Saturday, January 09, 2016

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Joseph Stiglitz comments on how the Trans-Pacific Partnership looks to make democracy subordinate to corporate interests:
The US concluded secret negotiations on what may turn out to be the worst trade agreement in decades, the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and now faces an uphill battle for ratification, as all the leading Democratic presidential candidates and many of the Republicans have weighed in against it. The problem is not so much with the agreement’s trade provisions, but with the “investment” chapter, which severely constrains environmental, health, and safety regulation, and even financial regulations with significant macroeconomic impacts. 

In particular, the chapter gives foreign investors the right to sue governments in private international tribunals when they believe government regulations contravene the TPP’s terms (inscribed on more than 6,000 pages). In the past, such tribunals have interpreted the requirement that foreign investors receive “fair and equitable treatment” as grounds for striking down new government regulations – even if they are non-discriminatory and are adopted simply to protect citizens from newly discovered egregious harms. 

While the language is complex – inviting costly lawsuits pitting powerful corporations against poorly financed governments – even regulations protecting the planet from greenhouse-gas emissions are vulnerable. The only regulations that appear safe are those involving cigarettes (lawsuits filed against Uruguay and Australia for requiring modest labeling about health hazards had drawn too much negative attention). But there remain a host of questions about the possibility of lawsuits in myriad other areas. 

Furthermore, a “most favored nation” provision ensures that corporations can claim the best treatment offered in any of a host country’s treaties. That sets up a race to the bottom – exactly the opposite of what US President Barack Obama promised.
Those seeking closer economic integration have a special responsibility to be strong advocates of global governance reforms: If authority over domestic policies is ceded to supranational bodies, then the drafting, implementation, and enforcement of the rules and regulations has to be particularly sensitive to democratic concerns. Unfortunately, that was not always the case in 2015. 

In 2016, we should hope for the TPP’s defeat and the beginning of a new era of trade agreements that don’t reward the powerful and punish the weak. The Paris climate agreement may be a harbinger of the spirit and mindset needed to sustain genuine global cooperation.
- Ben Norton writes about the potential effects of TransCanada's NAFTA litigation over the Keystone XL pipeline, while Ethan Cox and Erin Seatter summarize the Chapter 11 process which allows big business to attack decisions made in the public interest. PressProgress reminds us that Canada too has faced corporate attacks on its environmental policies. And for those wondering who Brad Wall really serves, Saskatchewan's premier is cheerleading for the claim even though its primary outcome would be a transfer of U.S. public money to a single corporation.

- Charles Mandel points out in the wake of a massive California methane leak that the same could easily happen in Canada as well. And Paul Hanley calls for Saskatchewan to join the rest of the world in phasing out coal power, rather than insisting on being a dirty-energy outlier. 

- Finally, Hugh MacKenzie offers some suggestions to rein in excessive executive pay. And Michael Massing provides a primer to the media on covering self-interested "philanthropy".

Friday, January 08, 2016

Musical interlude

Gorgon City feat. MNEK - Ready For Your Love

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- John O'Farrell argues that a basic income provides a needed starting point for innovation and entrepreneurship by people who don't enjoy the advantage of inherited wealth:
But in fact it is the current situation that prevents initiative and holds back entrepreneurs. Anyone who ever invented or created anything did so with a modicum of financial security behind them. That’s why so many of our statues are to upper-class white men; that’s why Virginia Woolf needed “a room of her own and £500 a year” (slashed to £27.85 after that spare room fell under the bedroom tax). For centuries we have tapped the potential of only a small proportion of the British people; the rest have been powerless to initiate or discover where their true talents lay. With the UBI, innovators would be given the room to experiment knowing they would still have something to fall back on; it would see more small businesses and less grovelling on Dragons’ Den.

Vitally, it would begin to redress the chronic imbalance in today’s labour market. There’s a reason why call centre workers sound so miserable when they claim to be sharing really exciting news about your phone tariff. Since the decline of the unions, workers have been increasingly powerless to refuse longer hours and less money, with only the food bank to fall back on if they walk away from an exploitative job. With a guaranteed state income to keep the wolf (or Wonga) from the door, employees would regain the bargaining power to demand civilised working conditions and reasonable rates of pay...
For all the apparent expense of the UBI, we would save the small fortune that the state currently spends mopping up the mess of social problems caused overwhelmingly by chronic poverty.

