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If we can find the money to kill people, we can find the money to help people.
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Musical interlude

ven, 08/22/2014 - 19:56
Serge Devant feat. Second Sun - Shadow

Friday Afternoon Links

ven, 08/22/2014 - 16:08
This and that to start your weekend.

- Robert Reich discusses how the increasing concentration of corporate wealth and power is undermining the U.S.' democracy, while noting that there's only one effective response:
We entered a vicious cycle in which political power became more concentrated in monied interests that used the power to their advantage – getting tax cuts, expanding tax loopholes, benefiting from corporate welfare and free-trade agreements, slicing safety nets, enacting anti-union legislation, and reducing public investments.

These moves further concentrated economic gains at the top, while leaving out most of the rest of America.

No wonder Americans feel powerless. No surprise we’re sick of politics, and many of us aren’t even voting.

But if we give up on politics, we’re done for. Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling prophesy.

The only way back toward a democracy and economy that work for the majority is for most of us to get politically active once again, becoming organized and mobilized.

We have to establish a new countervailing power.

The monied interests are doing what they do best – making money. The rest of us need to do what we can do best – use our voices, our vigor, and our votes.- Bryce Covert notes that service-sector jobs in particular have seen wages decline even since the 2008 crash, while Matthew Yglesias makes the case as to why there's plenty of room for employers to pay more than they've thus far bothered to do. And Freddie deBoer highlights the patent absurdity of blaming workers for acting on the promise that higher education would lead to economy opportunity:
So all the kids who heard the clarion call and rushed out to get CS degrees, or to drop out under the advice of Peter Thiel, and start coding in their basements– are they all chumps? Do they deserve scorn? Do they deserve to be unable to scratch out a living? Of course not. Like so many others, most of them did what their society told them to do to pursue the good life: work hard, go to school, and try to provide value for people so that you can earn a living. They were sold on a social contract that is failing them. No one can be reasonably expected to predict what skills the economy will value five, ten, twenty years in advance. The urge to call out others for what you perceive as their bad choices is destructive in a labor economy where, despite gains in overall unemployment rate, workers still have remarkably little bargaining power, thanks to underemployment, lack of benefits, low pay, and poor hours. Rather than succumbing to our petty insecurities by blaming others for their economic conditions, we need to look at the macroeconomic factors that are hurting our labor markets. We need to recognize that automation and artificial intelligence are pushing us towards a new era of work– one with tremendous potential productivity gains, but also tremendous uncertainty for labor, even educated labor. It’s time to stop calling people chumps and start building the kind of social system that can guarantee basic material security for all of our people, so that we can all share in the staggering gains of efficiency and productivity that technology is bringing about.- Mariana Mazzucato observes that the answer to Europe's failed austerity drive should be greater movement toward long-term public investments - not more of the same cuts-at-all-costs attitude that's obviously done nothing but harm.

- And Andre Picard reports that the Canadian Medical Association isn't accepting the Cons' excuses for abandoning public health care.

- Finally, David Climenhaga rightly questions the theory that we should answer threat to political leaders by silencing voices online, rather than actually protecting the politicians affected. And Marva Burnett writes that in fact, there's still a significant digital divide facing lower-income Canadians which demands a strong policy response to encourage greater access to a world of information.

On political evolution

ven, 08/22/2014 - 08:04
Both Chantal Hebert and the combination of Bruce Anderson and David Coletto have written recently about the state of federal politics in Quebec, with particular emphasis on what we can expect as the Bloc Quebecois appears to crumble. With that in mind, I'll offer a quick reminder as to one of the more subtle factors behind the 2011 Orange Wave - and how things have changed less than we might think at first glance.

As I've mentioned before, the NDP's relatively strong push into Quebec happened to coincide with an election where both the Cons and Libs had obvious reasons not to put much effort into the province - based in large part on the Bloc's success in campaigning against their preferred themes.

Which isn't to say that the NDP was obviously ahead of its competitors at the start of the campaign (see: polling prior to April 2011 passim). Instead, its increased strategic focus figures mostly to have counterbalanced the Libs' and Cons' historic advantages. And with no national party going into 2011 with much expectation of winning over a substantial amount of Bloc support, the outcome might be seen as reflecting two factors: not only the popularity of Jack Layton, but also the growth of natural voter preferences in a rare case where political targeting played a relatively small role.

Of course, that's all changed going into the next federal campaign. Now that the obvious obstacle to growth in Quebec for all of the federal parties is seemingly disintegrating, every party has an incentive to test its prospects within a much larger pool of available voters and seats. And there's reason to think the NDP, Libs and Cons have all done just that.

