Saturday, February 06, 2016

On double majorities

Nathan Cullen's proposal for party representation on the Parliamentary committee reviewing electoral reform has received plenty of attention. But it might actually go much further than advertised to validate the results of the committee's work and legitimize a more fair electoral system.

One can view Cullen's proposal as reflecting a proportional system for allocating committee seats. But it doesn't mean for a second that any change to Canada's electoral system would come about only based on that structure.

Whatever the committee comes up with will still have to be dealt with through legislation in a Parliament in which the Libs have a majority. And that means what Cullen has suggested would in fact serve to confirm the legitimacy of any new system under all plausible interpretations of the results generated by the current one.

By way of explanation, it's fairly clear that the range of options under serious consideration includes three primary types of electoral system. Two of them - first-past-the-post (to the extent it's seen as an option in light of the Libs' promise to scrap it) and ranked ballot - would both have resulted in Lib majorities based on 2015 voting patterns. (Of course, we don't have direct information about what voters' alternative preferences would have been in 2015. But if one ignores the simulated results prepared based on alternative data, that's not a problem capable of being remedied without conducting an election under a different system.)

That leaves the proportional representation option, where the first-choice preferences of Canadian voters would indeed result in exactly the representation proposed by Cullen. [Correction: double-checking the math, a pure proportional allocation of the seats would result in the Cons having one additional seat and the Greens not receiving one - which certainly looks to be a justifiable change to Cullen's proposal.]

And there could be a substantive complaint about legitimacy if what can be fairly criticized as a false majority under one system is used as the sole basis either for preserving that system, or for imposing another one.

Cullen's suggestion then responds to that concern. But I'll argue that it also implicitly answers the question of what more than a bare Parliamentary majority should be required to make electoral reform legitimate beyond reasonable complaint.

As I've noted before, it would be utter folly to demand unanimous support among all parties or MPs before any change could be implemented. But in assessing our electoral options, there's no reason to question the validity of a system which would be able to earn majority support in Parliament regardless of the structure in place at the time the election process is amended. (And similarly, there's no plausible basis to insist on retaining a system which can be replaced based on that multiple-majority support, no matter how much one party shrieks about wanting to preserve its advantages.)

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the Libs will follow through on Cullen's proposal. But if they do, it should ensure both a more inclusive discussion of Canada's electoral system, and a more legitimate result.

[Edit: Fixed wording, and see correction above.]

Saturday Afternoon Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Robert Atkinson discusses the need for corporate tax policy to encourage economic development rather than profit-taking and share inflation. And Jim Hightower notes that it's an anti-democratic corporate mindset that led to the poisoning of Flint.

- Stephen Tapp offers some noteworthy ideas to ensure the public can meaningfully discuss our federal government's fiscal choices.

- Steven Chase finds that a majority of the public would prefer that Canada prioritize human rights over profits in deciding whether or not to supply military equipment to Saudi Arabia. But in case anybody was under the illusion that the Libs were going to pay attention to either public opinion or their own promises, Robert Fife reports on their plans to extend and exacerbate Canada's combat operations in the Middle East.

- The Star rightly calls for an end to the Cons' legacy of secrecy. But there too, there's little reason to think the Libs are offering anything more than show and symbolism.

- Finally, Bruce Johnstone comments on the Saskatchewan Party's dishonesty when it comes to the state of Saskatchewan's economy and fiscal picture. And the provincial auditor's view that a big-money giveaway to land developers was "not a normal transaction" looks to reflect just one more set of shady choices.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Musical interlude

Iris - Closer To Real

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Ben Oquist laments the fact that trickle-down economics and destructive austerity remain the norm in Australia no matter how thoroughly they're proven to fail. Alvin Powell discusses the burgeoning inequality of opportunity in the U.S. And an anonymous tutor to the super-rich writes that even they don't ultimately benefit from gross inequality or social exclusion:
Seeing the human side of the 1% has caused me to view them less as a faceless symbol of injustice and more as people with their own, sometimes relatable, struggles. The feelings that are evident – anxiety, disconnect, isolation – are universal. And that’s promising. Recognising the humanity in the “other” – even the “enemy” – does not mean I do not judge them, but it does give me a chance to transcend the inequality and start conversations about change.
Educational inequality, the housing crisis, economic poverty all have narratives of villains and victims, winners and losers. But, having slept with the “enemy”, I feel more sincerely than ever that when you live with vast, systemic disparity, no one truly wins. And while I don’t believe in the system that creates jobs like mine, tutoring the super-rich has been valuable. I now believe more strongly than ever in the potential of empathy between people from different backgrounds, with different outlooks. And as a result – ironically – more strongly than ever against the social segregation inherent in private schooling. 
- Meanwhile, Alex Morash points out the need for far more coverage of inequality and poverty as part of economic reporting in order to start reversing the trend. And Carmela Fragomeni reports on Hamilton's lack of progress in trying to reduce poverty.

