Saturday, November 14, 2015

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Lana Payne points out that even some of the world's wealthiest individuals are highlighting the need for governments to step up in addressing major collective action problems such as climate change and inequality. And Angella MacEwen offers one important example of that principle being put into practice, writing that Quebec's family-friendly parental leave policies have made a major impact in improving both social and economic outcomes.

- Duncan Weldon observes that wages will face conflicting pressures in the years to come, as increased replacement of work with new technology is weighed against a demographic crunch in the supply of labour.

- Carol Linnitt exposes some of the cynicism and denial from the corporations who have all too often been able to dictate the terms of climate change conversations, while David Climenhaga notes that the Cons' more overt obstructionism did little but to get the world to tune Canada out entirely. And PressProgress offers some good reasons for Alberta (and other jurisdictions) to move past coal power to cleaner, renewable alternatives.

- Nathan Raine discusses the futility of "tough on crime" policies which do nothing to address the social factors which actually cause criminal behaviour.

- Finally, Errol Mendes points out why we shouldn't be satisfied with the results of an election where xenophobia managed to have a significant impact on the outcome - even if the parties pushing it weren't the ones who benefited most. And Samantha Ponting charts just a few of the corporate connections of the Libs' new cabinet.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Musical interlude

The Avener & Kadebostany - Castle In The Snow

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Julie Delahanty discusses the need for Canada's federal government to rein in rising inequality. And Tim Stacey duly challenges the excuse that today's poor people just aren't poor enough to deserve any consideration.

- Amy Goodman interviews Joseph Stiglitz about the serious problems with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Andrea Germanos reports that Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, is joining the chorus pointing out how the TPP will affect public health. And Andy Blatchford points out how the TPP's intellectual property provisions are designed to enrich the U.S. at the expense of Canadian industry.

- Meanwhile, Brad Hornick points out how trade agreements and corporate influence will limit what we can hope to accomplished at the Paris conference on climate change, while Reuters reports on the massive amounts of money still being used to subsidize fossil fuels. But on the bright side, IndustriALL notes that the International Labour Organization has stepped up to the plate in advance of Paris by adopting a commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions paired with a "just transition" for workers.

- Finally, Bill Tieleman comments on the Christy Clark Libs' phantom government which manages to make information disappear as soon as truth is in danger of becoming public. And Sean Holman writes that the basic question the Trudeau Libs will face on access to information is whether to presume that "administrative secrecy" should generally trump any public awareness of government decision-making.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New column day

Here, on the opportunity posed by the change in Canada's federal government - as well as the risks involved in letting the moment pass without an activist push for meaningful change.

For further reading...
- Nora Loreto makes much the same point with a particular focus on Canada's labour movement.
- Susan Delacourt notes that Justin Trudeau is going so far as to ask for public involvement in at least some areas - though the more important ones for activism may be those where he isn't willing to make a public appeal.
- And as I noted in this post, data on voter turnout is here for this year's election, and here for previous ones.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Seth Klein discusses the need to deal with climate change with the same sense of urgency and common purpose we've historically associated with major wars:
Canada’s experience in WWI and WWII serves to remind us that our society has managed a dramatic restructuring of the economy before. During both world wars, our economy had to be entirely re-tooled for a new common purpose: scarce resources were deployed for the task at hand, Victory Bonds were sold, profits were restricted to prevent war-time profiteering, new taxes were levied, household consumption shifted and quotas we applied on some goods, core industries were directed to produce the goods and services needed, people grew “Victory Gardens” and dramatically switched their transportation from private automobiles to public transit –– coincidentally, actions that also reduced emissions. And in the process employment grew dramatically.

While the threat today may move in slower motion, is the climate crisis we face really all that different?

Only now, we need a federal government that can lead us not into battle against other nations, but rather, into the fight for our collective future.
- But Tyler Hamilton reports on the billions Canada continues to hand to the fossil fuel industry in subsidies, while Charles Mandel points out that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is designed to limit what we're able to do to rein in climate change. And John Klein exposes the Saskatchewan Party's disappearing promises when it comes to greenhouse gas emission reductions.

