Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Murray Dobbin points to the oil sector's utter domination of Canada's federal political scene. And Dr. Dawg sums up the problem:
Briefly, the Harperium has now taken to grossly misusing the state apparatus to spy upon and intimidate citizens who dare to disagree with the Prime Minister. The RCMP and CSIS have been improperly deployed against perfectly non-violent folks who happen to oppose the development of the filthy, polluting Alberta Tar Sands—including a story-telling seniors’ group.

The cop-and-spook brigade have, as it turns out, been meeting in cabal with oil company execs, the Department of National Defence and National Energy Board honchos: the last meeting was sponsored by energy heavies Enbridge, Brookfield, and Bruce Power. (Meanwhile, our ultra-secret spy agency, CSEC, has been busy keeping tabs on ordinary folks in airports, perhaps just because they can. They, too, have been attending these top-level meetings.)
The Harper regime is now doubling down. In response to a question on the anything-but-random audits, Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty attempted to connect these organizations to international terrorism. And the new budget contains monies to be used to counter this alleged threat to national security.

It’s not hard to connect the dots here. The audits are a deliberate form of harassment. Much of this can be traced back to Environment Minister Joe Oliver’s outlandish claim that environmentalism is a plot by foreign radicals to destabilize Canada. And we now know that Harper will pass legislation on request: all Big Oil need do is send a nice letter.

This is, to put it bluntly, exactly how corporatist regimes operate. Coercive state apparatuses are used to squelch dissent. Political opponents are demonized as traitors, amid grave talk of foreign influences and terrorism. And business and government operate as one to get the job done.
- Meanwhile, Bruce Cheadle reports on the consequences of the Harper regime's view of itself as a fully-owned subsidiary of the tar sands, as climate change and the environment have been wiped out of any government plans.

- Matt Taibbi writes about the financial industry's latest scheme to extract massive profits by effectively placing bets on industries which they control directly - when the result is to favour that extraction rather than productive economic development:
(B)anks aren't just buying stuff, they're buying whole industrial processes. They're buying oil that's still in the ground, the tankers that move it across the sea, the refineries that turn it into fuel, and the pipelines that bring it to your home. Then, just for kicks, they're also betting on the timing and efficiency of these same industrial processes in the financial markets – buying and selling oil stocks on the stock exchange, oil futures on the futures market, swaps on the swaps market, etc.

Allowing one company to control the supply of crucial physical commodities, and also trade in the financial products that might be related to those markets, is an open invitation to commit mass manipulation. It's something akin to letting casino owners who take book on NFL games during the week also coach all the teams on Sundays.

The situation has opened a Pandora's box of horrifying new corruption possibilities, but it's been hard for the public to notice, since regulators have struggled to put even the slightest dent in Wall Street's older, more familiar scams. In just the past few years we've seen an explosion of scandals – from the multitrillion-dollar Libor saga (major international banks gaming world interest rates), to the more recent foreign-currency-exchange fiasco (many of the same banks suspected of rigging prices in the $5.3-trillion-a-day currency markets), to lesser scandals involving manipulation of interest-rate swaps, and gold and silver prices.

But those are purely financial schemes. In these new, even scarier kinds of manipulations, banks that own whole chains of physical business interests have been caught rigging prices in those industries. For instance, in just the past two years, fines in excess of $400 million have been levied against both JPMorgan Chase and Barclays for allegedly manipulating the delivery of electricity in several states, including California. In the case of Barclays, which is contesting the fine, regulators claim prices were manipulated to help the bank win financial bets it had made on those same energy markets.
- Finally, Laura Payton finds that the Cons' excuses for eliminating anything resembling voter turnout from Elections Canada's mandate lack any basis in fact - as motivation, not information, is the main current obstacle to voting (though of course the Cons want to make accessibility a problem for more voters as well). And Bruce Anderson wonders whether voters will rightly punish the Cons for rigging the electoral system for partisan gain rather than the public good.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Musical interlude

Sloan - Unkind

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Jim Stanford discusses how unions and collective bargaining improve the standard of living for everybody:
The following figure illustrates the broad negative correlation between bargaining coverage and poverty: that is, the higher is bargaining coverage, the lower is relative poverty (and the more equal is income distribution). (It differs slightly from the simple scatter plot in the Unifor PowerPoint show because I have obtained one more update of each of the series.) Low-unionization high-poverty countries are grouped tightly in the top left (including Mexico, the U.S., Turkey, Japan, and Korea). High-unionization low-poverty countries are grouped tightly in the bottom right (including several countries in continental Europe and Scandinavia with near-universal bargaining coverage). The rest of the OECD countries form a broad cloud between those two poles, with much variation but still a clear negative correlation.

