Saturday, May 18, 2013

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Not surprisingly, plenty of commentators have weighed in on the latest set of Senate scandals engulfing Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Nigel Wright and Stephen Harper among others. Diane Francis takes the opportunity to point out that the Senate is an institutional anachronism (a point with which I of course agree). Murray Mandryk notes that the Cons' story involves the belief that their clan can do no wrong, Chantal Hebert sees the Cons having simply changed the party name in the Liberal culture of entitlement they once claimed to despise, while Andrew Coyne views the latest incidents as an example of the Cons' general distaste for audits and other accountability mechanisms. And Tabatha Southey nicely details just how many laughable claims one would have to believe in order to take the Cons' side in defending their Senate abuses.

- Meanwhile, Aaron Wherry points out that as far as Jim Flaherty is concerned, expensive, publicly-funded self-promotion is the new accountability.

- Don Lenihan theorizes that the Cons would be well-positioned to create a sustainable development charter if they wanted to. But "if they wanted to" is a rather important qualification - particularly given that they seem to have put J. Wellington Wimpy in charge of the sales pitch for environmental action ("I'd gladly regulate them next decade for an increase in profits today!")

- Nathan VanderKlippe writes that TransCanada has roughly matched the Cons' level of interest in dealing constructively with anybody who raises concerns about pipelines - which serves as one of the main reasons why it's run into so much opposition. And Esther Hsieh contrasts the massive public benefits provided by Norway's resource development plan against the glaring lack of a development strategy in Canada.

- Jason Kenney makes it abundantly clear that family-class immigrants in less-than-wealthy families aren't welcome in his country - singling out for particular scorn anybody who "(goes) back to being poor" after being joined by family in Canada.

- Finally, Robyn Benson makes the case for engagement - on whatever level possible - as a key to reaching positive outcomes within unions and other organizations.

[Edit: fixed wording.]

Friday, May 17, 2013

Musical interlude

Damien S - Stars Collide (Timothy Allan Remix)

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Paul Krugman draws a much-needed connection between austerity politics and Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine:
What Smith didn’t note, somewhat surprisingly, is that his argument is very close to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, with its argument that elites systematically exploit disasters to push through neoliberal policies even if these policies are essentially irrelevant to the sources of disaster. I have to admit that I was predisposed to dislike Klein’s book when it came out, probably out of professional turf-defending and whatever — but her thesis really helps explain a lot about what’s going on in Europe in particular.

And the lineage goes back even further. Two and a half years ago Mike Konczal reminded us of a classic 1943 (!) essay by Michal Kalecki, who suggested that business interests hate Keynesian economics because they fear that it might work — and in so doing mean that politicians would no longer have to abase themselves before businessmen in the name of preserving confidence. This is pretty close to the argument that we must have austerity, because stimulus might remove the incentive for structural reform that, you guessed it, gives businesses the confidence they need before deigning to produce recovery.

And sure enough, in my inbox this morning I see a piece more or less deploring the early signs of success for Abenomics: Abenomics is working — but it had better not work too well. Because if it works, how will we get structural reform?

So one way to see the drive for austerity is as an application of a sort of reverse Hippocratic oath: “First, do nothing to mitigate harm”. For the people must suffer if neoliberal reforms are to prosper.
- Meanwhile, Esther Hsieh writes that Norway's rejection of laissez-faire economics has resulted in the most productive economy on the planet - with social support for skilled workers (such as universal child care) and income equality serving as key drivers of that economic success. And the Canadian Institute for Health Information observes that universal public health care serves as an important form of income equalization in Canada.

- Michael Byers and Purple Library Guy each offer an assessment of the lessons to be drawn from British Columbia's election results. And Alison reminds us what Christy Clark has sounded like when she hasn't been trying to neutralize her party's penchant for environmental destruction.

- Finally, Thomas Walkom recognizes that the problems with Canada's Senate go far beyond Mike Duffy. And Michael Harris notes that the scandal surrounding Duffy includes Stephen Harper and his inner circle (no matter how much they scramble to escape accountability now):
But we do not live in a better world, we live in this one. Stephen Harper’s inclination is to make up the rules as he goes along. I for one do not see this as loyalty to his minions, but rather as a show of power. When, for example, the ethics commissioner has caught a cabinet minister or two in a breach of the rules, the PM has been known to simply dismiss the finding. The cases of Christian Paradis and Jim Flaherty come to mind.

