Saturday, January 04, 2014

On concern trolling

Shorter Montreal Gazette:
We suggest the NDP stay away from Quebec provincial politics in order to preserve its federal success which we tried so hard to squelch.

Saturday Morning Links

This and that for your weekend reading.

- The Star offers an editorial on the continued increase in wage inequality in Canada, highlighting the complete lack of any connection between accomplishment and executive compensation:
(T)he country’s economic performance has changed dramatically. In 2007, when Mackenzie began, the Canadian economy was growing by leaps and bounds, leading some economists to predict that the business cycle could only improve.

Then the 2008 recession hit. Today, the economy is limping along; a growing proportion of the population needs two or three low-wage jobs to survive; and families are cutting back on everything from groceries to heating costs.

Yet there is no sign of restraint at the top. The 100 highest-paid chief executives took home between $3.9 million and $49.5 million in total compensation, for an average of $7.96 million, in 2012 (the latest year for which Mackenzie could get figures). The average Canadian earned $46,634.

“Five years after a global recession knocked the wind out of Canada’s labour market, throwing tens of thousands of workers onto the unemployment line and sidelining a generation of young workers, the compensation of Canada’s CEO elite continues to sail along,” Mackenzie said. What’s more, he added, “there is no clear relationship between CEO compensation and any measure of corporate performance.”
- Meanwhile, Matthew Hutson discusses the dangers of believing that wealth and social status result solely from inherent personal superiority - as well as the efforts of right-wing politicians to cultivate exactly that belief. Paul Krugman notes that the only way to pretend inequality isn't a serious issue is to mangle income data beyond all recognition. And Bruce Livesey eviscerates Thomas Watson's attempt to claim that all corporate fraud and abuse are the fault of the people victimized by a predatory financial system.

- Owen Jones muses about the prospect of more effective left-wing populism to counter the corporatist message:
It was starting to look like the Tories were going to get away with all this, building a Little England, seething with bile and fear, of booming profits and crashing living standards. Labour appeared to have decided: “Sod this for a game of soldiers, providing a semblance of opposition is way too much hassle, let’s have a lie-in until May 2015.” But then Ed Miliband realised that the populism of the Right could only be confronted with populism from the Left.

Every time Labour indulges in bashing immigrants and unemployed people, it just allows the Tories to set the terms of debate, driving issues up the national agenda that ensure the Right thrives. Labour will never win at being trusted to kick foreigners or poor people most, and should file for moral bankruptcy if it did. Similarly, the Tories cannot win on the “cost of living crisis”, as it’s been christened, and realised they have to change the subject, and quickly.

So 2014 has to be the year when left-wing populism flourishes. That means learning from the Right: simple messages that are repeated ad infinitum, hammered into the electorate’s skulls, constantly forcing opponents on to the defensive. Why are we, the taxpayer, subsidising the poverty wages of the likes of Tesco and Sainsbury’s, to the tune of tens of billions of pounds each year? Instead, let’s have a deficit-reducing living wage, which would inject a healthy dose of demand into the economy and, according to one economist, create 58,000 jobs. Why are landlords allowed to fleece the taxpayer with rents that need topping up with state benefits when we should both control rents and give councils the power to build homes, bringing down the social security bill, creating skilled jobs and sorting out the housing crisis?
- And finally, Dylan Matthews interviews Benjamin Radcliff about the link between a more robust government and happier citizens - with a particular focus on decommodification as a precondition to greater well-being.


The Cons can't wait to lock up any refugee who might arrive in Canada on the wrong ship:
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney insists Canada’s new measures [including mandatory detention for every single passenger on a designated ship] will provide a strong deterrent to anyone thinking of paying a human smuggler to cross the Pacific...
Canada’s new law, C-31, requires mandatory detention for so-called “irregular arrivals” — to include arrivals by boat or cases where human smuggling is suspected. The detention will be reviewed after the first 14 days and then every six months. Previously, detention was reviewed every 30 days.