- Meanwhile, Thomas Walkom notes that Justin Trudeau doesn't have the same sense of urgency about the global problem of climate change that he's expressed when it comes to his promises on refugees - which is a problem however important (and beneficial) the cause of helping today's refugees. And so we probably can't expect Canada's failing grade on climate change to improve anytime soon.

- Finally, Paul Waldman points out how the U.S.' Republican presidential candidates are ignoring the facts as what's actually produced economic growth in the past in order to pitch yet more faith-based tax giveaways to the rich. And Pete Evans reports on David Madani's finding that the hope of a secure income is little more than an illusion for an increasing number of Canadians, while Andrew Prokop discusses how the TPP may only make matters worse (despite some spin about labour protections which likely won't be enforced).

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

On dramatic conclusions

Presenting a one-act play starring Saskatchewan's Minister of Highways and Infrastructure, along with one of her party's most troublesome adversaries.

Reality: How can you possibly justify spending more public money on highways to get less done?

Nancy Heppner: There's a perfectly good explanation for that. It's because we're spending on the...(flips pages in the Compendium of Random Transportation-Related Terms)...culverts and bridges!!!

Reality: That's demonstrably false. So again, how can you justify spending more money on highways to get less done?

Nancy Heppner: There's a perfectly good explanation for that. It's because we're spending on the...(again flips pages in the Compendium of Random Transportation-Related Terms)...multi-year projects and flood repairs!!!

Reality: That comes nowhere close to accounting for the increased cost, and doesn't explain the reduced amount of road repaired. So again, how can you justify spending more money on highways to get less done? 

Nancy Heppner: There's a perfectly good explanation for that. It's because we're spending on the...(once again flips pages in the Compendium of Random Transportation-Related Terms)...viaducts and esplanades!!!

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Remembrance Day reading.

- Roderick Benns interviews Robin Boadway about the results of past basic income studies which have shown that economic security helps rather than hinders individual participation in the workforce:
Benns: What about a basic income guarantee makes it a social justice issue?

Boadway: To me, freedom from poverty and satisfactions of basic needs are fundamental human right. They are also a prerequisite to participating meaningfully in society. As well, as I have mentioned, those of us who are more affluent than average owe our success in good part to luck rather than merit: where and when we were born, our native abilities, our family backgrounds, the opportunities made available to us, and so on. We owe it to the less fortunate to share our good fortune.

Benns: The most common concern is about implementing a basic income guarantee is that too many of us would choose not to work. Why do you believe this won’t be the case?

Boadway: Evidence from guaranteed basic income experiments indicates that those who receive basic income grants do not squander it. Some use it to provide better outcomes for their children. Others use it to support improving their own skills. Very few simply become idle and live off the grant. This is not surprising. Basic income is not designed to give recipients a luxurious life. There will always be a desire to earn income over and above the basic income guarantee level in order to achieve personal and family fulfilment. Existing welfare programs are not good indicators of behaviour under a basic income. They are rife with stigmatization and impose strong penalties to work and save. To the extent that one worries about disincentive effects, it is possible to design the system so that recipients retain an incentive to undertake productive activity, including work, entrepreneurship and education. Moreover, one cannot underestimate how social norms can be influenced by a well-designed and non-intrusive basic income system.
- Meanwhile,  Ken Battle, Sherri Torjman and Michael Mendelson make the case that Canada's federal government needs to get serious about fighting poverty, including by implementing a basic income. And Nick Hanauer and David Rolf also weigh in on the importance of individual economic security to allow people to make meaningful and positive choices.

- On the bright side, CBC reports that Alberta's NDP government has wasted no time in establishing a new child benefit to reduce poverty for that province's parents.

- But George Monbiot points out that the UK Conservatives represent just one example of a right-wing government with no clue how cuts to social programs affect the communities they're supposed to represent.

