Saturday, May 30, 2015

On cooperative priorities

As part of their new "Hope and Wild Flailing" campaign theme, plenty of Libs are looking for any pretext - however lacking in reality - to attack Tom Mulcair. And Mulcair's latest comments on a coalition offer the latest flimsy excuse. So let's look at how there's still a huge difference between the NDP and the Libs when it comes to a willingness to talk about coalitions - but how Mulcair could do far better by working with the NDP's longstanding willingness to cooperate.

To start with, let's look at the obvious distinction between the parties' respective stances.

Trudeau's position has been to declare that he is "unequivocally opposed to any sort of coalition". In other words, if one believes Trudeau's public statements (and once again, we shouldn't), the Libs don't care what kind of terms they could agree to on policy, cabinet positions or any other area, but are opposed to cooperating with any other party as their lone inviolable principle. And if that means propping up the Harper Cons, that's a result Trudeau is happy to accept.

In response to that position, Mulcair is now saying that he's not going to talk any more about a coalition in the period leading up to the election:
On était prêt à mettre beaucoup d’eau dans notre vin, parce que notre priorité est de nous débarrasser de Stephen Harper. M. Trudeau a dit qu’il serait peut-être prêt à travailler avec le NPD, à condition que je n’en sois plus le chef. J’ai soulevé le projet à quatre reprises. À un moment, on se lasse. C’est fini ces histoires-là. On regarde l’électorat et on leur dit que s’ils veulent du vrai changement, ça passe par le NPD. C’est dorénavant le seul propos que l’on tiendra là-dessus.
So the Libs have stated their bare refusal to even consider talking about any coalition, and have indeed stated that they'll never accept one in any shape or form. And in response, the NDP has said it won't bother continuing to make an offer that's been rejected.

Which isn't to say that I agree with that choice.

In fact, it should be clear that the period leading up to the election isn't the point where any deals would be reached in any event (since pre-election collusion along the lines of the Red Green pact has never been on the table). Instead, coalition discussions would happen only after the party standings are determined in October. And I'm at a loss as to why Mulcair is backing off any preparation for that discussion as the election approaches.

As I've pointed out before, any party presenting itself as focused on ending the Harper Cons' stay in power should be zeroing in on why that goal is important, rather than leaving any room for implication that working together isn't worth the effort. In the "change" versus "more of the same" argument that will ultimately determine whether the Cons cling to power, it doesn't serve the public interest to hint that there are circumstances where a party would turn down an opportunity for change.

Moreover, as has been clear for some time, a strong majority of voters - and particularly the ones likely to be choosing between the NDP and Libs as their options - prefer a coalition to the alternative. So it's hard to see why Mulcair would be backing off of his predecessor's strong stance that a narrow-minded focus on false majorities and resulting refusal to cooperate represents part of the broken Ottawa that the NDP is trying to fix. And indeed, a departure from that party-first mindset represents part of the change that voters are most likely to prefer even in choosing among their opposition alternatives.

In sum, Mulcair's stance is far from the outrage that the Libs' spin machine wants to present it to be, and in fact leaves open the possibility of a later coalition which Trudeau has repeatedly tried to shut down. But it does involve needlessly forfeiting what should be an important issue for the NDP and for the broader political scene alike.

[Edit: fixed typo, wording.]

Saturday Morning Links

Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Andrew Jackson weighs in on the need for our public policy to ensure a fair initial distribution of income and power in order to ensure that further redistribution is sustainable:
The issue of how to deal with rising inequality and the squeezed middle-class has recently moved to the centre of political debate, with the various parties proposing significant policy changes. International experience suggests that a more equal Canada will require major changes to a wide range of policy levers and not just to the tax and transfer system.

Work by the OECD and others shows that the rising income share of the affluent, especially that of the top 1%, has been mainly driven by rising incomes from the market. Senior executive salaries and bonuses as well as investment returns have grown much more rapidly than the wages of the middle-class and those at the bottom of the income spectrum.

Inequality is mainly an issue of a more unfair “pre-distribution” of income and wealth by the market, driven by such economic forces as globalization, technological change, the decline of union bargaining power and the growing proportion of low paid and insecure jobs.