- Raksha Vasudevan highlights the need for a national food policy based on the importance of social health. And Nick Falvo examines what we could and should be doing to combat homelessness in Canada.

- Alison calls out the Trans-Pacific Partnership as setting up an economic casino where the house always wins, while PressProgress points to Bernie Sanders' argument as to how it will continue eroding the middle class. And Maude Barlow notes that after-the-fact amendments to Canada's latest agreement with Europe only look to further entrench corporate control.

- Finally, Michael Winship interviews Naomi Klein about the devastating effects of climate change which go far beyond the globe warming up.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- PressProgress weighs in on the OECD's findings that Canada's income inequality is significantly worse than previously assumed. Didier Jacobs argues that our current economic system is anything but meritocratic. And Paul Morrison points out how a poorly-designed tax system forces low-income workers to pay massive effective taxes on work income.

- Andrew Prokop finds that a majority of Americans agree with Bernie Sanders' message of a "political revolution" to ensure a more fair distribution of wealth, while Michal Rozworski and Derrick O'Keefe discuss the significance of Sanders' presidential campaign.

- The Broadbent Institute makes its suggestions for a more fair and progressive federal budget. And Thomas Piketty outlines a "New Deal for Europe" to address the concurrent problems of inequality, economic stagnation and public debt.

- James Wood reports that Alberta's NDP government is making a major move in the area of affordable housing, while a group of academics calls for Rachel Notley to follow up by introducing a sales tax to ensure there's enough revenue to address social needs.

- Finally, Matthew Coon Come writes that it's long past time to end the underfunding of First Nations services whether or not it's seen as a legal obligation.

[Update: fixed link as per comments.]

New column day

Here, on how Regina City Council's embarrassing heel-dragging in response to the David Suzuki Foundation's Blue Dot Declaration on environmental rights contrasts against the spread of trade agreements with virtually no scrutiny.

For further reading...
- Shawn Fraser both introduced the motion supporting the Blue Dot Declaration, and discussed it here. And the list of cities who have already signed on is here
- Meanwhile, CBC reported on Council's demurral. And Paul Dechene was duly outraged here.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Ben Casselman and Andrew Flowers discuss Raj Chetty's research on the U.S.' glaring lack of social mobility and fair opportunities:
Children from poor families are much less likely to work in adulthood than children from middle-class families. Only about 60 percent of children from the poorest families are working at age 30, compared with 80 percent of children from median-income families.2 And the relationship extends beyond the very poor; the higher a person’s parents were on the earnings ladder, the more likely he or she is to work as an adult — at least until the very top, when employment rates dip again.
When the children of affluent families do work, they make a lot of money. The chart below shows how much 30-year-olds earn given their parents’ income. There’s a steady increase until the top few percentiles of parental income, when it spikes. The average man whose parents were in the 97th percentile earns about $60,000 at age 30; the average man who grew up in the richest 1 percent earns more than $80,000. (This measures only wage and salary earnings, so it doesn’t factor in any other advantages these young adults might have, such as trust funds, lower student debt, or parental help with housing or other expenses.)
- Karen Jusko studies (PDF) the U.S.' social safety net and finds that it falls short of meeting even half of the needs of low-income individuals. 

- The Canadian Labour Congress points out the widespread dangers raised by the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And Brent Patterson reminds us how the TPP will enrich pharmaceutical multinationals at the expense of citizens and health care systems.

- Dennis Pilon refutes the claim that Canada is constitutionally trapped in an unrepresentative electoral system. And PressProgress highlights the unfairness of false majorities - no matter which party happens to benefit from one at a given time.

- Finally, Paul McLeod exposes examples of widespread abuses of power by the RCMP which typically don't get released to the public. And Jim Bronskill follows on the revelation that CSIS has wrongly collected tax data by reporting that the Canada Revenue Agency has no idea what information was improperly shared.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Paul Krugman writes that we're far closer to a major energy transformation than many people realize - but that public policy decisions in the next few years may make all the difference in determining whether it materializes:
According to a recent report by the investment firm Lazard, the cost of electricity generation using wind power fell 61 percent from 2009 to 2015, while the cost of solar power fell 82 percent. These numbers — which are in line with other estimates — show progress at rates we normally only expect to see for information technology. And they put the cost of renewable energy into a range where it’s competitive with fossil fuels.

Now, there are still some issues special to renewables, in particular problems of intermittency: consumers may want power when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine. But this issue seems to be of diminishing significance, partly thanks to improving storage technology, partly thanks to the realization that “demand response” — paying consumers to cut energy use during peak periods — can greatly reduce the problem.
I’d argue that the kind of progress now within reach could produce a tipping point, in the right direction. Once renewable energy becomes an obvious success and, yes, a powerful interest group, anti-environmentalism will start to lose its political grip. And an energy revolution in America would let us take the lead in global action.