- Finally, Samara Canada offers (pdf) a first thorough review of Canada's 2015 election.

On turnout

Daniel Schwartz reports on the final vote count from last month's federal election. And given the record vote total and unusually high turnout based on the percentage of eligible voters, it's particularly worth noting what's changed since previous, lower-turnout elections.

Since 2011, the Conservatives eliminated the per-vote subsidy, which provided political parties with a direct financial incentive to seek out votes even where they were less likely to flip seats. To the extent Canada's political parties included the subsidy in their election planning, we'd thus have expected a lower turnout this time out.

Since 2011, the Conservatives also eliminated Elections Canada's authority to promote voting, while also restricting access to the ballot box through multiple amendments to Canada's electoral law. And that too would have been expected to reduce turnout.

Of course, the other difference from the perspective of the parties since 2011 is that we aw an unusually large number of parties targeting enough seats to form government for years in advance of the 2015 election. And it's possible that led to a greater amount of work persuading people to vote than might have existed otherwise.

(Anybody looking for support for that theory might look to the point at which turnout dropped after 1993.)

But it's worth recognizing that the choice of more people to participate seems to have outweighed the systemic changes the Cons put in place to limit voting. Which means there's room for growth to the extent the Cons' voter suppression tactics are reversed - but also real danger of slippage if we can't maintain the interest that pulled people to the polls this time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Hunched cats.

On suckers' bets

We've sure learned some important lessons from the failure of the first billion-dollar Boundary Dam CCS project:
SaskPower's president, Mike Marsh, says the company had hoped to make a decision on whether to retrofit another two units at Boundary Dam power plant by next year.

But on Monday, Marsh told reporters that decision has been pushed back to 2017.

"You don't undertake a project in excess of $1 billion without having your facts," Marsh said.
Meanwhile, Brad Wall's plan is still to hope that the rest of the world is paying little enough attention to be suckered into making the same mistake he did. So what's the market for billion-dollar technologies among customers who lack access to teh Google?

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Chris Hedges weighs in on the Trans-Pacific Partnership's entrenchment of corporate control over mere citizens, while PressProgress highlights just a few of the more obvious dangers it poses. And Blayne Haggart points out that the TPP has nothing at all to do with free trade.
TPP-like agreements are no longer exclusively or even primarily about reducing traditional trade barriers. As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik notes in his 2011 book The Globalization Paradox, with some exceptions (such as Canada’s dairy industry), tariffs have never been lower. Any gains from further reductions would be relatively modest.

Instead, agreements such as the TPP are about implementing policies that have nothing to do with comparative advantage, policies that are often designed to lead to higher consumer costs and concentrated corporate power. Treated as marginal issues, these policies are “free-trade free-riders,” coasting along on an unearned legitimacy.

Today, the free-trade free-riders are central to agreements such as the TPP. Take intellectual property. As Dr. Stiglitz, Dr. Hersh and groups such as Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders) have noted, greater drug-patent protection would “limit competition from generic drug manufacturers that reduce drug prices and improve access to treatment, and would accelerate already soaring medicine and vaccine prices.”

This isn’t a bug; it’s the point of the agreement.

The same goes for extended copyright terms. Longer terms are “a windfall for record companies, with little benefit to artists or the public,” as Canadian copyright expert Michael Geist has noted. Economists, including the late Milton Friedman, tend to agree. Prof. Geist also notes that the TPP would increase Canada’s copyright term from life of the author plus 50 years to life plus 70, potentially costing Canadians $100-million a year. Yet the cost of stronger intellectual property protection are played down when analysts sing the praises of agreements such as the TPP, treated like secondary issues.