That said, inequality of after-tax income has been compounded by a trend towards reduced re-distribution through the tax and transfer system. In most countries there has been a move to lower top income tax rates and reduced taxation of corporate profits, as well as cuts to income support programs such as unemployment insurance, welfare and public pensions.
Rising inequality is politically self reinforcing to the degree that it increases the political weight of the rich as well the distance between the well-off and everyone else. Extreme inequality sets the stage for a “secession of the affluent” to gated communities and private elite universities and high quality privatized health care.

If market income inequality is allowed to inexorably rise, one can expect even more resistance by the well-off to redistributive policies. This suggests that more must also be done to equalize market incomes.
- Scott Santens responds to a laughable set of calculations from the Economist by pointing out how a basic income is entirely affordable. Paul Krugman comments on the disconnect between the privileged few who constantly call for flogging the poor as the answer to any policy question, and the people who are already facing insecurity far beyond what the elites would understand. And Brad Wassink discusses how we should recognize the value of taxes as a means of funding our social rights and responsibilities, while also pointing out that we've allowed our tax system to become unfair by giving in to calls for top-end and corporate giveaways:
In 2005, the total tax rate was an inverted U-shape, progressive from the bottom to the middle, but regressive thereafter. So much so, that the top one per cent paid a lower tax rate (30.5 per cent) than the bottom 10 per cent (30.7 per cent). As our tax code exacerbates income inequality, we fail in our responsibility to protect the rights of low-income Canadians to live in dignity.

Canadians get a good deal when we pay our taxes. By pooling our resources, we are able to purchase better and more efficient services than we ever could on our own. And the benefit most Canadians receive from public services exceeds the amount we contribute.

So where do we go from here?

First, we need to be less squeamish about discussing taxation. According to data from the OECD and the UN, countries that invest in public programs enjoy higher levels of well-being. This story is not always being told, but it needs to be emphasized.

Second, we need to engage our political representatives in this discussion. Their policies and actions are usually a response to what they hear while out canvassing or reading their mail. So when they promise us lower taxes, it's likely because it's what they think we want from them. They won't know any better until we tell them otherwise.

Third, we need to vote. Polls have shown that Canadians support progressive taxation, yet our tax code doesn't reflect this. This isn't hard to comprehend when we think about the fact that just 61 per cent of registered voters cast a ballot in 2011. Low voter turnout is yet another way in which we are not living up to our responsibilities to each other.

We each owe it to the rest of Canadians to contribute our time, our energy, our money, and our vote to contribute to the common good.
- Hassan Yussuff makes the case for the federal government to genuinely expand the universal Canada Pension Plan to ensure a secure living upon retirement. And Lana Payne makes abundantly clear that the Cons' last-minute trial balloon about allowing people with spare money to put it into the CPP without employer contributions falls far short of offering a real alternative.

- David Howell and Bill Mah report that Rachel Notley's NDP government is following through on its campaign promise to increase Alberta's minimum wage to $15, with a first step to be taken by this fall. And David Olive argues that Canadian workers need to make more use of holidays already provided to them by law.

- Finally, Alexander Knight offers a thorough review of the dangers of the Cons' terror legislation. Janel Johnson reports on the Canadian Bar Association's call for Canadians to protest and be heard before their ability to do so is taken away. And Andrew Mitrovica highlights the need for citizens to keep challenging the lack of justification for C-51 and the risks of abuse even as the Cons ram it through Parliament.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Musical interlude

Royksopp & Robyn - Monument

Friday Morning Links

Assorted content to end your week.

- Dylan Matthews reports on Joseph Stiglitz' work in studying what kinds of systemic changes (in addition to more redistribution of wealth) are needed to ensure a fair and prosperous economy. And Martin O'Neill discusses James Meade's prescient take on the importance of social assets:
Meade therefore came to endorse the extension of the traditional welfare state through the parallel pursuit of both the spread of private property-ownership across all members of society – his ‘property-owning democracy’, which would involve steep taxation of inheritance and capital transfers – and at the same time building up the state’s store of democratic, public capital. If the future were to bring a shift in the sources of prosperity from labour to capital, then we would need to construct an economy in which everyone could benefit from that shift, both as individuals and collectively as democratic citizens.