So Harper’s initial instinct was to save Duffy. He began that process by taking the public on a mind-numbing sojourn into the rules and regulations of the Senate. He used the escape clause of the Deloitte audit, that by Senate definition, knowing where you live is a brain-twister. And he has never had a problem dismissing the ethical part of any problem if it collided with his agenda. Look what he did to Kevin Page for the high crime of outing the PM’s lie over the cost of the F-35s.

But dry-cleaning Duffy quickly turned into a sticky proposition. For one thing, this one has gone right up the nose of the public and people are gagging. And then there are those two mutually exclusive stories about how the senator’s debts were paid off.
One enduring question is this: Why did Nigel Wright bail out Mike Duffy before the sharp pencil boys from Deloitte had even finished their damning audit?

But there is an even bigger issue. If Stephen Harper doesn’t see anything wrong with his chief of staff making a $90,000 gift to a sitting Conservative senator engulfed in scandal, is there anything he wouldn’t endorse for partisan gain?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Duncan Cameron is the latest to weigh in on the Cons' distorted sense of priorities in directing public research money toward private profits:
Publicly available research is important. Since no one knows where discoveries or advances in knowledge will lead, the entire scientific community needs access to new research. There is no other way to maximize potential societal benefits. Learning is cumulative, innovative thinking flows from research building on public research.

Now with the privatization of research findings, discoveries and knowledge become industrial secrets, unavailable to Canadians who have paid for it, and lost to other scientists.

Conservative distrust of scientific knowledge was evident under Mulroney who abolished the Science Council of Canada (along with a series of other research bodies like the Economic Council of Canada, and the Institute on Peace and Security).

Harper's science policy is to continue cutbacks to grants for basic science, and the new NRC mandate is to vacate the field, yet Canada ranks fourth in the world in publishing basic science findings in peer-reviewed publications (science starts with peer review).

The Harper government punishes its winners because it claims Canada performs poorly when it comes to registering scientific patents. The so-called solution is to wind down basic science, and hand over scientific resources to companies.

Instead of promoting research and development the government solution encourages corporations to outsource it to NRC. Not only does basic science lose, applied industrial research by private companies is transferred to the NRC instead of being done in-house.
- CTV reports on the news that Nigel Wright, chief of staff to Stephen Harper, personally gifted Mike Duffy the money used to repay wrongly-claimed accommodation and travel expenses. Jennifer Ditchburn traces Duffy's patchy record of expense claims and find that he was billing the public for supposed Senate business while campaigning for the Cons. Andrew Coyne and Thomas Walkom call on Duffy to resign, while the Toronto Star and Ottawa Citizen note that the PMO needs to provide far more explanation as well.

- Marilla Stephenson writes about the damage being done to Atlantic Canada by the Cons' push to end seasonal employment. Erin Trafford reports on the abuse of foreign workers in Halifax, as cleaning workers were paid as little as $3 per hour while facing potential deportation if they dared to speak out. And Campbell Clark notes that while the Cons continue to push for a flow of dollars and jobs across borders, they're looking to keep roadblocks in the way of refugees and workers.

- Finally, Erin Weir adds to my previous observations by pointing out just how ill-advised the Sask Party's plan to privatize ISC actually is. And once again, I've managed to err on the side of being overly generous to the Wall government:
Last year, ISC generated $20 million of profit for the provincial treasury. Losing 60 per cent of this profit, $12 million, every year is a very costly way to get $120 million of one-time cash. That deal would be equivalent to borrowing in perpetuity at an interest rate of 10 per cent.

If the shares of ISC were to fetch less than $120 million, this rate would be even higher. By comparison, the Saskatchewan government could finance infrastructure at an interest rate of three per cent by issuing provincial bonds.