Of course, there are complex reasons for increasing homelessness, for bulging prisons, for growing mental health problems – but desperate financial pressure is a major factor in all of them. Every decade sees us spending increasing billions trying to tighten the lid of the boiling cauldron. It might be so much cheaper just to turn down the temperature a bit.
- Meanwhile, Maria Konnikova discusses how we learn about fairness - as we naturally notice and complain about being on the wrong side of unfair circumstances, while learning to identify our own privilege takes significant work.

- Claire McIlveen comments on the need for a far more secure system of retirement income than we can currently claim.

- Pamela Cowan talks to Ryan Meili and Tom McIntosh about the importance of a national pharmacare program as part of a fully functional public health care system. And Moira Donovan weighs in on the dangers of ambulance fees in discouraging people from calling an ambulance even when needed. 

- Finally, Lee Berthiaume writes that a Saudi arms deal seen as an unqualified plus for a cynical, militaristic Con government is something else entirely for anybody who even pretends to care about human rights. But Steven Chase and Daniel Leblanc report that the Libs may not bother keeping up the charade much longer, as they're not only pushing through the sale but suppressing human rights assessments to do it.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

On common values

There's reason to be wary about the Libs' handling of the Senate, as Thomas Walkom writes in his latest column. But it's also worth noting that contrary to Walkom's conflation of the two, there are important differences between selecting prospective Senators based on whether they "back the Liberal government", versus evaluating whether they are "amenable to passing bills the Liberal government wants enacted".

Indeed, if the Libs want to defuse any potential for controversy while avoiding Senate obstruction, the one key requirement should have nothing to do with support for their government in particular.

Instead, any new senators could be screened (among whatever other criteria the Libs want to apply) based on their willingness to generally support all legislation passed by the House of Commons regardless of its party of origin. That could be subject to variation in exceptional cases, such as where MPs who have actually contributed to passing the bill signal a need for a bill to receive further review or amendment - but the overarching principle should be that the Senate will not get in the way of the decisions of elected representatives of any partisan stripe.

If the Libs limit their appointments to new Senators fitting that description, that strategy would simultaneously avoid the Cons' cynical obstruction and set the groundwork for an institution designed to function on a non-partisan basis in the future. But if they listen to Walkom's concurrent message about looking for political supporters, then we're all too likely to end up with yet another set of faux reformers (much like Harper's nominees themselves) who end up serving as nothing more than partisan tools.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Justin Fox explores why it took the economic field in general (with some noteworthy exceptions) decades to start dealing with burgeoning inequality. And Bryce Covert discusses the latest study showing that in looking beyond tax data alone, the level of inequality is even worse than it's appeared in past research.

- Meanwhile, Rebecca Rosen traces the links between increased inequality and extended hours of work. And Jamie Klinger notes that Uber and other businesses designed to avoid normal employment relationships may only make matters worse.

- Wendy Glauser, Joshua Tepper and Jill Konkin offer some suggestions to address the alarming health inequities between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.

- Derrick O'Keefe duly criticizes the Libs' insistence on pushing ahead with an eleven-figure arms deal with Saudi Arabia with no regard for its ongoing human rights abuses. 

- Finally, Charles Taylor talks to Sonali Campion about the dangers of exclusionary themes which are all too easily used for political advantage:
Democracies need a very strong sense of common goals, more than autocracies, because they have to call on citizens to show solidarity, to discuss together, so there has to be some sense they are talking about the same thing or trust begins to fall apart. In that sense they need what I call a “political identity”. This is a mixture of key principles, such as democracy and human rights, and something particular to the individual state.