While Meade’s diagnosis of the central distributive problems of capitalism largely predicted Piketty’s, his proposals were in some ways rather more radical. Rather than the state having continually to keep running faster and faster to suppress growing inequality through more ambitious forms of redistributive taxation, Meade instead wanted to reform the rules of property-ownership so that trends in capitalism’s development could be made to work for all. Instead of accelerating redistribution, Meade’s proposal involved a radical form of predistribution – a reallocation of property-rights that would completely restructure each individual’s position and bargaining power within the market economy, through giving everyone both a capital stake and a non-labour source of income.
- And Zack Beauchamp charts Branko Milanovic's findings on the massive unfairness and inequality for workers between countries.

- Rowan Lee points out that Bill Gates for one doesn't buy the argument that low taxes have anything to do with economic growth.

- Murray Dobbin examines the place of free trade deals in converting our commonwealth into private profits, with no room for democratic responses. And Sunny Freeman notes that Joe Oliver is trying to push countries to make it even easier for employers to shed any obligation to workers. But David Dayen offers an interesting (if only partial) fix, suggesting that trade agreements should be paired with the ability for workers to sue multinational corporations along with their international affiliates and contracting partners for abuses.

- Finally, Duncan Cameron argues that the NDP is now the obvious choice for Canadian progressive voters from both a strategic and a principled standpoint. And Lawrence Martin echoes the theme that the election may come down to the question of which opposition leader serves as the rallying point for change - with Tom Mulcair ranking as the better option.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Thursday Morning Links

This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Sean McElwee examines new evidence of the deliberate choice of past U.S. governments dating back to Ronald Reagan to completely discount the policy preferences of anybody but the rich:
In a new book, political scientists James Druckman and Lawrence Jacobs examine data on internal polling from U.S. presidential archives and other existing research to determine how presidents use their knowledge of public opinion to craft policies. What they found is disturbing: Presidents tend to focus on the opinions of the wealthy and well-connected insiders, ignoring the views of most of the electorate. This turns on its head the idea that elected officials in the United States are responsive to public opinion.

Druckman and Jacobs focused on how President Ronald Reagan created the modern conservative coalition using internal polling. He sought to unite political independents, high-income groups, social conservatives and economic conservatives. While all these groups had influence over the Reagan administration, high earners had the most pull.

A look at how frequently the administration gathered public opinion data on specific groups is even more revealing. The authors noted, “The Reagan team assembled little data on the middle- and lower-income groups as it focused intently on gathering information on the affluent.” In total, Reagan received cross-tabulations for the rich about 60 percent of the time, compared with only 32 percent for low-income people. And 84 percent of the information gathered on economic issues included data on the affluent, compared with only 24 percent examining the middle class and 36 percent on the poor. On Social Security, for example, Reagan never received cross-tabulations on the opinions of the poor or middle class.
The outsize influence of the wealthy also shows up in the priorities politicians give to competing policy agendas. In a recent study, political scientists William Franko and Patrick Flavin examined how policymakers respond to political priorities rather than to constituent preferences. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the rich and poor have different priorities and that policymakers are more attentive to the priorities of the wealthy. As shown in the chart below, the priorities are even more divergent on class issues such as the minimum wage and poverty.
Evidence continues to accumulate that the U.S. is fast becoming a plutocracy. Americans must fight to take back their democracy. One way to do that is by bolstering voter turnout. Voters who want more progressive policies should look at a recent research by Jonas Pontusson and David Rueda. “Left parties will respond to an increase in inequality only when low-income voters are mobilized,” they wrote, on the basis of their analysis of data from 10 countries over nearly 40 years. Limiting the influence of money in the political process would also improve representation.
For its part, the middle class needs organizations that push policies that benefit them. Unions could serve such a role by mobilizing the working class and advocating for policies that benefit workers. “Labor unions promote greater political equality primarily by mobilizing their working class members to political action,” according to Flavin. “States with higher levels of union membership weigh citizens’ opinions more equally in the policymaking process.”
- Elise Gould, Alyssa Davis and Will Kimball make the case for wage growth to fight poverty and inequality, while Robert Freeman pushes education and fairer taxes to help the cause. But Matt Bruening responds that market income alone will have a limited effect on some of the people with the greatest needs.

