequality and poverty.

We see this in the retreat from federal engagement with the provinces. Gone are the days of co-operative federalism, yes, often messy and combative, that nonetheless brought us pensions and Medicare. The tone was set when, among its first steps, the government cancelled the child care agreements signed with every province and the Kelowna Accord signed by the premiers and aboriginal leaders.

How did all of this get done without much political pushback or public outrage? In some cases, the cuts don’t kick in for years. In other cases — the gutting of our environmental regulations, cuts to basic science and statistics, weakened enforcement of health and safety regulations — the consequences are often subtle and play out in the long term or when things go wrong, and by then we may not make the link to austerity. In fact, our collective failures may simply undermine our trust in what government can accomplish.
- Joshua Ostroff discusses the importance of supportive housing - along with the desperate need for more investment in it. And David Ball turns to child care as another of the policies people are hoping for out of this fall's election.

- Murray Dobbin offers some hope that the era of precarious work is over. But Sara Mojtehedzadeh exposes how privatization and contract-flipping serve to undermine organized labour, suppress wages and eliminate job security. And Tyler Cowen points out that while the U.S.' employment numbers still seem relatively strong, they're once again failing to translate into any wage gains.

- Patricia Aldana describes how the Cons turned her into a second-class citizen. And Rick Salutin suggests that an election centred on the meaning of citizenship might be exactly what we need to confirm its importance - in contrast to the Cons' effort to make it something that can be stripped away for political gain.

- Finally, Rachel Browne reports that Canadian Muslims are understandably organizing in advance of an election where their rights are being shredded in the name of stoking prejudice. Aaron Wherry observes that the poll results pointed to as an excuse for a niqab ban are based on deliberately-false assumptions about the government's actual policy choices. The Globe and Mail encourages voters to get past the Cons' prejudice to decide based on real issues. Martyn Brown sees the Cons' hatemongering as demeaning Canada as a whole, while Tom Regan argues that it's the barbaric cultural practice we should be concerned about. Susan Delacourt rightly notes that we should expect all parties to want more than to win votes based on bigotry. And Martin Patriquin credits Thomas Mulcair for taking a much-needed stand against Harper and his strategy of fear and division.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Musical interlude

Young Rising Sons - King of the World

On distinguishing factors

The common personalities and strategies by tired right-wing governments are leading to some comparisons between the ongoing Canadian campaign and the UK's election earlier this year. But even as we treat David Cameron's re-election as an important warning, let's note that there's a rather crucial difference between the two.

In the UK, the Conservatives' sudden win seems to have been entirely unexpected, within prominent forecasters having seen the race as a dead heat rather than one in which Cameron had any prospect of taking a majority. And that likely affected coverage of the race as well as party strategies in the approach to election day.

In contrast, the fact that the Harper Cons have thrown out the dog whistles in favour of bullhorns well before election day has set a radically different course of events into motion. Yes, the Cons have been rewarded with an appalling bump in the polls. But that's come soon enough to leave time for both opposition parties and voters to react - both by countering the Cons' message itself, and raising the real spectre of more Harper government as a risk which voters may not have foreseen when a minority Parliament seemed like a relatively sure thing.

As I've noted, the one common denominator in this year's campaign has been a focus on preventing anybody from staying ahead of the field. Now, the Cons have managed to become the main target for all other parties going into the home stretch - and it would be entirely appropriate for the Cons' bigotry to backfire by causing a backlash Stephen Harper can neither control nor survive.

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- The Equality Trust reminds us that economic inequality leads to harmful health consequences even for the lucky few at the top of the income scale. And Matt Bruenig observes that a basic income would provide workers with far more scope to avoid employer abuses and other stressors.

- The Council of Canadians points out how the Trans-Pacific Partnership could block any path toward a national pharmacare plan and more fair prescription drug prices. And Andy Blatchford highlights the secrecy surrounding the agreement even as it should be the subject of electoral scrutiny.

- Following up on yesterday's column, Andrew Coyne, Naheed Nenshi and Peter Wheeland just a few of the many voices pointing out how appalled Canadians should be by the Cons' attempt to win votes by denying basic rights to minorities. And the Montreal Gazette reports on the expected consequences when politicians decide to start declaring groups to be something less than full participants in society. But BJ Siekerski reports that the Cons are hinting at making matters worse by looking for new areas in which to discriminate, including employment in the public service.