Asylum seekers will be detained until the Immigration and Refugee Board makes a decision on their claims or orders their release. That means people could be in detention for lengthy periods as their refugee claims move through the system.

The average processing time for claims is 18 months.
But they're more than prepared to look the other way when it comes to employers convicted of human trafficking:
Labour and business stakeholders say they're baffled by the Conservative government's recent removal of provisions from its Temporary Foreign Worker Program that would have barred criminal employers from participating.

In a notice on New Year's Day, the government said its original proposals aimed at employers convicted of human trafficking, sexually assaulting an employee or causing the death of a worker were "too rigid and cumbersome."
Because who wants to see our government deter employers from engaging in human trafficking when it can instead be used to detain the goods?

[Update: see more from Simon and Alison.]

Friday, January 03, 2014

Musical interlude

Aim - Cold Water Music

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Ryan Meili highlights the need for a plan to address poverty - rather than the customary bromides about a rising tide lifting all boats:
Elimination of poverty requires more than a growing economy; it requires a dedicated plan. When more jobs are available, some people’s living conditions improve quickly. However, the accompanied increase in cost of living can send some families into deeper poverty than before, a rising tide that swamps the smaller craft. And that continued and deepening poverty costs us all dearly.

As most provinces have realized (all but BC and Saskatchewan have introduced comprehensive poverty reduction plans), poverty doesn’t just go away on its own. Those provinces that have dedicated resources and meaningful measures have seen that investment pay off in significantly fewer people living in poverty, and decreased costs as a result.
- Meanwhile, Amy Goodman interviews Letitia James about the new gilded age of inequality. And Zoe Williams points out that free-market zealotry tends to lead to higher expenses for the people who can least afford to pay them:
(T)his is merely part of a pattern; it even has a name, The Poor Pay More, and has been an observable sociological pattern since 1967, when it was systematised by sociologist David Caplovitz. You can see it in the £2 courgettes from those same convenience stores, in the unit price of energy for those paying on a meter, in the astonishing fact that the poorest decile pays the most tax...

And there's the point – where you have no options, you get ripped off. It is in the nature of the market dynamic that the buyer's power resides in two places: first, not especially wanting the product, and second, being able to go elsewhere for it.

When your need is high and your options are few, you are essentially going to the table not just with a poor hand, but the wrong number of cards; you're going to get fleeced.
- After promising not to cut tax enforcement, the Cons are doing just that - presumably in the hope that once they've sufficiently hacked away at the public service, there will be nobody left who can tell the difference between the "more" auditors promised and the "less" actually employed. 

- Finally, Dave offers an all-too-convincing take on how Stephen Harper views the Canadian public - and what that means for the prospect that he'd voluntarily step away from power.

New column day

Here, on the link between personality politics and the culture of scandal that's developed around Stephen Harper, Rob Ford and other political figures.

For further reading...
- Once again, Dan Leger and Leslie MacKinnon provide the column's starting point in discussing the central focus on scandals in 2013.
- Eric Grenier's year-end political grades offer a prime example of the type of election-results-only evaluation that feeds into the problem.
- And Frank Graves discusses the Canadian public's waning trust in its current crop of politicians.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

On crowdsourcing

I've previously pointed out the problem with framing electoral outcomes solely in terms of which party wins the most seats. And EKOS' polling about which single party is most likely to form government thoroughly misses that point in previewing the federal campaign in 2015.

But that omission aside, EKOS' results do offer an interesting contrast to the media narrative of a two-party race:
We asked the panel to rate the percentage likelihood of each of the three contending parties winning the next election; it gave us an interesting insight into how Canadians view the next election. While the election is still quite distant — and we’re ignoring for now the question of majority versus minority — the accompanying chart shows a tie between the Conservatives and Liberals in terms of their perceived likelihood of winning.