- Aaron Wherry points out the election funding loopholes the Cons have deliberately opened up to increase what they're allowed to spend - and have reimbursed by the public - in an extended election campaign. Andrew Coyne laments that formal democratic structures have been almost completely stripped of their intended purpose, with Stephen Harper reaching new lows on that front. And Michael Harris criticizes the Cons' practice of government by fiat (accompanied by an utter refusal to answer for their actions).

- Finally, Darren Fleet highlights CSIS' alarming secrecy in response to a simple request for personal information as yet another reason for concern about C-51.

New column day

Here, on the Saskatchewan Party's devaluation of the music teacher (among other cultural and community-building parts of our schools).

For further reading...
- CBC reported on the Prairie Spirit School Division's decision to eliminate school bands here, and Janet French did likewise here.
- The Star-Phoenix' editorial board weighed in here. And now, even the Saskatchewan Party is pretending to oppose what its policy choices have wrought.
- And for those looking to support the students trying to save their band program, Shawna Langer's petition is here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wednesday Morning Links

Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- Citizens for Public Justice provides a useful set of fact sheets on the importance of tax revenues in funding a civilized society. And Daphne Bramham follows up with a look at what we've lost from tax cuts - and the public demand for more tax fairness:
Tax cuts during the past decade have meant that $45 billion has been trimmed from government spending and programs each year since 2006 and almost 30,000 jobs have been lost.

One reason Canadians willingly pay taxes is they believe it’s a fair system. But as the fact sheets point out, the system has been skewed for the past 15 years. It’s not so much by the tax rates themselves; it’s because of two other changes. The first are what the group calls “boutique tax credits” and deductions that favour middle- and upper-income earners.

The second is a shift to regressive taxes such as sales tax, property tax and fees that disadvantage low-income earners.

It’s at the point where some middle- and high-income earners now pay a lower percentage of tax than some of the poorest families, according to research by the OECD.
The idea behind those tax cuts was that the money would be invested in improvements and upgrades or hiring more people. But that didn’t happen. Most of the money has gone into bank accounts.

When corporate taxes fell to record lows between 2000 and 2014, total cash reserves of private, non-financial corporations increased nearly 370 per cent to $673.5 billion, according to Statistics Canada.

So it’s hardly surprising that recent polls indicate that nearly three-quarters of Canadians support raising corporate tax rates.
- Digby highlights some of the Republicans' more recent efforts to demonize and attack the poor. And concerted attempts to dehumanize the poor only figure to exacerbate the "inverse care law" - which, as Julian Tudor Hart points out, results in a pattern of market-based health care services being least available where they're most needed.

- Ella Bedard writes that insecure and precarious work is the new normal. And Sara Mojtehedzadeh reports on the barely-existent help Ontario workers receive when they report employer abuses.

- Scott Sinclair and Stuart Trew nicely boil down the Trans-Pacific Partnership's dangers for Canada. And C. Robert Gibson and Taylor Channing expose the business sector's efforts to buy U.S. Senate votes to wave the TPP through.

- Finally, Brent Patterson reminds us that public participation is key to the election results we want - particularly given the Cons' focus on suppressing turnout. And Bob Hepburn writes about Mel Hurtig's efforts to push for a change from continued Harper government.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

Grounded cats.

On search results

Colby Cosh's latest on the role of the "human search engine" in tracking down information about candidates and elected officials is worth a read. But it's worth keeping in mind that the search results only matter to the extent they're put to use.

On that front, having commended Notley for her initial response to issues raised about Deborah Drever, I'll note that there's reason for concern about Drever's subsequent suspension.

I'm always leery about personal controversies being used as an excuse to disqualify people from participation in public life. And the high bar for excluding people from running seems like it should be raised even further when the party's vetting and nomination processes and a general election have resulted in an individual having been elected under the NDP banner.