- Meanwhile, Desmond Cole writes that the Cons' Unfair Elections Act likewise strips Canadians of basic rights (in this case the right to vote) without serving any purpose whatsoever.

- Finally, Scott Gilmore points out that people are suffering unconscionable poverty and deprivation daily in an area of federal jurisdiction - and thus calls for leaders and voters alike to pay far more attention to the plight of Canada's First Nations in the election and beyond.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

New column day

Here, on how we should call out the Cons' bigotry surrounding the niqab for its own ill intent as well as for its effect of distracting from more substantive election issues.

For further reading...
- The Supreme Court of Canada's decision confirming that the niqab is a matter of religious freedom protected by the Charter is found here. And the Federal Court trial court and appeal decisions involving Zunera Ishaq are here and here, respectively.
- CBC reports on just how few people are being singled out for deliberate and gratuitous discrimination, while also providing some background on the issue.
- Finally, Kirby writes that the Cons' niqab ban is a classic matter of stoking fear of an "other", while Dr. Dawg likewise recognizes both the political implications and the prejudice behind the ban.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Rosemary Barton discusses why it's in Canada's best interest on the global stage to work on building strong multilateral institutions (including the UN) rather than counting on bluster to make a difference. But Gus van Harten notes that we're instead signing onto trade deals including the TPP which transfer power from governments of all types to the corporate sector. And Hadrian Mertins-Kirkwood examines what's at stake in the TPP in particular, while Susan Delacourt questions why such a major agreement is shrouded in secrecy rather than being subject to any meaningful public assessment.

- Marc Lee rightly criticizes Stephen Harper for taking wholly undue credit for greenhouse gas emissions reductions caused entirely by economic downturns and provincial action. 

- Ned Franks tells Abbas Rana that a Con defeat on a throne speech will mean the opportunity for another party to form government rather than another election. But Bill Tieleman adds a twist to the possibility of the Cons trying to cling to power despite an inability to win majority support in the House of Commons by wondering whether they might seek to hold a leadership convention rather than reconvening Parliament. (And I'd note the risk is greater than Tieleman himself identifies, since for all Harper's spin about "most seats wins" there's theoretically nothing stopping him from following that path based strictly on incumbency no matter what the election result is.)

- Meanwhile, Andrew Mitrovica writes that the media has long been used as a tool for dispersing propaganda - even if the Cons are somewhat more blatant than their predecessors in valuing it as nothing more than that.

- Finally, Karl Nerenberg follows up on the Munk debate, including by pointing out Justin Trudeau's continued lack of an even remotely reasonable explanation for backing the Cons' terror legislation - even as his melodramatic attempt to change the dubject was somehow treated as a victory for him.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Political Prisoner's Dilemma

Let's double back to Karl Nerenberg's take on the opposition parties' messages in Canada's federal election and point out how it relates to a classic decision-making hypothetical, the prisoner's dilemma.

In the case of the federal election, here's how the dilemma plays out for anybody whose primary goal is to see the Cons replaced. (And as in any of these types of discussions, I'll leave aside what I see as the important distinctions between the parties which ensure that I'm not in that group - while also noting that the parties themselves likewise have every reason to focus on their own campaign over other considerations.)

The NDP, the Libs and their supporters surely want to see a change in government. And the more resources the opposition parties collectively dedicate to challenging the Cons rather than each other in both values and campaign strategies, the more likely that is to happen.

But both parties also want to position themselves to win power in this and future elections. And the benefit of being the sole defector rather than the sole cooperator is obvious: a party which dedicates its resources to making the case against the Cons while leaving itself vulnerable to attacks from the other figures to end up in third place, watching the other take power as the reward for its relative selfishness.

Of course, the prisoners' dilemma involves an absence of communication and trust between the two affected parties. And there's where there could be a difference in the election campaign.

I've argued before that it should be possible for our opposition parties - or at least their supporters who want to see a change in government - to work on coordinating messages to keep Stephen Harper on the defensive and avoid themes which might benefit the Cons. 