These elements of the political identity can easily be turned into measures of exclusion: “these other people don’t really fit”, “they aren’t part of the ethnic background of this particular national project”, or “they don’t really seem to accept the basic principles of our democracy”. In many cases these are not really founded judgements, but they are still very powerful because as long as people perceive things in that way it seems right to exclude certain groups, or make special demands of them – for example that they assimilate totally.

So this of course is something that democracies can’t very easily cope with because it produces great rifts, even a sense of second-class citizenship, which clashes with the ethic that we include everyone. So people have to be willing to consider redefining their political identity in order to really bring together the degree of diversity that actually exists on the territory.

New column day

Here, on how people generally have a better idea about the facts underlying our political choices than they suggest in response to an ordinary poll - and how we can make better decisions by looking to the root causes of that distinction.

For further reading...
- The studies referred to in the article are here (pdf) and here. And as previously linked, Neil Irwin discussed them here.
- And while I didn't work it into the column, I'll wonder whether something akin to the dual process theory might play a role in the different findings - with the objective reward of even a small payoff leading people to use more rigorous analysis in response to a question.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Mariana Mazzucato comments on the need for the public sector to play a significant and direct role in sustainable economic development:
The debate about the relative roles of the state and the market in capitalist economies tends to swing from side to side in the hearts and minds of public opinion: periods when the state is defended for its role in economic development are always superseded by an attack on its intervention into ‘well functioning’ markets. It has been like this throughout the twentieth century. And it is what has happened since the most recent global financial crisis and economic recession: a brief period right after its outbreak, when there was consensus that the state had a key role to play in both saving the banks and using fiscal policy to promote growth, was quickly apprehended by those who feared rising levels of public debt. Indeed, this debt was mistakenly seen as the cause rather than the result of the crisis—due to lower tax receipts, rising bailouts, etc. So austerity became again the flavour of the day, while any sort of serious economic and industrial policy became anathema.

What is missing from the public perception is how through the history of modern capitalism, the state has done, and continues to do, what markets simply won’t. This is not about its role in simply fixing ‘market failures’, but its role in directly shaping and creating markets.
Key to Italy’s future is to get rid of the static public versus private sector debate. Both sectors are crucial. The question is how to promote synergetic partnerships which allow the public sector, in its engagement with the private sector, to remain courageous, strategic and set the direction of change, rather than only de-risking, facilitating, administering, subsidizing and incentivising. Whether we are looking at education, health, transport, culture, renewable energy or the future of micro-electronics, the problem should not be ‘opening up to the market’...but how to structure and shape the market, through public and private investments, in such a way that allows a sector to become more dynamic, innovative and investment driven. Instead, because we pretend that investment is for the private sector, and the public sector is there to only regulate, subsidize or save the day when things go wrong (bringing into the public sector the ‘bad’ toxic side of the equation, allowing the ‘good’ to be absorbed privately), this leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy where precisely because we don’t see a real ‘public role’ beyond, it becomes under financed, but also under “imagined”. When a sector lacks imagination, it dies. It becomes irrelevant, and of course easier to attack. This vicious cycle is happening in Italy’s public sector and it is contributing to its demise.
- Michael Hiltzik discusses the connection between the obsession with short-term share values and the increasing precarity of work, while Andrew Callaway writes that workers are getting little but instability from a "sharing" economy. And Jonathon Gatehouse reports on the growing chasm between Canadian CEOs and the rest of us - as well as the fact that we're likely underestimating that gap to begin with.

- Jeremy Nuttall notes that new federal funding announcements for export development figure to pale in comparison to the harm done by the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals. And Michael Geist is writing a new series on the harms done by the TPP in particular.

- Meanwhile, Robert Fife breaks the news that rather than seriously examining the impact of handing perpetually more power to the corporate sector, the Libs are instead bent on signing an even more restrictive deal with China than the one the Cons signed onto a year ago.