Moreover, the effects of Notley's decision won't be limited to Drever herself. Instead, Notley's willingness to cut people out of the NDP caucus before they've even participated in it will only encourage more focus on MLAs' photographic history rather than their work in the legislature.

That said, the good news is that Notley has left room for Drever to redeem herself, imposing a temporary suspension rather than the under-the-bus sentence so familiar among other parties. And hopefully the future obsessions of the right's human search engine won't be to redirect Alberta politics from building a new culture of inclusion.

Tuesday Morning Links

This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- LOLGOP discusses the important role unions play in ensuring widespread freedom and prosperity - and why they're thus target number one for corporatists seeking to hoard more wealth at the top:
When Scott Walker promises to bring his anti-union policies that have help lead Wisconsin to the largest decline in the Middle Class of any state nationally, he’s revealing what’s long been the subtext of the conservative movement. Their goal has always been to trick the middle class to vote itself out of existence, and this requires turning workers against backbone that gives them the ability to stand up to corporate power — unions.
(H)ow we talk about unions matters. Making workers resentful and jealous of the few of their peers who still have pensions and other elements of job security is key to undermining the most important role unions play as the only advocate of working people who can stare down the corporate America, which has largely copied labor’s organizational efforts with greater resources and results than workers could have ever mustered.
Embracing labor and greater workplace representation as central to reversing the wealth gap that threatens our economy and stability is the “one thing” that can save as, as labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan argues in his great new book.

This starts by changing how we talk about unions. George Lakoff reminds us to always put their necessity in terms of the value that matters most to Americans: “Unions are about freedom, freedom from corporate servitude and wage slavery, freedom from unsafe working conditions, and the freedom in later life that comes from fair pensions, which are delayed payments for work done earlier in life.”

Studies show this isn’t just good framing. It’s good economics.
- Joseph Brean reports on the alliance forming between organized labour and the environmental movement to develop a sustainable economy. And Marc Lee observes that British Columbia's carbon tax isn't all it's cracked up to be in terms of either economic development or environmental progress.

- Matthew Yglesias points out one more way in which the finance sector is too big for the good of the community, as bank mergers and associated branch closures tend to result in less lending to small businesses.

- Meanwhile, Dylan Matthews discusses Kansas' scheme to ensure that supposed social benefits are in fact converted into bank fees. And Vineeth Sekharan looks at the costs of criminalizing homelessness.

- Finally, Thomas Walkom comments on the role terror figures to play in the Cons' election campaign. And Amanda Connolly reports on the lack of resources needed to provide any oversight for CSIS, whether under C-51 or otherwise.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Staying the flawed course

John Ivison is right to note that the Cons' latest ad reflects the Harper braintrust sticking to what seems to have been a long-established plan. But it's worth highlighting how that plan has been overtaken by events - and how even the Libs may be able to use the message to their advantage if they're smart in the approach to this fall's federal election.

In principle, a "just not ready" message is tailor-made for a two-party race where a party's ability to attach a single personality flaw to the opposing leader can make all the difference between victory and defeat.

But for the Cons, it represents a couple of important concessions.

As I've written before, the Cons' previous election campaigns were based on portraying the Libs' leader as unfit to govern under any circumstances - or indeed (in Michael Ignatieff's words) as lacking standing to be heard during at all. But "not ready" implies an entirely different standard: that the question to be decided about Justin Trudeau is whether or not he's suited to govern only at a single point in time.

And the softened message from the Cons seems also to signal some recognition that their attacks on opposing parties lack credibility. One has to figure that Stephen Harper would prefer to present a stronger critique if he thought voters would consider it plausible. But after a decade of saturation bombing with Cons propaganda through government and party channels alike, voters have tuned out anything that doesn't sound like what they'd be inclined to say for themselves.

It makes sense in that context for the Cons to turn to focus groups to tell them what messages will work. But that also means there's an awfully limited range of options available.

As for the opposition parties, the NDP surely figures to be happy to see the Cons sticking to their false assumption that the election will be a two-party race. (And it wouldn't be the first time that a right-wing party's failure to take the NDP seriously might lead to major progressive change.)