And to be fair, most of the policy contrasts being drawn between the NDP and the Libs at least avoid reinforcing the Cons' values: a contest as to who's most progressive certainly doesn't lend itself to promoting a small-c conservative worldview.

But the campaign has been defined not by policy, but by parties throwing mud at whoever appears to be gathering strength at a particular moment - with an emphasis on blowing up any trust which might otherwise build up in any competing leader. And a recent window in which a few polls placed the Cons in third place seems to have started a particularly vicious conflict between the opposition parties which shows no sign of abating.

So what are options are available to ensure that a change in government is one of the positive outcomes of the election? I'll follow up in a bit more detail from both the party level and the individual level in future posts. But for now, suffice it to say that I'd hope we can agree not to be needlessly imprisoned in another term of Con government.

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Armine Yalnizyan sees the Volkswagen emissions test cheating as a classic example of the dangers of relying on business to do anything toward the social good without facing strong and effectively-enforced regulations. And George Monbiot describes just a few of the preposterous new forms of waste we're generating and buying rather than addressing serious social problems.

- Steve Paikin interviews Mariana Mazzucato about the proper role of an active state:


- Paul Hanley points out that the Leap Manifesto represents an important expression of mainstream Canadian values which deserves a prominent place in our federal election. Cathy Crowe reminds us of the right of homeless Canadians to both a vote and a home. And David Ball reports on some of the people hoping for a much-needed living wage as a result of our upcoming vote.

- Duncan Cameron wonders why we're not hearing more about the oil industry's exploitation of the public as the gap between oil prices and gas prices increases.

- Melissa Newitt makes the case for a national pharmacare plan, while Robyn Benson writes that the need for pension security is one of the most important reasons to vote out the Harper Cons. 

- Finally, Charles Smith laments the Cons' use of the niqab to stoke baseless cultural fears in an effort to win votes through xenophobia. And Dr. Dawg highlights how the Cons may have found their perfect scapegoat for public flogging.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Slumbering cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Miles Corak writes about the spread of economic inequality in Canada:
Companies like ATS epitomize the underlying tide driving jobs and incomes when the computer revolution meets global markets. This tide never went away, even if until a year or so ago a swift current of oil made it easier for some of us to paddle in the opposite direction. It’s a tide offering prosperity to a lucky few, creating proportionately fewer jobs than Canadians need, and leaving many hanging on tight to whatever jetsam floats within reach.

But this tide was always there, even when it looked like we were richer than others. And it will continue to leave many Canadians standing still, waiting, and hoping for the promise of prosperity.
- Paul Mason examines the costs of disposable labour and theorizes that a new era of better treatment for workers might be approaching. But Tony Atkinson argues that we'll need a major shift in public policy as well to share in any future economic gains - and offers a few policy prescriptions to reverse the trend.

- Josh Zumbrun discusses Gabriel Zucman's work in determining how much wealth has been siphoned into tax havens.

- Kaylie Tiessen points out that we can learn from past child care programs while developing a national model.

- Finally, Neil Macdonald rightly argues that Stephen Harper's cynical attacks on women who wear niqabs represents a repudiation of the very concept of individual rights. And Richard Gwyn highlights Thomas Mulcair's courage and honesty in fighting back against the Cons' bigotry rather than playing along for political gain.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Monday Morning Links

Assorted content to start your week.

- Robert Reich writes that the most important source of growing inequality in the U.S. is a political system torqued to further enrich those who already had the most:
The underlying problem, then, is not just globalization and technological changes that have made most American workers less competitive. Nor is it that they lack enough education to be sufficiently productive.

The more basic problem is that the market itself has become tilted ever more in the direction of moneyed interests that have exerted disproportionate influence over it, while average workers have steadily lost bargaining power -- both economic and political -- to receive as large a portion of the economy's gains as they commanded in the first three decades after World War II.

Reversing the scourge of widening inequality requires reversing the upward pre-distributions within the rules of the market, and giving average people the bargaining power they need to get a larger share of the gains from growth.

The answer to this problem is not found in economics. It is found in politics. Ultimately, the trend toward widening inequality in America, as elsewhere, can be reversed only if the vast majority join together to demand fundamental change.