In turn, that makes the lack of change in voter support just as noteworthy as any further shift would have been. The NDP's change in leadership from Jack Layton to Thomas Mulcair hasn't affected its massive advantage on that question. And renewed pushes from both the Libs and Cons haven't significantly altered the party standings aside from the Bloc's further decline - which, as noted by Anderson and Coletto, may actually bolster the NDP's position compared to its competitors.

Not that any party can rest on its laurels now: after all, it's the illusion of stability over an even longer period that caught nearly everybody off guard in the last election. But if 2011 showed us what the Quebec electorate looks like following relatively little work to cultivate party interests, the last few years seem to indicate that voters are comfortable with the landscape.

Thursday Morning Links

jeu, 08/21/2014 - 07:53
This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Olga Khazan writes about the connection between lower incomes and obesity in the U.S. And Truthout discusses how poverty and other stressors can directly affect individual and communal genetics for generations:
(A) study by researchers at University College London's Institute of Child Health found that, thanks to epigenetics, children whose parents and grandparents were born into poverty can, themselves, carry the scars of that past poverty with them for the rest of their lives. That's because children born to families who've lived generations in poverty inherit genes configured to help them survive that poverty, but as the researchers pointed out, turning those genes on can make those children more susceptible to health conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer when they're adults.

And epigenetic changes - genetic changes caused by the circumstances of life - have previously been linked to a variety of mental disorders too, including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
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Because of epigenetics, whenever there's war, violence, poverty, famine or just about any other stressful situation, not only are our bodies changing, but those of future generations will, too.

That's why it's so important that we do everything possible to protect future generations by making the world work well today.- And Rachel Malena-Chan highlights how much more an individual can both benefit personally and contribute to the community with a basic income in place to meet essential needs.

- Jordan Weissmann questions whether the spin about reduced global inequality making up for increased country-level inequality is the least bit accurate - particularly since it relies on ignoring unreported wealth. 

- Meanwhile, Marc-Andre Gagnon suggests that a national pharmacare program could provide both economic and health benefits. But Nick Fillmore contrasts the public's actual concerns about higher drug prices and other consequences of the CETA against the media's eagerness to declare that nobody can possibly question more corporate-friendly trade deals.

- The Montreal Gazette's editorial board weighs in on the need to put public safety first when it comes to regulating dangerous business activity. But we can instead expect plenty more policies at the federal and provincial levels alike aimed at letting business do what it likes in the pursuit of short-term profits, regardless of the obvious dangers to the public - combined with the occasional gratuitous swipe at public servants in order to distract from corporate giveaways.

- And finally, Frances Russell wonders whether the Cons' fraudulent vote suppression in 2011 is only a prelude to a wider, more desperate attempt to keep power in 2015.

Wednesday Morning Links

mer, 08/20/2014 - 07:58
Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- David Leonhardt offers a revealing look at the relative priorities of wealthier and poorer regions of the U.S. And Patricia Cohen discusses the disproportionate effect of inequality and poverty on women:
It’s at the lowest income levels that the burden on women stands out. Not only are they more likely than men to be in a minimum-wage job, but women are also much more likely to be raising a family on their own.
“Inequality is rising among women as well as men, but at the bottom, women are struggling with some dimensions of these problems that men aren’t, which is raising and supporting these families as single heads of households,” said Francine Blau, an economist at Cornell University.
So while the number of families living on less than $2 per person per day doubled between 1996 and 2011, according to the National Poverty Center, it tripled among families headed by a lone woman.
Wages are only one part of the problem, said Arlie Russell Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, whose 1989 book, “The Second Shift,” described how fathers rarely chipped in with housework and child care even when their wives were working full-time. She notes that as men’s economic opportunities decline, so do their marriage prospects. The increase in poor single mothers means that many of the lowest-wage workers are not getting any help in the second shift.- But while that example reflects market outcomes rather than policy choices, sometimes right-wing disdain for vulnerable people is actually made explicit. And Lizanne Foster exposes the B.C. Libs' apparent hostility toward special needs children - whose learning supports are being put on the chopping block as "wage benefits".

- Andy Blatchford reports on the Transportation Safety Board's findings about the Lac-Megantic rail explosion. The Globe and Mail editorial board highlights the failure of Transport Canada to properly regulate an increasingly dangerous industry, while Paul Wells notes that the history of railway self-regulation extends back to the Libs' stay in power.

- Meanwhile, in another prime example of the conflict of interest inherent in letting corporations (and their hand-picked consultants) regulate themselves, David Dayen discusses how the U.S.' big banks avoid public regulation by instead choosing their own investigators.

- The Star points out that the Cons' obsession with austerity and deficits is entirely political. But it's also worth recognizing that any talk of balancing a budget is purely temporary: as soon as the red ink stops flowing for a year, their plan is to start slashing taxes again to make sure the federal government lacks the capacity to repair the Cons' damage. And David MacDonald charts the public revenue already lost to a decade and a half of corporate tax giveaways.