Investor-state dispute settlement is another free-trade free-rider justified by appeals to comparative advantage. ISDS puts corporations on the same level as states, allowing foreign firms to sue countries, not only for breach of contract or nationalization, but against public policies, such as access to drinking water and environmental protection, that might negatively affect their bottom line.
- CBC reports on Canada's thoroughly unambitious position going into the Paris climate change conference. And Don Pittis comments on our total lack of both coherent emission reduction targets, and plausible plans to meet the targets that do exist.

- Meanwhile, Kate Aronoff discusses how the financial sector is looking to profit from the threat of a climate catastrophe.

- John Tozzi reports on the link between pollution and heart health risks. And Kelly Kenney points out the glaring gap in health education which focuses primarily on individual rather than social factors. 

- Finally, David Macdonald studies how a housing-market correction would affect Canadians, with a particularly alarming impact on young families who have had to borrow extensively to buy in at inflated prices. And Andrew Halata writes about the dangers of prioritizing exclusionary redevelopment of urban areas while ignoring the people who currently make their homes there.

Monday, November 09, 2015

On open questions

I've previously criticized the attempts of outside commentators to push Thomas Mulcair out the door as NDP leader. By the same token, though, I'll note that it's equally inappropriate to try to immediately declare that there won't be any review of Mulcair's leadership before the next federal election - which seems to be the spin some people are putting on the aftermath of this fall's election (if not exactly the party's own message).

To be clear, it's fine for Mulcair to make a personal commitment to run given the opportunity to do so. But it's ultimately up to NDP members to decide. And the party's ability to hold the Libs to account and win progressive policies in the new Parliament - reflecting its adaptation to a new political environment under Mulcair - figure to be the decisive factors in that choice.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Branko Milanovic writes about the connection between concentration of wealth and income inequality, making the argument that broader ownership of capital itself may make for an important means of levelling the economic playing field.

- But of course, the current trend is in just the opposite direction, as Tom Parkin writes about the public losses that result when governments insist on privatizing our collective assets.

- Paul Krugman examines the continuing effects of needless austerity in the U.S. And Lindsey Cook writes that even Republican presidential candidates are seeing a need to question increasing inequality - though of course that doesn't mean they're about to stop pushing policies designed to make it worse.

- Julian Robinson reports on new research showing the gap in income between the lucky few who grow up in privilege and the people who don't. Simon Wren-Lewis notes that as many grounds of discrimination have rightly been taken off the table as a basis for exclusion, connections within elite social networks remain a significant barrier.

- Finally, the Association of Ontario Health Centres calls for paid sick days to ensure that precarious workers in particular aren't forced to put themselves and others at risk in order to stay afloat financially. And Joe Fiorito offers a (modest) story as to the limited opportunities facing the precariat.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

On definitions

The post-mortems on the NDP's federal election campaign continue to roll in. And it's particularly a plus to see that there will be a systematic effort within the party itself to review the choices which led to the election results - both for better and for worse.

In the meantime, I'll continue pointing out my own view of the campaign with another of the crucial pieces of the puzzle - that being the NDP's handling of Justin Trudeau.

At the beginning, the process of jockeying for position between the opposition options dating back to Trudeau's election as the Libs' leader featured the NDP taking a dismissive view of Trudeau.

That position largely dovetailed with the "not ready" theme presented in various forms by both the Cons and the media - and it might have made for an efficient use of resources compared to trying to develop a stronger unique critique of Trudeau if it had stuck.

But counting on a message largely beyond the NDP's control created risks as well, leaving the door open for Trudeau to outperform expectations merely by memorizing and repeating talking points during the election campaign. And the main opportunities to expose Trudeau's actual weaknesses wound up being either missed or forfeited.

Again, focusing on leadership and betting on Trudeau to slip up under the pressure of a campaign may have represented a reasonable call at the time. But there's no question that it proved a losing choice in the end. And the result was that the NDP entered the home stretch of the campaign without a well-developed core argument as to why voters should prefer their brand of change over the Libs' - even though there was no lack of material available on that front.