The most important political competition over the next decades will not be between the right and left, or between Republicans and Democrats. It will be between a majority of Americans who have been losing ground, and an economic elite that refuses to recognize or respond to its growing distress.
- Alexander Kaufman interviews Gabriel Zucman about the role of tax havens in entrenching a new aristocracy. And in a related (if dated) story, Rajeev Syal reports on how the Cons' hired gun Lynton Crosby sheltered income through an offshore trust even while running the campaign of a party which feigned concern about exactly that type of abuse.

- Michael Harris slams the Cons for a foreign policy oriented toward war, profiteering and political gain rather than any principle worth pursuing. And Haroon Siddiqui highlights what we've lost in becoming associated with that mindset around the globe, while Steven Chase and Shawn McCarthy report that the Department of Foreign Affairs is well aware of Canada's fading reputation.

- Shannon Gormley writes that contrary to the Cons' spin, the only bogus element of Canada's relationship with refugees is the mindset used to attack people in need of a home.

- And finally, Aaron Wherry takes the Cons to task for their politicking around the niqab as a threat to the very idea of individual rights.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

On game theories

Paul Dechene's riff off of this post is definitely worth a read. But while we're largely in agreement on the significance of polls, I will challenge his wider view as to what election coverage means:
Policies? Platforms? These are not the weapons political parties wield in an election. Those are the clothes political hopefuls wear. They define the personalities of the contestants. They’re the pixeled skins that overlay each blank politician sprite. This guy here is the angry Bowser who’s scary and likes to blow things up but at least he’ll cut your taxes. Here’s the cheerful Princess Peach who’s kind and generous, but oh, her naivete is going to get her into trouble. And look! Over there it’s Yoshi! He’s a dinosaur! He’s green! And he has a sticky tongue! How can you not vote for him?

In other words, you root for the guy in the costume you like best.

All that stuff that the activists and academics and huffy old columnists dismiss as political theatre is the actual election.

Is most of that morass of petty conflicts, dirty tricks, flubbed press conferences and debate shenanigans nothing more than random noise? Hellz ya. But humans are storytelling creatures and taking a chaotic pile of stupid nonsense and constructing a narrative from it is one of our brains’ favourite things to do.

And polls are just one more expression of our storytelling natures. They gather up a bunch of people’s opinions, quantify them, put them on graphs. Then everybody makes guesses about what it all means and what’s going to happen next.

Polls take the noise of a real life election and turn it into a game involving little racing red and blue and orange and green avatars in exactly the same way that a Nintendo machine takes a bunch of random numbers and the inputs from your controller and turns them into Super Mario Kart.
I've commented before on the concept of elections being treated and commented on as a game rather than an event of political and social importance. But Dechene effectively raises two related questions arising out of the view that's how campaigns are currently covered: can we treat campaigns as something more than a game whose primary importance is as a source of entertainment? And if so, should we bother?

On my reading, Dechene seems to answer the first question with a no, rendering the second irrelevant. But even if we recognize that elections will fall short of a "lost Platonic state of democracy", that doesn't mean we're stuck with it instead representing nothing more than a matter of rooting for laundry.

In fact, the same experts who have pointed out our tendency to jump to conclusions and frame what we see around biases and preferred narratives have also noted that we do have another cognitive system available - one which requires more effort to use, but results in a far more thorough analysis than our initial reaction to events. And a conscious effort to use the latter system seems to be largely successful in providing an appropriate challenge to the surface analysis.

There's no prospect of analyzing everything that happens in a campaign through that more detailed lens even on an individual level. But I'd suggest it is possible to prioritize coverage to shift how we see politics on the margins: by talking more about substantive issues than trivia, by evaluating them with something going beyond a surface analysis, and by encouraging others to do the same.

And the potential importance of doing so is hard to overstate. While the election itself can be lumped in with any given sporting event as having a winner, one or more losers, and lots of characters to be discussed, the result of an election (being the election of the people empowered to chart a social course on our behalf) has profound implications for everybody within the influence of political decision-making.