Salvation from climate catastrophe is, in short, something we can realistically hope to see happen, with no political miracle necessary. But failure is also a very real possibility. Everything is hanging in the balance.
- Ian Welsh argues that the 2008 bank bailout - which effectively prioritized financial gambling over real economic development - is largely responsible for the lack of any real recovery afterward.

- Jim Stanford explains why Canada's auto sector in particular stands to suffer under the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And Shachi Kurl finds that Canadians in general are rightly concerned about what the TPP means for jobs.

- Finally, Laura Tribe comments that we shouldn't have to wait indefinitely to change the civil rights abuses pushed through in Bill C-51:
[Ralph] Goodale has said that reforms on C-51 won't likely be introduced until the fall at the earliest. Sadly, in the meantime, Canadians' rights are being violated everyday C-51 remains in place.
Oversight can't retroactively undo the damage that current legislation is doing. Each day, we're being subjected to excess surveillance. Our data is being shared without any checks and balances in place. There is no recourse for innocent Canadians.

C-51's overreaching powers are being normalized.

Many of the effects of this legislation won't be felt for years to come -- but in the meantime, we go on with our lives. Canadians remain on no-fly lists. Our private data is being collected. Information is being shared and compiled between government agencies. Rights are being violated. And all of this is happening without the oversight to ensure it's being done legally, effectively and safely.
It will take some time for public consultations, expert input, and analysis to determine the best policies and legislative solutions for Canada's security mechanisms. But we do know that right now, C-51 is quite simply incompatible with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Why do we have to spend the best part of yet another year subject to laws that even the Liberals, the party ruling with an overwhelming majority, thinks are problematic?

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- The Guardian's editorial board comments on the role public entrepreneurship should play in fostering economic development and avoiding bust cycles:
The state’s only legitimate economic role is often seen as patching up discrete failures in particular markets. But Ms Mazzucato stresses how proactive policy is often required to create the markets in the first place. She stresses the role of public agencies in advancing industry’s frontiers. The iPhone may be an archetypal example of entrepreneurial brilliance, but it draws on numerous government-funded technologies including the internet, GPS, touch-screen displays and even Siri, the voice-activated operating system-cum-butler. From Nasa to the BBC, public organisations have created private opportunities. The entrepreneurial state should embrace its unsung role as a venture capitalist, be bullish about the need to run risks to secure returns. New institutions, such as national investment banks, might need to be part of the mix.

Ms Mazzucato points out that the crisis-hit states in Euroland were also all countries where the pre-crisis state failed to innovate. That fostered a frail prosperity, depending less on progress in industry than on booming house prices. When the emergency cures look inadequate, economists interested in fending off future slumps should reconsider the preventative role the state can play.
- Michal Rozworski's proposed solutions to Canada's housing crisis include a strong dose of public investment. And Chelsea Vowel duly criticizes Scott Gilmore's attempt to force First Nations and residents of remote areas into cities, rather than working on building existing communities.

- Chris Malsano draws a sharp distinction between socialism and statism. And Greg Sargent notes that Donald Trump's presidential candidacy may be exposing the large number of Republican voters who aren't inclined toward austerity or corporatist economics. 

- Teuila Fuatai documents the gap between the low wages paid to many Canadian workers and the cost of living.

- Finally, the New York Times' editorial board slams corporate tax evasion.

On delayed rectification

I'll largely echo David Climenhaga's take on Alberta's oil and gas royalty review (PDF). But it's well worth highlighting the difference between the two main interpretations of the review's recommendations - and what they mean for future resource policy.

By way of comparison, some of the media spin includes statements along the lines of the following:
The key points of the report are:
  • Albertans are receiving their fair share.
  • Oilsands royalties won't change.
Contrast that against Rachel Notley's message (which matches the actual comments from the review panel, and indeed from Brian Jean in gloating about the lack of changes):
“The fact of the matter is the environment has changed profoundly, even in the last 12 months, and so that is what is driving our decision-making at this point,” Ms. Notley told a news conference in Calgary yesterday morning. “It is not the time to reach out and make a big money grab. That just is not going to help Albertans over-all right now, and so I feel quite confident that this is the right direction to take.”
There's thus a stark contrast between the claim that Alberta's royalty structure is in fact sufficiently fair to stay in place indefinitely, and the view that a period of low prices isn't the time to alter it to improve its level of fairness.

Indeed, anybody looking to the report to confirm or refute the first point will find plenty of conflicting information. Yes, it suggests that Alberta's royalty rates are "comparable with other jurisdictions". But it also recommends annual reporting and further reconsideration as to whether royalties paid meet a number of goals, including "returns to Albertans" - meaning there's ample room for further review as circumstances change. And we'd expect the gap between costs and royalties to be much higher when prices and profits are up.

So the answer on an improved return for the public is best seen as a "not now" rather than a "not ever". And while that's still disappointing compared to the prospect of ensuring improved public benefits in the long term (which could be palatable if paired with supports to cover a short-term downturn), it doesn't close the door to a more fair system in the future.