Don McMorris, the minister responsible for privatizing ISC, suggests that corporate taxes change this equation. On April 16, he told the legislative assembly: "The government will retain about 40 per cent of the shares of ISC ... not to mention the corporate tax that the other 60 per cent will be paying back into the coffers of the province of Saskatchewan."

But most corporate tax is paid to Ottawa rather than to the provincial treasury. The Saskatchewan government is promising to cut the provincial corporate tax rate to 10 per cent, compared to a federal rate of 15 per cent.

As a Crown corporation, ISC is exempt from both taxes. A privatized ISC with $20 million of profit would pay $2 million of provincial corporate tax and $3 million of federal corporate tax, leaving after-tax profits of $15 million. Of that, 60 per cent, or $9 million, would go to private shareholders.

Between that and federal corporate tax, Saskatchewan would lose $12 million of annual revenue.
[Edit: fixed title.]

New column day

Here, on how a narrow focus on pursuing a seemingly safe path to a bare majority government may have contributed to the B.C. NDP's stunning election defeat this week.

Needless to say, there's no lack of other commentary on the election, with Alice Funke, Sixth Estate, Michael Stewart, Paul Ramsey and Thomas Walkom all reaching conclusions relatively similar to my own. And while not a lot of observers can claim to have identified the problem in B.C., Dan Tan and Leftdog look to have earned at least partial credit.

[Update: Let's add David Climenhaga's take to the mix.]

But I will take issue with Chantal Hebert's theory as to the effect of the B.C. election on federal politics. While the NDP surely wants to build its reputation as a governing party, I don't see the provincial election as substantially weakening the case for federal office in 2015 - and indeed voter remorse under another term of Christy Clark may well play to the party's advantage.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Michael Babad takes a look at Bureau of Labor Statistics data on wages and employment levels - reaching the conclusion that the corporatist effort to drive wages down does nothing to improve employment prospects. But the absence of any remotely plausible policy justification hasn't stopped the Sask Party from "modernizing" the province's rules governing work by setting them back upwards of half a century.

- Meanwhile, Pat Atkinson rightly notes that the most important problem with the Cons' push for temporary foreign workers is the "temporary" part. And Nicholas Keung and Dana Flavelle report on the start of an investigation into the permit granted to convert RBC jobs in Canada into outsourced jobs overseas (with the "temporary" part consisting only of the transition period).

- The Star takes aim at the Cons' attempt to posture against tax evasion while slashing the resources the Canada Revenue Agency needs to do something about it:
Revenue Minister Gail Shea warns that miscreants with undeclared taxable assets offshore should come clean and “declare all their assets now before the agency (Canada Revenue Agency) comes after them.” Her colleague Max Bernier, minister for small business, boasts that a “SWAT team” is being readied to chase them down. Certainly, that’s what hardworking, taxpaying Canadians might hope. There’s nothing more demoralizing than seeing people scam the system.

But for all that, Ottawa’s crackdown looks to be more bark than bite. The opposition New Democrats and Liberals have ridiculed it as “window dressing” and a “shell game” designed to defuse public criticism more than anything else.

While that may be harsh, the Conservative government does appear to be trying to spook wealthy tax dodgers into voluntarily declaring their assets with a crackdown on the cheap. Of the $30 million Shea announced for new measures to track down tax evaders and aggressive avoiders — spread over five years, no less — just $15 million is new money; the rest is recycled. And the so-called SWAT team is shaping up to be a 10-person outfit at best. Meanwhile, the CRA is expected to trim $300 million from its budget in the next three years and cut 3,000 jobs, a prime victim of federal deficit-cutting.

While it’s good to see Ottawa taking some action, it’s hard to believe this modest initiative can have much impact on a hugely complex offshore tax-dodging industry. Canadians for Tax Fairness, a group that campaigns for sharing the burden more equitably, estimates that affluent Canadians have put $160 billion into offshore havens, costing us nearly $8 billion a year in foregone tax revenues. The scofflaws among them have a lot invested in not being easily rattled into declaring their assets.
(G)lobally, offshore tax havens have burgeoned into a $20-trillion business that in the government’s own words encompasses everything from “complex corporate schemes, individuals using offshore jurisdictions of concern, ‘tax havens,’ or tax shelter schemes that are used to avoid or evade tax.” Are we to believe that a small CRA team is going to be able to police so wide a waterfront? That’s a stretch.
- Chris Plecash writes about the Cons' choice to slash public and social services based on nothing more than blind faith in the free market. And Frances Russell is right to point out that social impact bonds look to make for a particularly toxic mix of corporatism and laissez-faire social policy - though I do have to wonder why she thinks for a second that the Libs are part of the solution rather than the problem given their own corporatist positioning.