This public wisdom election forecast doesn’t preclude an NDP victory — a sizable 23 per cent minority think that’s a plausible outcome — and there is no clear winner here.
And we'll want to pay particularly close attention to how the numbers change with time - as well as whether the absence of a majority choice is matched by the lack of any one party approaching a majority government.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Costas Lapavitsas discusses the disproportionate hold finance has over the global economy:
Financialisation represents a historic and deep-seated transformation of mature capitalism. Big businesses have become "financialised" as they have ample profits to finance investment, rely less on banks for loans and play financial games with available funds. Big banks, in turn, have become more distant from big businesses, turning to profits from trading in open financial markets and from lending to households. Households have become "financialised" too, as public provision in housing, education, health, pensions and other vital areas has been partly replaced by private provision, access to which is mediated by the financial system. Not surprisingly, households have accumulated a tremendous volume of financial assets and liabilities over the past four decades.
Financialised capitalism is, thus, a deeply unequal system, prone to bubbles and crises – none greater than that of 2007-09. What can be done about it? The most important point in this respect is that financialisation does not represent an advance for humanity, and very little of it ought to be preserved. Financial markets are, for instance, able to mobilise advanced technology employing some of the best-trained physicists in the world to rebalance prices across the globe in milliseconds. This "progress" allows financiers to earn vast profits; but where is the commensurate benefit to society from committing such expensive resources to these tasks?

Financialisation ought to be reversed. Yet such an entrenched system will never be reversed by regulation alone. Its reversal also requires the creation of public banking that would operate with a new spirit of public service. It also needs effective controls to be applied to private banking as well as to international flows of capital. Not least, it requires new methods of meeting the financial requirements of households, as well as of small and medium enterprises. There is an urgent need for communal and associational ways to provide housing, education, health and other basic goods and services for working people, breaking the hold of finance on everyday life.
 - Hugh Mackenzie takes a look at the latest figures on CEO compensation - showing that Canada's wealthiest executives will make more by 1:11 today than the average worker will all year. And that represents yet another move toward increased concentration of income and wealth - as last year's figure is included in Trish Hennessy's review of 2013.

- Peter Jones criticizes the Cons' narrow-minded foreign policy:
A predictable world order where things like trade and security play out according to rules (admittedly something observed more in the breach in many parts of the world) is a world in which smaller countries have a better chance of advancing their interests. This is quiet, patient, painstaking work that rarely generates headlines. Progress is incremental and measured in years. It is less emotionally satisfying to some than yelling at the world from the rooftops. But it makes a contribution, over time, to creating a world that serves Canada’s interests.

The Conservatives have stood this on its head. In making foreign policy a reflection of their domestic approach to governance – finding wedge issues with which to detach segments of the population and play to their fears and angers – the Conservatives have given us a bitter, small-minded foreign policy. There are a few notable exceptions, such as the promotion of gay rights internationally, but most of the Conservative approach is centred on angry assertions of simplistic moral absolutes that play well to certain domestic constituencies, but contribute nothing to the world or to unifying Canadians behind a positive vision of their place in it.
Ironically, all of this undercuts what the Conservatives should recognize as an overriding foreign policy objective: good relations with the United States. For example, President Barack Obama’s administration currently has a tough job trying to both find a nuclear deal with Iran and promote compromise between Israelis and Palestinians. Both issues are key to avoiding wars in the Middle East in the next decade. The administration needs friends and allies who will quietly roll up their sleeves and help look for answers. What it gets from Canada is bluster and intransigence...
- Finally, Paul Bernal's observations about privilege are well worth a read:
When I read about Boris’s speech, and when I think about all the patronising, elitist, offensive stuff that this government and pretty much every government I can remember have said, it makes me angry. Things like accusing poor people of not knowing how to budget, how to cook, how to feed their kids, how to make good decisions, or of being lazy, stupid etc. Suggestions from ministers that they could easily live on the amounts people get in benefits. Suggestions that people don’t try hard enough to get jobs. Suggestions that they don’t work hard enough. They all make me angry – and they make it clear to me that most of those speaking don’t know how privileged they are – and what the consequences of that privilege are.