If the public accepts the ad's message - and particularly if Trudeau reinforces it at all during the course of the campaign - then Tom Mulcair can easily become the rallying point for opposition simply by showing that he's ready to govern. And that doesn't figure to be a problem for a leader with his talent and experience.

Indeed, Mulcair might well fit neatly into a Goldilocks scenario between a tired Harper and a not-ready Trudeau.

But even for the Libs, the new ad represents only a challenge rather than a defeat. And it's one they've presumably understood for some time now.

Unlike the vague criticisms of Dion and Ignatieff, the "not ready" critique is one which can be tested by how the Libs run their campaign. If Trudeau holds his own on the campaign trail and particularly in the leaders' debates, then the Cons' last attempt to bargain for another term in power will fail. And the particular criticism might also yield some fruit in developing counterattacks - such a "Harper thinks he knows it all" theme based on his presuming to dictate when Trudeau is ready, with former PMs taking to the stage to highlight the value of comparative humility and a willingness to learn.

Even if Trudeau can't hold up or counterattack immediately, though, he can easily preserve his own position by treating the election result as a "not yet" rather than a "no". And if a public consensus emerges behind the "not ready" messsage, the resulting attraction of progressive votes to the NDP doesn't particularly help the Cons either.

The Cons then seem to be betting that Trudeau's performance will be subject to just enough interpretation to split the vote for change while ceding the right to Harper. (Or they might hang on if Trudeau and the Libs spend their entire campaign bashing the NDP rather than making a case for change so as to ensure that both alternatives are tarred by election day.)

We'll see whether either comes to pass. But that's an awfully narrow set of possibilities for a sitting majority government which has done little but to plot for its own political fortunes.

On minimal solutions

Shorter Corporatists to Fleece the Irrelevant Beggars trying to avoid a living wage for Alberta:
Has anybody pointed out that if we ensure that the hungry have food, some of them might gain weight? That's why we consider it more responsible to force-feed them diet pills.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sunday Morning Links

Assorted content for your Sunday reading.

- Heather Boushey writes about the Great Gatsby Curve showing a direct correlation between equality and social mobility - and conversely, that high inequality severely limits opportunity for large numbers of people. And Vikas Bajaj discusses how high inequality also harms overall economic development.

- But of course, we'll never get policies to address those problems without a government willing to highlight the need for change and acknowledge that there are no non-controversial answers - as Sadiq Khan points out in discussing the U.K. Labour Party:
(I)nsecurity reaches right up the income scale, which is why our commitment to fair rents and secure tenancies spoke to many middle-class professionals in London. Even Tory candidates attacked the Tory’s lack of policies on housing as a factor in why they struggled in the capital.

It’s got to be a deal though: economic growth, and lower inequality will only create a better life for all if we are straight that this will require shared effort and sacrifice. We promised things to ease the pain now for the “squeezed middle” without outlining what the economy might be like if we were in charge. And we suggested these would somehow be “pain-free” – paid for by someone else. The British public just didn’t buy it.

So it allowed our opponents to use the crash as a symbol of our economic mismanagement. But this is far from the truth. Let us be clear: the deficit in 2007 did not cause the crash, and the Tories were fully signed up to our spending plans. We should not cede this ground.

There were, however, bigger issues about our economic approach. We failed to regulate the banks and financial sector. We subsidised employers who paid low wages, placing a burden on the taxpayer, rather than encouraging them to pay a living wage. We tackled the effects rather than the causes, and that made it harder for us to tackle inequality. Since 2010 we began to address that and we must not go back on that now. But we have to paint a picture of what it means for people beyond the very low-paid, and how they’ll benefit personally if we tackle this.
- Suha Diab discusses the Cons' general antipathy toward all but the wealthiest of immigrants, while the Ottawa Citizen editorial board is particularly (and rightly) critical of their attempt to dehumanize people trying to escape Burma by boat.

- Finally, Mitchell Anderson writes that just as Alberta's citizens finally built up immunity to right-wing rhetoric (if only over a period of decades), Canada's voters may be building the same strength just in time for this fall's election. And Michael Harris suggests that Stephen Harper's vanity may be his party's undoing, while Chantal Hebert argues that the Cons may be utterly oblivious to the public's demand for change.