- Finally, I'll have a bit more to say later on about B.C.'s alarming election results. But Bill Tieleman offers an overview of the lessons to be learned from yesterday's election.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Kitchen help cats.

On private policy

Last month, I wrote about the Sask Party's choice to redefine "privacy" to apply to corporations under Saskatchewan's securities legislation:
Until now, privacy has been recognized under Canadian law as being an individual right. As Justice La Forest wrote, "An expression of an individual's unique personality or personhood, privacy is grounded on physical and moral autonomy - the freedom to engage in one's own thoughts, actions and decisions..." These core concepts - an individual's unique personality, physical and moral autonomy, and freedom related to personal thoughts and actions - have no place whatsoever in discussing corporate interests.
(A) redefinition of privacy to benefit corporations would have consequences that might prove antithetical to a libertarian viewpoint. If a right intended to protect individuals from corporate and state intrusion gets turned on its head, there's no telling what individual interests might end up being annihilated in the name of corporate privacy - from negative reviews to whistleblowing to basic consumer and investor disclosure requirements.
Well, it turns out that the Wall government had no interest in addressing that type of concern. And so, Bill 65 has been passed without any change to the bill's new declaration of a corporate privacy right.

In trying to make excuses for its determination to make words mean things they've never meant before, the best the Sask Party could do was to offer reassurances (PDF) that redefining "privacy" under one act wouldn't necessarily spill over into other legislation.

And it's true that the protection of personal information under (for example) the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act isn't directly changed by the wording of securities legislation. But that's largely because FOIP - rather than relying on the term "privacy" as its basis for protecting information - is instead highly specific in its definition of "personal information".

In contrast, the Privacy Act is deliberately broad in addressing breaches of privacy held by a "person" - a term which by law includes a corporation. And the Wall government's choice to declare the existence of corporate privacy under securities legislation will surely make it easier for corporations to argue that there's some legislative intent to create a cone of silence around corporate activity.

Again, the problem could have been avoided by simply mirroring the wording of FOIP and other statutes which protect genuinely confidential information and trade secrets without decreeing that all corporate activity is presumptively to be hidden from public view.

But the Sask Party has instead chosen to mangle the existing meaning of "privacy" to extend it to corporate interests - even after the issue was raised publicly. And we can only guess what fallout that will produce in the years to come.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Karl Nerenberg reports on the House Finance Committee's hearings into income inequality in Canada, featuring a few familiar themes which we should hear far more often from our policy-makers:
"I would make all tax credits refundable, including the current non-refundable ones," Boadway recommended, and then went further, "I would condition many of them to income, the way we condition the GST credit. I would enhance disability tax credits and make them available to all provincial disability recipients."

On tax breaks for upper income Canadians and corporations, Boadway prescribed tough medicine: "I would eliminate the dividend tax credit and make the taxation of dividends, capital gains, and interest more even. I would rationalize the corporate tax to make it distortion-free and making it a tax on supernormal profits or so-called rents."
Corak would also expand the use of EI to support parental leave, based on the notion that family life, especially for those with precarious and low incomes, is under great stress these days.

And, like Boadway, Corak advocates for an expanded tax base, in particular targeting income from capital. He even suggested to the Committee that it might be the time to consider an inheritance tax in Canada.
The CMA President started by saying that the effectiveness of the health care system together with biology and heredity only account for about half of the totality of health outcomes -- outcomes which are measured by such indicators as incidence of disease, life expectancy, and rate of use of the health system.

"Having a much greater impact," Reid said, "Are factors such as the state of a person's housing, whether people get enough to eat, how educated they are and what kind of experiences they had in their early childhood."