For me, there are a few things that I try to remember. The first is the most obvious – that I’m deeply privileged and deeply lucky. The second is that I still don’t know quite how privileged and lucky I am – because so much of the privilege is hidden and built into the system, so much that those who are privileged can’t see it...

There’s an old saying: ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. There’s a degree to which it’s true, and it certainly seems that the current lot of powerful people are thoroughly irresponsible. I’d like to add another – though it’s deeply wishful thinking. With great privilege should come great humility. Those of us who are privileged – like me, and like Boris – should be able to find that humility. To know that we really don’t know what it’s like to live without our privilege. We can try to imagine – but we’ll never really succeed. And we should know that we’ll never really succeed – and be far, far more willing to listen properly to those who do know it. Most of all, though, we should know when not to talk as though we had all the answers. We should know when to shut up.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Wednesday Afternoon Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Polly Toynbee discusses how the public shares in the responsibility for a political class oriented toward easily-discarded talking points rather than honest discussion:
Intense mistrust of parties is growing dangerously with each generation: with fewer than 1% of the population members of a political party, people understand less about the necessary compromises. Our poll's "angry" voters say they want politicians to say what they believe, not mouth the party line-to-take. Too many MPs are pitifully thin on vocabulary and imagery, short on wit, warmth, passion or imagination. Some exceptions – the TUC's Frances O'Grady, Kenneth Clark, Shirley Williams – have the gift of sounding like themselves, as if they believe what they say. Put the journalist Owen Jones on a platform and he blows your socks off. The public trusts Margaret Hodge's authentic passion on tax-dodging companies, though Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage suggest verbal felicity can be an actor's knack, not proof of honesty. Authenticity – or a semblance of it – is rare political gold dust.

But don't forget that politicians speak robotically for a reason – and voters share the blame. Voters say they dislike party discipline, wanting MPs to speak their consciences, yet as every original thought becomes a newsworthy "gaffe" and "split", voters also punish parties severely for any sign of disunity. Voters are contrary. If they want more electoral choice, why did they reject a small improvement in the AV referendum? They say they want honesty, but they don't always reward it.
On the doorstep, no candidate dare wag a finger to remind these angry citizens that they have duties too. No one tells them they should inform themselves better on things they care about, with reliable facts at a click of a mouse. Who dares tell them that complaining is no use if they take no part in the democracy that rules their life? Russell Brand nihilism is not OK – and where is he now? Is he out there doing something – anything at all, protesting, rioting – organising or still not arsed? In the end it's the arsed who keep any kind of democracy going – and the rest should zip their lip unless they are ready to get off their arses now and then. Don't get angry, get even. But brave would be the vote-wooing politician who dared give voters back a bit of their own medicine on the doorstep.
- Joe Mihevc writes that outsourcing and privatization may have seriously impeded the City of Toronto's response to its recent ice storm. And In the Public Interest reviews the damage done to the U.S.' public services by out-of-control privatization.

- Jody Heymann and Douglas Barthold remind us of Canada's advantage over the U.S. in health outcomes, while noting that there's plenty more we should be doing to boost the social determinants of health:
Beyond medical care, we need to address further how social conditions shape health. The countries outperforming us make effective social investments to promote health and well-being among children and adults alike. Just to name two: they provide job protected paid leave from work to meet health needs, and overwhelmingly, they ensure children receive early childhood education.

While Canada is far ahead of the U.S. in measures to promote population health, this work remains uneven and lags behind many competitors. Some provinces, like Quebec, have invested heavily in universal access to early childhood care while others provinces have done very little on this front.

The same can be said for basic working conditions like job protected sick leave, which remains spotty across the country. Affordable housing has become scarce in most of Canada’s urban centres.
Poverty rates in Canada, while lower than the U.S., have been on the rise – and poverty is one of the leading determinants of poor health.