By way of comparison, remember the "Ottawa Is Broken" theme which worked so well for the NDP in 2011 as a challenge to multiple parties on multiple fronts with a single core statement. It served as a message of opposition not only to the Cons as the party in power, but also to the Libs as a historical governing party and the Bloc as an entrenched obstacle to change.

In 2015, the NDP's primary message of "Change That's Ready" instead offered little distinction from the Libs - particularly in light of the Libs' own concerted effort to take the mantle of "change".

The end result was that relatively minor shifts in public views of Mulcair and Trudeau (which were entirely consistent with how both had been seen over the previous year) left the NDP vulnerable to losing voters to the latter despite remaining relatively popular with the electorate. And the end result was the late-campaign shift which allowed the Libs to push into majority territory.

Of course, the same issue shouldn't be even a possibility by 2019 when it comes to Trudeau in particular, as no sitting PM figures to be underestimated or left undefined during the course of a campaign. But it's still worth taking away the lesson that it's not safe to hope for any opponent to defeat itself - and that a party should think carefully before letting somebody else take the lead in defining any of its key competitors.

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Liz Farmer discusses the growing body of evidence showing that high-end tax cuts do nothing to build the economy for anybody but the few privileged beneficiaries. And Stephen Kimber writes about the billions of dollars Canada loses to tax evasion every year, while calling out the "taxpayer" lobby groups who are happy to leave the public on the hook for that loss. 

- Heather Stewart weighs on how increased automation stands to exacerbate inequality both between capital and labour, and within the workforce itself. And Matthew Wright comments on the effect of social capital as one of the means by which inequality of opportunity perpetuates itself:
The argument that economic inequality decreases a society’s overall stock of social capital is not new. However, scholars have only recently turned to the question of whether inequality also polarizes people along class lines in terms of standard social capital indicators: level of engagement in ‘civic’ activities, volunteering, trust in other people, and so on. To find out, I use the Monitoring the Future (MtF) Survey series, a nationally-representative survey of roughly 16,000 high school seniors conducted by the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research every year since 1976. These are combined with contextual information about economic inequality – the ubiquitous ‘Gini index’ running from perfect equality (scored ‘0’) to perfect inequality (scored ‘1’) for each survey year.

The pattern is both unmistakable and as expected. Figures 1 and 2 plot the average level of social capital on several common indicators against national-level Gini. Respondents are divided into three equally-sized groups according to parental education, which is the best available indicator of socio-economic ‘class’ in these data. The increased vertical spread between these groups moving from left (most unequal) to right (most equal) indicates disproportionate social capital accruing to the better-off. 
There is strong evidence that socio-economic inequality powerfully shapes social capital disparities between rich and poor.  The obvious prescription is reduced inequality, or as Ric Uslaner puts it ‘don’t get rich, get equal’. That said, even if one accepts this there are many ways one might try to ‘get equal’, and we still know relatively little about what kinds of resource inequalities really matter. Better-off parents spend relatively more time with and resources on, their children, and could help drive the growing social capital disparities observed.  Having relatively better-off parents also provides a more favorable institutional ‘opportunity structure’ in terms of school quality, extracurriculars, community-service opportunities, and even softer factors such as school pride and solidarity. Understanding whether and how these factors play into the relationship between inequality and social capital is necessary if progress is to be made.
- Leigh Phillips nicely sets out the arguments for and against a basic income - while noting that the potential for alliances between progressive and market-oriented supporters may also hint at some of the dangers of pushing a basic income at the expense of other social justice measures. 

- Tom Blackwell takes a look at the prospect that newly-appointed Minister of Health Jane Philpott might be able to use her position to deal with health inequality. And Cliff offers the eminently reasonable suggestion that the federal government can start in reducing poverty and inequality alike by ensuring that citizens under its jurisdiction have at least the same level of funding for public services like education as their compatriots under provincial jurisdiction.

- Finally, Jamie Brownlee and Kevin Walby comment on the importance of access to information (along with its sorry state in Canada).

[Edit: fixed link as per comments.]