These social determinants of health, she explained, account for fully half of health outcomes and "the most influential of these determinants is income."
- But while our representatives are just starting to discuss the harm done by inequality, the corporate sector is looking to ensure that democratic decision-making does nothing to reduce it.

- Phil Plait takes note of the Cons' belief that science is worthless except to the extent it can be exploited for a profit. And Sixth Estate discusses why a mass-production market model looks to be utterly useless in addressing the steady evolution of bacteria.

- Finally, Lawrence Martin writes about the Broadbent Institute's work to provide a focal point for progressive organizing. But I do hope it's aiming higher than the Manning Centre for World Domination in terms of actually wanting to improve public engagement, rather than serving as a means of central control over activists, media and politicians alike.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Monday reading.

- Michael Harris tears into the Cons for their latest set of Senate abuses:
It is time once more to throw up on your shoes over the Senate. We all did that when Liberal Senator Andrew Thompson went missing in action for a decade at public expense — our man in Mexico.
This stable of political studs put out to pasture at public expense for party loyalties costs Canada $92.5 million annually in salaries, senator allowances and administrative costs...

Each lottery winner in the Senate receives a base annual salary of $135,200. The Speaker of the Senate, currently Conservative Noel Kinsella, pulls down $187,500.
The Americans figured out that an unelected Senate had no part in a democracy in 1911.

But that didn’t stop this unelected body from killing by stealth Bill C-311 after the House of Commons had passed the climate change bill. And this under a prime minister who once promised that he would never allow an unelected Senate to go against the will of the majority of Members of Parliament.
- Marilyn Reid comments on the role of free trade agreements in facilitating corporate control over government policy. But Stuart Trew notes that the end result isn't inevitable, as several Latin American countries are discussing ways to make sure that trade agreements don't unduly interfere with democratic decision-making.

- The Guardian discusses how the UK Cons' privatization agenda is putting many essential social services at risk - including the availability of safe donated blood. And Jim Holmes nicely sums up the effect of corporatizing wastewater treatment in Regina.

- Vanessa Brown reports on the people's housing summit being held at 3 PM tomorrow to give mere renters some voice in Regina's development (in contrast to Michael Fougere's developer-heavy version which considers a $300K house to be an example of "affordable housing").

- Finally, Mia Rabson laments the Cons' choice to make Canada's census more expensive and less informative. And Daniel Wilson writes that First Nations will be hit particularly hard by the Cons' "don't want to know" attitude toward social realities.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your Sunday reading.

- Daniel Boffey catches one of David Cameron's top aides saying what most Cons leave as an unstated assumption: that recession and depressed wages are good for business (as long as "business" is defined only to mean short-term profits based on exploitation):
The prime minister's adviser on enterprise has told the cabinet that the economic downturn is an excellent time for new businesses to boost profits and grow because labour is cheap, the Observer can reveal.

Lord Young, a cabinet minister under the late Baroness Thatcher, who is the only aide with his own office in Downing Street, told ministers that the low wage levels in a recession made larger financial returns easier to achieve. His comments are contained in a report to be published this week, on which the cabinet was briefed last Tuesday.
- And in case there was any doubt that the Cons and their provincial counterparts are working feverishly to apply the same concept in Canada, plenty of reports have pointed out that the majority of new jobs bragged about in the Cons' advertising and provincial messaging are actually being created for temporary foreign workers. The Canadian Labour Congress finds that a stunning 75% of net new Canadian jobs in 2010-2011 were filled by TFWs (despite the fact that the starting point for those years was obvious room to expand employment in the wake of the recession), while CBC looks in more detail at the 65% figure for Saskatchewan.

- Mark Janson offers 10 reasons why we should be looking to expand and strengthen the Canada Pension Plan. But Thomas Walkom notes that the Cons are instead trying to eliminate access to secure, public retirement options. And Carol Goar writes that the Cons' plans for privatized social services look doomed to fail from the start.

- And if the Cons' antipathy toward any spirit of giving weren't obvious enough, the inclusion of Santa Claus on their media monitoring watch list should eliminate any doubt.