If Canadians are going to continue to increase life expectancy, we’ll need to invest in preventing disease and promoting health, while ensuring that we learn the most efficient ways to spend health care dollars for those who do become sick.
- PressProgress takes a look at the Cons' false spin about income splitting - as well as the realities of a policy designed to funnel money toward wealthy two-parent families which can afford to have an adult out of work.

- Finally, CBC reports on the latest oil-by-rail disaster in Casselton, North Dakota. And while it's for the best that luck was on the side of Casselton's residents as a massive fire led to no casualties, that fortune shouldn't stop us from look at both the causes of the incident, and the overall dangers of relying on shipping explosive substances with questionable regulation.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Holiday cats.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Dan Leger and Leslie MacKinnon both theorize that 2013 represented a new low in Canadian politics. But while the Cons may have taken some new steps in petty scandals and cover-ups (and Rob Ford's clown show managed to attract an unusual amount of attention), I'm not sure how any of it reflects much of a change from the attitude on display by Canada's right for the past several years.

- Similarly, while Robyn Benson recognizes the past year as raising the Cons' gratuitous union-bashing to a new level, it's hard to see that development as anything more than the continuation of a longstanding trend.

- The Star decries the Cons' selfie level of scientific discussion. Mike de Souza reports that the Cons went out of their way to avoid so much as admitting that climate change is a serious issue in response to the most recent IPCC report. And Peter Moskowitz reports on the giant ring of mercury deposits surrounding tar sands developments.

- Bruce Campbell looks back at 25 years of North American free trade, and finds that it's primarily served the corporate sector rather than citizens of any of the countries involved:
The FTA/NAFTA was a big business-driven initiative whose primary purpose was investment deregulation. Trade was important, but as a second order rather than a primary goal.

The agreements did make it easier for business to ship goods and services across the border. However, at its core were new powers and freedoms granted to corporations to facilitate their pursuit of shareholder value.

These provisions enabled corporations to move with minimal restrictions on the North American continent, shifting production to jurisdictions that offered the greatest returns in terms of regulations, subsidies, taxes, labour costs, etc.
Between 1950 and 1990, there was a steady drop in the share of national income appropriated by capital (profits) and a rise in labour’s share. In the wake of the FTA/NAFTA, that relationship reversed. Capital’s share rose dramatically; workers wages and salaries’ share fell in lockstep.

Contrary to assurances given Canadians prior to the FTA/NAFTA, big business lobbied hard to reduce program spending and taxes.

Unemployment insurance, health and education transfers, social assistance and housing programs, etc. were “harmonized downward” toward U.S. levels.
In the end, the FTA/NAFTA failed to meet the fundamental test of any major policy initiative: to better the lives of its citizens. And it helped weaken the bonds of nationhood embodied in the Canadian social state. 
- Finally, Chris Dillow discusses how gross inequality has led people with the most money and power to think they're above even the slightest interaction with the mere public - and theorizes that we won't be able to restore any level of mutual respect until we've significantly reduced income and wealth inequality. And Lydia DePellis writes that even business groups (at least in the UK) are willing to acknowledge the need for shared rather than hoarded prosperity.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Monday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Diane Coyle offers a preview of Thomas Piketty's upcoming book on inequality - featuring a prediction that absent some significant public policy intervention, we may see a return to 19th-century levels of concentration of wealth.

- Meanwhile, Murray Dobbin calls for 2014 to be the year of living consciously - including both a concerted effort to donate to fostering change, as well greater efforts to bring about change through our own lives.