- Finally, Marilyn Reid takes a look at how CETA fits into the Cons' general philosophy of suppressing wages and rendering work more precarious.

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

mar, 08/19/2014 - 19:10
Cats in motion.



Tuesday Morning Links

mar, 08/19/2014 - 08:01
This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- John Abraham and Dana Nuccitelli discuss the worrisome spread of climate change denialism, particularly around the English-speaking developed world. But lest we accept the theory that declining public knowledge is independent of political choices, Margaret Munro reports that the Cons are suppressing factual scientific information about Arctic ice levels to avoid the Canadian public being better informed, while Tom Korski exposes a particularly galling example of their vilifying top scientists for reporting their results. And John O'Connor reminds us what's been done to anybody who's dared to speak out about the effect of unfettered tar sands development on local residents.

- Jim Bronskill reports that Transport Canada had been directly warned that safety standard exemptions granted to MMA would put workers and the public at risk in advance of last year's explosion in Lac-Megantic. And Bruce Campbell offers another study (summarized here) as to how regulatory failure was behind the disaster.

- Bloomberg reports that the U.S.' recovery has seen stagnant wages for most workers compared to gains at the top. And Henry Blodget highlights the even more glaring gap between corporate profits and earned incomes:
There's no "law of capitalism" that says that companies have to pay their employees as little as possible. There's no law of capitalism that says companies have to "maximize short-term profits." That's just a story that America's owners made up to justify taking as much of the company's wealth as possible for themselves.

Ironically, this short-term greed on the part of America's owners is likely reducing their long-term wealth: Companies can't grow profits by cutting costs forever, because their profits can't grow higher than their revenues. At some point, revenue growth needs to accelerate. But that won't happen until companies start sharing more of the wealth they create with the folks who create it — their employees.- Michael Butler examines the readily foreseeable effects of the leaked CETA text in detail - with particular emphasis on its potential damage to Canadian health care.

- Finally, the Ottawa Citizen calls for a renewed investigation into Robocon in light of Michael Sona's conviction. And Lawrence Martin points out the most important question left unanswered by the finding that Sona was just one part of a larger scheme to defraud voters:
The term “vote suppression” is a euphemism. When a member or members of a political party run an operation to prevent citizens from voting for another party, it’s tantamount to trying to fix an election result. It’s attempted vote-rigging.

For corrupt political acts, you can’t get much worse. It’s certainly more egregious than abusing housing allowances or misusing government planes, the kinds of allegations that have brought down some prominent politicians lately.
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So who else was there? Was the operation carried out with the knowledge or input of any of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s top lieutenants? Will we ever find out?

Mr. Sona, with whom I have had several conversations, did not testify at his own trial. But he is considering whether to come forward in coming weeks or months with what he knows about the whole sordid business. If it’s true that others were involved, he should name them.

Monday Morning Links

lun, 08/18/2014 - 06:24
Miscellaneous material to start your week.

- Rebecca Vallas, Melissa Boteach and Shawn Fremstad write about the need for a new social contract. And Drew Nelles takes a look at the role of a guaranteed basic income in ensuring a fair standard of living for everybody:
Although implementing basic income would undoubtedly require a reorganization of social assistance provision, with some programs being eliminated or absorbed, it cannot be used as an excuse to dismantle what’s left of the welfare state. Instead, it’s a hopeful idea because it could act as just the opposite: the beginning of a turn away from the anti-tax, anti-social-spending policymaking that has dominated the West since the 1980s.

Indeed, I suspect that the idea of basic income has caught on for the same reason that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century became a bestseller earlier this year. It neatly distills the era we live in: it reflects our burgeoning concern about class disparity, and it represents a symbolic reversal of the ideology that got us here. The post-recession, post-Occupy age has seen people—if not politicians—begin to reckon seriously with the threats of income inequality and wealth concentration. Basic income is an appealing solution in its simplicity and elegance: why not just give people money? Even if it remains, for now, more of a thought experiment than a concrete policy proposal, basic income is valuable for that reason. It forces us to ask what we owe each other.- Meanwhile, Natasha Singer discusses how the "sharing economy" is serving as the latest cover for increasingly precarious work:
Technology has made online marketplaces possible, creating new opportunities to monetize labor and goods. But some economists say the short-term gig services may erode work compensation in the long term. Mr. Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, argues that online labor marketplaces are able to drive down costs for consumers by having it both ways: behaving as de facto employers without shouldering the actual cost burdens or liabilities of employing workers.

“In a weak labor market, there’s not much of a floor on what employers, or quasi employers, can get away with,” Mr. Baker contends. “It could be a big downward pressure on wages. It’s a bad story.”

Labor activists say gig enterprises may also end up disempowering workers, degrading their access to fair employment conditions.