- Finally, Ralph Surette points out the need to progress from a mere statement of intentions to actual, global-scale action to rein in greenhouse gas emissions and limit the effect of climate change.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Skirting cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Nicholas Fitz observes that inequality is far worse than the U.S. public believes - even as it already wants to see significant action. And Thomas Piketty updates his policy prescriptions arising out of Capital:
As I look back at my discussion of future policy proposals in the book, I may have devoted too much attention to progressive capital taxation and too little attention to a number of institutional evolutions that could prove equally important. Because capital is multidimensional and markets are imperfect, capital taxation needs to be supplemented with other asset-specific policies and regulations, including for instance land use and housing policies and intellectual property right laws. In particular, as rightly argued by Elizabeth Anderson in this symposium, monopoly power and the regulation of intellectual property rights play an important role in the dynamics of private wealth accumulation. Given the central role played by changing real estate values and rent levels in the aggregate evolution of capital-income ratios and capital shares in recent decades, it is clear that land use and housing policies have potentially a critical role to play, in particular to regulate and expend access to property. On the other hand, it is equally clear that such policies are sometime difficult to implement (e.g. public construction policies or housing subsidies have not always been very successful in the past), so they should certainly be viewed as complementary rather than substitute to progressive taxation.

Also, in my book I do not pay sufficient attention to the development of other alternative forms of property arrangements and participatory governance. One central reason why progressive capital taxation is important is because it can also bring increased transparency about company assets and accounts. In turn, increased financial transparency can help to develop new forms of governance; for instance, it can facilitate more worker involvement in company boards. In other words, “social-democratic” institutions such as progressive taxation (see Miriam Ronzoni in this symposium) can foster institutions that question in a more radical manner the very functioning of private property (note that progressive capital taxation transforms large private property as a temporary attribute rather than a permanent one – already a significant change). However these other institutions – whose aim should be to redefine and regulate property rights and power relations – must also be analyzed as such...
- Meanwhile, David Heinemeier Hansson writes from experience that extreme wealth is overrated even for those who accumulate it.

- Rebecca Green rounds up some reasons for hope and despair on the economic front. And Maximiliano Dvorkin notes that jobs involving routine tasks - whether manual or not - are in the midst of an extended stagnation.

- Andrew Learmonth discusses the devastating effects of austerity in creating child hunger in Scotland. And Naomi Lakritz rightly points out that Alberta's precarious fiscal situation can be traced back to Ralph Klein's obsession with slashing taxes and public services alike.

- Finally, Anita Nickerson argues that everybody ultimately loses out under a winner-take-all electoral system - meaning that it's long past time to ensure a more fair proportional system.

Monday, January 04, 2016

On countermovements

Alison is right to highlight the latest right-wing astroturf group in Canada. But we shouldn't assume that mere exposure will meaningfully affect the growth of corporate-owned politics alone.

As is typically the case, Canadian politics tend to be influenced strongly by U.S. trends due to the overlap in culture and media. And there, privately-owned political structures are beginning to exceed the reach of political parties.

That makes for a serious problem to the extent the model is adopted on a similar scale in Canada - as a fairly modest amount of money by business standards could drown out nearly all other political voices between elections without any legal restraints.

But it also signals that citizens' movements can likewise work across and beyond party lines with relative freedom (at least for the moment). And so while we call out the astroturf in our midst, we should also recognize the opportunity to sow real seeds of change for the better.

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Hugh MacKenzie reminds us how quickly Canada's richest CEOs will exceed the income of the average Canadian worker on the year's first work day. And James Surowiecki takes a look at how the U.S.' corporate sector is fleeing any social obligations by sending profits offshore. 

- Stephen Kimber rightly slams the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies for demanding austerity which will only make a stagnant economy even worse.

- Roderick Benns suggests that Canada take the lead in developing a basic income to combat inequality at home and set an example for the rest of the world.

- Eric Doherty points out that any new infrastructure program will have significant consequences for our ability to rein in climate change - and there's reason to worry the Libs will focus on projects which make matters worse. And Evan Herrnstadt and Erich Muehlegger study (PDF) a connection between air pollution and violent crime.