- Veronica Bayetti Flores writes about the challenges in building movements which won't leave people behind:
I am so ready to let go of the America’s Next Top Radical model of social justice; it’s unsustainable, unproductive, and frankly a pretty bad strategy. It seems as though some of us – us being folks invested in the advancement of social justice in some way or another – are calling folks out sometimes not to educate a person who’s wrong, but to position themselves a rung above on the radical ladder. What’s worse, both in real-world organizing and online, this behavior is often rewarded: with pats on the back, social status, followers. We’re waiting and ready to cut folks out when they say the wrong thing. We’ve created an activist culture in which the worst thing we can do is to make a mistake.
Calling folks out in good faith – or calling in – is absolutely necessary. We cannot stand by as people leave the most marginalized folks in our communities out of the conversation, say things that are hurtful, and create projects that continue historical legacies of oppression. It’s important not just because folks need to be educated, but because the ways we organize and the stories we tell affect the lived realities and material conditions of everyone around us. To not confront oppression when you’re in a position to do so is to be complicit in its perpetuity. But it’s also important to ask ourselves why we’re jumping in. It’s cool to be angry – I’m angry as hell, and in a world in which there is so much to hate, I tend to be a hater – but when we’re trying to advance a conversation, it’s important to think about what’s going to be constructive. On the same tip, we need to learn how to react when being called out – how to meaningfully apologize, and how to move forward with new knowledge. To realize that making a mistake does not make us the living worst, and that we can move forward if we take critiques seriously and acknowledge the serious hurt our mistakes have caused.

It’s hard, and a consistent battle, but I don’t see a way out of it. We’ve long been really good at critiquing and saying what we don’t want, but to get to a world we DO want, we have to be able to dream really big. I fear that the ways that cynicism operates in our call-outs (and activism more generally) is limiting our ability to do so. How can we dream utopias if we are so afraid of being wrong?
- Mari Saito and Antoni Soldowski report on the use of homeless people as a cheap labour force to carry out dangerous remediation work at the Fukushima nuclear reactor site. And Gardiner Harris writes about India's continued efforts to make prescription drugs available to its general population - while big pharma tries to stop it from moving prices down from unaffordable levels.

- Finally, Andrew Nikiforuk tests the Cons' public claim as to why they decided to close several science libraries. And not surprisingly, their motivation has nothing to do with efficiency - but everything to do with eliminating inconvenient information.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Sunday Morning Links

This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Susan FitzGerald reports on new research showing that growing up in poverty has a significantly more damaging effect on a child's development than exposure to drugs - leading to obvious questions as to why so many governments loudly wage a nominal war on the former while allowing the latter to fester. And John Millar and Laurel Rothman highlight the need for Canada's federal government to address the social costs of poverty.

- Meanwhile, Neal Abernathy writes about the importance of the public sphere in both bringing together and reflecting the shared interests of people of all backgrounds:
What this whole incident does underscore is the absolute need for a public sphere where we join together in service of something larger than our own petty interests. Through our government we can choose to live in a city and state and country where we are guided by more than our most self-serving of instincts. This is what so much of American anti-government rhetoric misses. The rules we choose to codify as “government” do not need to proscribe our freedom; rather, they can free us from the constraints of Lord of the Flies-like living.
There is a time and a place for rugged individualism.  But I am grateful that I am dependent neither on the good will of Mr. Gopman nor the good will of any other rational self-interested individual for the common services I consume. Rather, I am relieved to rely on the good will of the public, that amorphous body in which we can all project our ambitions for a world more just and more free than one guided by the anarchy of our impulses.
 - Of course, that public sphere loses some of its effectiveness when future governments are tied down by long-term contracts entered into by past regimes. And on that front, Rosario Marchese rightly criticizes the Ontario Libs' sucker's bet on privatized financing and operation of public services:
People should worry when their government bets on its own incompetence. Such governments tend to win that bet, and it is the public who pays out.

Incompetent governments love P3s because they can pay private consortia to take the blame when things go wrong, while hiding behind third-party confidentiality to avoid transparency and accountability.

Best of all, since P3 price tags already include potential cost overruns, the government can usually boast they are delivered “on budget,” and the public has no way of knowing exactly how much it overpaid. 
- Finally, Jim Bronskill reports that the Cons are hiding behind nonsensical privacy claims to avoid providing any details about falsified safety inspection reports - meaning that Canadians using road, rail, boat or air transport can all worry that the Harper government's secrecy is making their travel less safe than it should be.

[Edit: fixed wording.]