I think it is reasonable on this basis to make the following conclusion: Collective bargaining (rooted in unions and labour law) has a very important impact in reducing inequality and relative poverty. Differences in collective bargaining coverage explain about one-third of the differences in relative poverty across most of the industrialized world.
- Meanwhile, Jared Bernstein duly mocks the business spin that it's difficult to find workers willing to accept pitiful wages and working conditions. And Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee help to explain the origins of the apparent belief that wealth is equivalent to an entitlement to exploit others, finding a strong increase in anti-social attitudes and self-entitlement among lottery winners who plainly didn't acquire their wealth by merit:
In our data set, many hundreds of individuals serendipitously receive significant lottery windfalls. We find that the larger is their lottery win, the greater is that person’s subsequent tendency, after controlling for other influences, to switch their political views from left to right. We also provide evidence that lottery winners are more sympathetic to the belief that ordinary people ‘already get a fair share of society’s wealth’.
- Helaine Olen points out the furious lobbying by U.S. banks against the same type of postal bank proposal which would make eminent sense to strengthen Canada Post - signalling that the threat facing Canada's mail system might likewise trace back to the financial sector's desire to exploit residents who have little access to services.

- Andrew Nikiforuk writes about the continuing bitumen seepage from Alberta's tar sands. And the Chicago Tribune reports on yet another rail oil spill, this time in Pennsylvania.

- Finally, Karl Nerenberg notes that the Cons are lashing out against more and more perceived enemies as their stay in office continues. And Sarah Boon wonders whether Canada has gone too far done the Cons' anti-reason rabbit hole to turn back.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

New column day

Here, on how Brad Wall's casino sell-off gambit might provoke a needed discussion of Saskatchewan's relationship with First Nations - even while highlighting that Wall himself isn't up for the public consultation needed to make that process work.

For further reading...
- The original casino story was broken by the NDP caucus here, and subsequently reported on here.  
- SOS Crowns weighs in on Wall's desire to sell off Saskatchewan's casinos (and anything else that isn't locked down through the NDP's Crown preservation legislation).
- And lest anybody think the Sask Party considers its standard practices to be acceptable coming from anybody else, Ken Krawetz doesn't like ultimatums from the federal government.

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Nora Loreto offers an important reminder as to why we contribute taxes to social well-being:
(T)axes still pay for things we need. Everyone benefits from a universal system of healthcare. Everyone is touched by the birth of someone and nearly everyone will rely on the system in the moments that precede their death. These moments are expensive.
User fees exchanged for public services limits access; those who can pay are separated from those who cannot. The introduction of every new user fee will result in fewer people able to afford to access that service. No system can be designed intelligently enough to gear these fees to income such that people aren’t left behind, regardless of what some economists argue.

Instead, we have the progressive tax system. It saves lives, lifts people out of poverty and cuts down the wealth of the intensely greedy. Or, it’s supposed to.

Canadians who believe in the principle of universal access to public services know that poorer people suffer when the system is financially starved populist politicians. We need to continuously remind others about why we pay taxes and that we’ll defend our public services when they’re under attack.

But these acts aren’t enough. We also have to hold politicians accountable when they make cynical decisions meant to create crisis conditions that alienate and disenfranchise people.

Surely, it shouldn’t take a brush with a hospital’s intensive care unit to remind us of the importance of taxes.
- Meanwhile, Mark Lemstra discusses the Sask Party's failing and costly attempt to turn Saskatchewan's health care system into an assembly line.

- And Hugh Mackenzie calls for an adult conversation about what services Ontario wants to fund and how - rather than an election campaign fought on budgetary assumptions which nobody believes to be even remotely plausible.