- Finally, Scott Gilmore highlights the rarity of terrorist violence compared to far more significant risks:
In France, cervical cancer is seven times more lethal than terrorism, but Hollande would be ridiculed for convening a special session of parliament to address that threat. In the U.S., you are 28 times more likely to be shot by a policeman than by a terrorist. But that’s a problem the Republican primaries won’t be debating. And the murder rate in Edmonton is almost twice that in Paris. Although I suspect the pitiable school trustees lack the math skills required to decipher “homicides per 100,000 people per annum,” or the common sense to know what to do with that information.
In the New Year, learn to ignore the primal fears in your brain and relax. Remind yourself that you’re safe; safer than you were last year and every year before that. But remember that others, people in the Middle East and Africa, aren’t. And don’t let your politicians go on about how they’re going to protect us; demand to know what they’re doing to protect those less fortunate than us. Also, please check in with your doctor. Cancer is several thousand times more likely to kill you than a suicide bomber.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Sunday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Ian Welsh summarizes why inequality is intrinsically problematic:
Even where people’s needs are met, the more unequal a society the more unhealthy everyone is and the more unhappy they are.

Those who feel lower on the totem pole also perform worse than they otherwise would.  Remove the feeling of inequality, and they perform better.

This is before we get to the social effects, which are pernicious.  Those who are at the top of the heap distort politics to keep themselves at the top of the heap, and engage in repression.
Inequality is thus a political and organizational negative. It ensures that more effort goes into unproductive and destructive activities which are of benefit to a few at most than would otherwise.

Inequality is unhealthy, makes people unhappy, and distorts politics in terrible ways.

This is intrinsic to inequality.  Beyond a relatively low level, there is no such thing as “good” inequality.
- And Joseph Stiglitz discusses how austerian economics have caused global economic stagnation. 

- Roger Annis laments the Libs' refusal to follow through on their promise to ensure that the Canada Pension Plan provides a reasonably secure retirement for all Canadian workers. And the New York Times' editorial board rightly concludes that a lack of retirement savings represents a reason to expand public pensions, not to slash them in the hope that people will find money to put away if only they otherwise stand to suffer enough.

- Finally, Doreen Nicoll writes that we have ample resources to end child poverty - but that we need to start by designing policy to help children rather than squeeze parents. 

On rebuilding steps

I've posted before about the NDP's strong progressive stance since the October election - which looks to be a positive move in terms of principles and politics alike. 

But there's also a great deal of work to be done on the party side. And I'll suggest a couple of points which strike me as important in advance of the spring convention where Tom Mulcair's leadership is up for review.

First, there's the seemingly simple matter of the party's policy book (which I believe is found in an updated PDF here) and other member-generated documents.

As a reminder, the policy book was originally developed as part of Jack Layton's effort to professionalize the party - providing a statement of core values which could then form the foundation for platform development (while being general enough to allow plenty of room for maneuvering).

Nothing has been done to make the policy book any less authoritative than it ever was in reflecting the policy set by NDP members. And it would thus seem important both as a standing expression of values, and a starting point for resolutions which riding associations may want to develop.

But the policy book was removed from the NDP's website in advance of the election based on what still strikes me as a dubious rationale. And it doesn't seem to have been replaced since; in fact, the party's website no longer seems to point to any of the party documentation which was once available.

At best, that might be explained based on the party's priorities falling elsewhere in the immediate aftermath of the election. But if the issue was once one of a perceived lack of urgency, an impending resolution deadline for the convention surely makes it worth letting people know where party policy stands now. (And I'd also argue it's worth making sure that far more of the party's history in action, including convention resolutions past and present, is preserved and made available.)

Second, there's the concern about the central campaign's treatment of important parts of the progressive social movement - which arose both in candidate vetting, and in the message sent to some candidates during the campaign.

There's little way for the party to know what it can (or can't) accomplish by reaching out to the people who were refused a place within the election campaign. But at the very least, it should make the effort to do so on the basis that winning back past supporters and strengthening ties with the activist left need to be top priorities following a disappointing election.

If some of the key individuals who were turned away directly or who spoke out at the time can be brought back into the fold, that would go a long way toward confirming that Mulcair can win over some of the people who tuned out the NDP in 2015 and lead a movement-based party toward power. But even if Mulcair didn't find a receptive ear, he and the party would be better off for recognizing the need to try.