- Which to say that there's good reason why Canadians have reached the impressions of the Harper Cons described by Andrew Coyne:
If today both Mr. Harper and the party he leads are actively disliked by more than seven voters in 10, it may be because they have gone out of their way to alienate them in every conceivable way — not by their policies, or even their record, but simply by their style of governing, as over-bearing as it is under-handed, and that on a good day.

When they are not refusing to disclose what they are doing, they are giving out false information; when they allow dissenting opinions to be voiced, they smear them as unpatriotic or worse; when they open their own mouths to speak, it is to read the same moronic talking points over and over, however these may conflict with the facts, common courtesy, or their own most solemn promises.

Secretive, controlling, manipulative, crude, autocratic, vicious, unprincipled, untrustworthy, paranoid…Even by the standards of Canadian politics, it’s quite the performance. We’ve had some thuggish or dishonest governments in the past, even some corrupt ones, but never one quite so determined to arouse the public’s hostility, to so little apparent purpose. Their policy legacy may prove short-lived, but it will be hard to erase the stamp of the Nasty Party.

Perhaps, in their self-delusion, the Tories imagine this is all the fault of the Ottawa media, or the unavoidable cost of governing as Conservatives in a Liberal country. I can assure them it is not. The odium in which they are now held is well-earned, and entirely self-inflicted.

On distortions

Yes, there's generally reason to be skeptical of corporate apologists trying to claim a populist, anti-corporate-welfare mantle while pushing for business to contribute less and less to society as a whole. But even if we weren't going to hold that skepticism against the Fraser Institute's Mark Milke, there are two gigantic assumptions that make it clear he's interested in something far less than a fair assessment of the public interest in regulating and taxing markets.

First, there's this on resource royalties:
In the context of resources, be it royalty rates on oil, gas or minerals, or stumpage rates set on the cutting of timber, another mistaken subsidy definition often crops up: that anything less than some theoretical higher rate is a subsidy.

However, resource rents are just that: rents. As with any property owner, governments should set resource rents at a level that extracts the maximum market rent available. However, just as it’s unwise to get greedy and risk losing tenants, governments risk losing those who might otherwise mine and drill, but will exit a province or country when rents are exorbitant. In other words, getting the balance right matters, and for everyone’s interest.
Of course, the problem with Milke's attempt to avoid any discussion of resource rents is this: any attempt to discuss whether current royalty rates actually reflect the "maximum market rent available" is met with shrieks of protest and millions of dollars worth of PR blitzes from the resource extraction industry. And in far too many cases, governments who are supposed put the public interest first have themselves joined the chorus.

And the presumption in those cases surely has to be that resource royalty rates are in fact lower than they might otherwise be. After all, if a study were likely to show that they were already fair, then there would be no reason for the corporate sector to go to war against the mere suggestion that we actually take a look at the issue.

So Milke's claim of "revenue-maximizing resource rents" is far from a safe assumption. And by his own account, resource rents lower than those which could be achieved are in fact...a massive public subsidy of the resource sector, which is surely no less objectionable as a matter of selling off resources at a discount than as a matter of giving away money.

Second, there's his brazen attempt to label one of the most obvious government handouts to business as an example of the free market at work:
A dynamic business environment is essential for jobs and higher living standards. So too privately-funded research and subsequent inventions widely applied that improve our lives — think Steve Jobs and his efforts, or researchers who patent a new drug to combat some illness that would otherwise require surgery.
Now, the production of a new drug can fairly stand as an example of the type of life-enhancing improvement we should seek to encourage at every opportunity. And research is certainly a step in that process.

But it's far from a fair assumption that the patent system actually does more to encourage the underlying research than direct public funding. And Milke merrily glosses over the reality that there's plenty of public subsidy of private profit involved in a system where the corporate sector is regularly permitted to claim the results of publicly-funded research under a state-authorized monopoly - with obvious social harms then resulting when life-saving drugs end up being priced beyond the reach of the people who need them.

In other words, Milke's supposed paean to ending corporate subsidies is noteworthy mostly in its effort to single out a couple of particularly egregious forms of state-based market distortions as being beyond reproach. And that selective outrage serves only to highlight who's behind Milke and his organization, rather than to provide a template for a fairer economic system.