- Embassy reports on the Canadian Government Operations Centre's inexplicable surveillance and suspicion of an Idle No More protest about the plight of bees. But then, it's possible to take plenty of power away from anybody trying to stigmatize public participation by wearing resistance as a badge of honour - as First Nations activists are now doing with their blue dot campaign.

- Alison nicely sums up the intentions behind the Cons' elections legislation. 

- Finally, Dean Beeby reports that Canadians are tuning out the Cons' publicly-funded propaganda. But more importantly, voters are also ruling out the Cons as an option in droves - with only 36% of respondents even seeing them as a possibility in Nanos' latest poll.

On testing principles

It's obviously tempting for opposition parties to turn the recent spate of stories about difference of opinion within the Cons into a simple matter of "they're not united". But it's well worth emphasizing the substance of the issues - and particularly questioning whether the MPs who are challenging their partymates on specific issues are willing to apply the same principles elsewhere.

Most obviously, Jim Flaherty is absolutely right to recognize that income splitting represents a costly and gratuitous giveaway to a few wealthy Canadians which is aimed purely at winning votes rather than serving valid public policy goals. But the same critique applies to many of the boutique tax baubles he's introduced as finance minister.

So in addition to testing whether other Cons share Flaherty's concerns, it's also worth questioning whether Flaherty himself is prepared to apply the same standard to, say, tax-free savings accounts or politically-oriented tax expenditures. And if not, then Flaherty's standard can be applied to demonstrate his (and his party's) general fiscal irresponsibility.

And perhaps even more interesting is Deepak Obhrai's critique of Michael Chong's Reform Act. If Obhrai's experience in seeking a nomination has taught him the dangers of allowing self-interested actors to impose needless restrictions on voting in order to secure their desired outcome, then surely he should oppose the Cons' legislation which creates exactly that problem in general elections.

In both areas, there's a strong case to be made that the perceived dissenters within the Cons have arguments which deserve to be heard on the merits (and indeed which undercut some of the Cons' worst policy positions). And we'd be well served to amplify and further apply those arguments in cases where even their proponents haven't yet commented publicly - rather than implying that there would be no story if a couple of vocal MPs would shut up and get in line.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wednesday Morning Links

This and that for your mid-week reading.

- Erin Weir posts the statement of a 70-strong (and growing) list of Canadian economists opposed to austerity. Heather Mallick frames the latest Con budget as yet another example of their using personal cruelty as a governing philosophy, while the Star's editorial board goes into detail about the dangers of yet another round of politically-motivated attacks on environmental and public interest charities.

- Meanwhile, Frances Russell slams the Cons' efforts to rig the 2015 election. And Jordon Cooper discusses how voting is already too difficult for marginalized people without the Cons going out of their way to add further roadblocks.
Canada has a long tradition of denying some groups the vote. At various points in its history it has discriminated against women, aboriginals, persons without property and even certain religious groups, and denied them the right to vote. We have learned from those mistakes and taken steps to make it easier for people to vote.

Now, much of that good work is being undone, and the government is making it harder for already marginalized and forgotten people to be heard.
There are many groups in Canada that are not targeted voters, don't have access to decision makers, can't afford to attend fundraising events and don't have a cadre of lobbyists to plead their case. All they have is their vote.

I'd rather spend more to make a process work so that everyone can vote, rather than suppress those votes in the name of efficiency. Improve the process of vouching if that's what is needed, but don't take away the ability of people to vote when that often is their only voice.
- Chris Selley highlights the importance of the right of citizenship (which the Cons are determined to relabel as an easily-removed privilege).

- Alex Hunsberger offers some historical perspective on the origins of "right-to-work" laws as a means to enforce racial segregation by attacking the labour and civil rights movements alike.

- Finally, David Climenhaga writes that the destruction of the single-desk Wheat Board has had the predictable effect of driving down the prices farmers can earn for their crops - due to both logistical problems arising out of a poorly-planned policy and the greater power of purchasers in the absence of a strong voice for producers.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Mouthy cats.

Deep thought

I've written before about the dangers of government by manufactured crisis - which is all too familiar under the Harper Cons and the Wall Sask Party alike.

But in light of recent events, I feel compelled to add that an inexplicable "you must accept our plan NOW! NOW! NOW!" only gets worse when followed by a gleeful "MWAHAHAHAHA!!!".