If we currently lack a critical mass of voters willing and able to shape our democratic future based on more than either entrenched affiliations or nebulous narratives, I'd consider that a problem worth solving, not an inevitability to be accepted. And while the political theatre which shapes votes absolutely does matter, we can work within that reality without giving up on the cause of a better-informed electorate.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Jennifer Wells writes about the drastic difference in pay between CEOs and everybody else. And Henry Farrell interviews Lauren Rivera about the advantage privileged children have in being able to rely on parents' social networks and funding rather than needing to learn or work for themselves:
One of your most counter-intuitive arguments is that students from working class and lower-middle class backgrounds are less likely to get elite jobs, because they concentrate on studying rather than their social life at college. That’s the opposite of what the conventional wisdom would suggest. How does these students’ devotion to academic seriousness hurt their job prospects?

LR – Working and lower-middle-class children are less likely to participate in structured extracurricular activities than their more privileged peers while growing up (and when they do, they tend to participate in fewer of them). This hurts their job prospects in two ways. First, it affects the types of schools students attend. Elite universities weigh extracurricular activities heavily in admissions decisions. Given that these employers—which offer some of the highest-paying entry-level jobs in the country—recruit almost exclusively at top schools, many students who focus purely on their studies will be out of the game long before they ever apply to firms. Second, employers also use extracurricular activities, especially those that are driven by “passion” rather than academic or professional interest and require large investments of time and money over many years, to screen résumés. But participation in these activities while in college or graduate school is not a luxury that all can afford, especially if someone needs to work long hours to pay the bills or take care of family members. Essentially, extracurriculars end up being a double filter on social class that disadvantages job applicants from more modest means both in entering the recruiting pipeline and succeeding within it.
- In a similar vein, the Economist examines the high costs of living in poverty. And Justin Kong points out how an improved minimum wage would go a long way toward providing needed income security.

- Daryl Copeland discusses how the Cons have trashed Canada's reputation on the international stage, turning us from a productive partner into a pariah. And Derek Stoffel reports on how the tarnished perception of Canada as a country is extending far beyond the diplomatic sphere.

- Thomas Walkom writes that Ontario voters may learn a lesson from the political scene as Kathleen Wynne, one of the main faces of the federal Libs, collapses under the weight of scandals and broken promises.

- Finally, Alice Musabende raises the concern that Canada's political parties are being too quick to pull candidates over minor controversies.

On accurate readings

Paul Barber offers a rundown of the problems with an overreliance on polls, while Heather Libby goes further and suggests that we ignore national polls altogether. But I'll follow up on the argument I've made before that rather than taking any concerns about poll data as a basis for throwing polling out the window altogether, we should instead treat them as reasons for caution in interpreting useful information.

Barber focuses largely on the methodological issues involved in trying to get a representative sample from an electorate in which people are less and less inclined to respond to requests to participate in the first place. And there are certainly reasons to question each of the workarounds on their own.

That said, if we face the choice of either (a) lending at least some credence to the view that each methodology might have some merit while using competing polls (and ultimately electoral results) as a check, (b) buying completely into one style of poll and thus excluding all other data, or (c) trusting no polling information at all and thus relying solely on parties and pundits to tell us where an election stands, I'd have a hard time seeing how we're well served by any option other than (a).

And fortunately, the poll information we have is then compiled in ways which makes it relatively easy to analyze national-level data. So while we should absolutely question whether a single poll tells the full story (particularly in its subsamples), we can check with public aggregators for both a big-picture look at the national race, and a test as to the plausibility of new polling information.

Of course, those sites focus largely on the national level. So what about Libby's view that there's a meaningful distinction between national and riding-level poll data, and that we should pay attention only to the latter?

The problem there lies in the limited number of riding-level polls actually conducted. Parties, pollsters and media outlets may decide to conduct polls in ridings of particular interest - but we should have learned by now that national and regional trends make a huge difference in determining what ridings actually affect electoral outcomes in the first place. And then, if a small number of polls are conducted in a riding, a single skewed sample or methodological issue can grossly warp the results.

Again, those are cautions as to the use of riding-level data alone. But if we can compare a single-riding poll to see how it fits into broader national or regional pictures, then we have a far better chance of finding the right balance between the two.

And that should be our ultimate goal. While some partisans who should know better have been particularly motivated to cherry-pick polls to tell only the story they want told, the fact is that all polling information is potentially useful if we recognize its limitations. And rather than looking for excuses to throw out some or all of the data we have based on either partisan preference or methodological squabbles, we should instead be incorporating it into a full analysis of what's happening around us.