“These are not jobs, jobs that have any future, jobs that have the possibility of upgrading; this is contingent, arbitrary work,” says Stanley Aronowitz, director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Technology and Work at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. “It might as well be called wage slavery in which all the cards are held, mediated by technology, by the employer, whether it is the intermediary company or the customer.”- On the other end of the spectrum, Joseph Heath notes that some within the 1% are now stashing their children as well as their tax-sheltered money in the Cayman Islands to avoid the mere general public. And Darwin offers yet another thorough debunking of the Fraser Institute's spin on taxes.

- Alison examines Canada's international arms sales, including weapons exports to both sides of conflicts in the Middle East. 

- Finally, Robyn Benson previews this weekend's People' Social Forum. And for those who haven't yet seen Canadians for an Inclusive Canada - a group which is seeking to coordinate action against the Cons' anti-family immigration policy - it's well worth a look (and a signature).

On permanent campaigners

dim, 08/17/2014 - 15:53
Plenty of people have pointed out other pieces of Paul Wells' interview with Justin Trudeau. But one exchange seems particularly telling in defining Trudeau's perception of leadership and politics:
Q: What do you have to get done when Parliament comes back?A: Continue to do what we’re doing, which is build the team, build the plan. Draw in great, credible candidates from across the country and put together a set of solutions and policies that are going to give this country a better government.
Q: So the campaign’s already begun?A: I think the way politics is done these days—certainly, if you look at the attack ads that started the day after I won the leadership—yeah, the campaign started a long time ago.In other words...

Faced with a direct and simple question, Trudeau can't name a single thing he wants to accomplish in Parliament, whether in terms of policies which can be pursued now or areas where the Cons should be held to account. Instead, when asked specifically about the fall session of Parliament, his answer is that he intends to keep ignoring how Canada is actually being governed today in order to work exclusively on next year's election campaign.

And Trudeau also doesn't have any interest in changing the absolute worst practices the Cons have inflicted on Canadian politics. Instead, somebody supposedly pitching a transformation from Harper's modus operandi is nonetheless fully prepared to allow him to dictate "how politics is done these days" - and match him in treating politics as a game where the only question is who wins the prize of holding government power.

All of which seems to confirm that Trudeau is offering no difference at all from Harper's contempt for democratic institutions, nor his cynical and self-serving view of the role of leaders. And we'd best recognize how Trudeau plans to offer more of the same with a red backdrop before anybody falls into the trap of handing him power based on the promise of change.

Sunday Morning Links

dim, 08/17/2014 - 08:47
This and that for your Sunday reading.

- Bert Olivier is the latest to weigh in on Paul Verhaeghe's work showing that the obsessive pursuit of market fundamentalism harms our health in a myriad of ways:
What does the neoliberal “organisation” of society amount to? As the title of the book indicates, it is market-based, in the tacit belief that the abstract entity called the “market” is better suited than human beings themselves to provide a (supposedly) humane structure to the communities in which we live. But because neoliberal capitalism stands or falls by the question, whether profit is generated or not, it means that human economic activities in such a society have to generate optimal profit.

Predictably, according to the profit-driven dictates of the market, workers/employees in every organisation, from small companies to large corporations and even what used to be regarded as public institutions such as schools and universities, have been increasingly subjected to a regime of relentless competition, linked to rewards (such as promotion and bonuses) for productivity and punitive measures (no promotion, no bonuses, being fired) for lack of it. This has gone hand-in-hand with quasi-legal measures to ensure the productivity of employees and the identification of those who are not productive, such as the imposition of production-deadlines, self-assessment and company audits. Not even schools and universities have been exempted from this. It was not difficult to guess what effect these transformations in working conditions would have on people’s health.

Among those focused on by Verhaeghe are psychiatric conditions (the incidence of which has multiplied) like depression, eating and personality disorders and depression. Nor is it difficult to guess why this should be the case – if one feels that, no matter how hard you try, it is just not possible to be as productive, or as innovative regarding product-design as some of your colleagues, depression and anxiety are likely to assert themselves sooner or later.
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One should keep in mind that income inequality is directly linked to differences in social status. And not surprisingly, Verhaeghe points out that low social status has a “determining effect on health” (2014: location 2375). He therefore arrives at the startling conclusion, that even in “prosperous … Western Europe, it isn’t the quality of health care … that determines the health of the population, but the nature of social and economic life. The better social relationships are, the better the level of health” (location 2375). And health has been deteriorating steadily under the neoliberal regime. Need I say more?- And Tyler Cowen points to research on the connection between financial stress and physical health, as mortality patterns in a study of workers correlate with paydays. 

- Meanwhile, Patricia Pearson aptly observes that one mental health concern which happens to coincide with the devaluation of social relationships is being relabeled as a virtue:
The celebration of remorselessness is everywhere. Friends on Facebook have lately been reporting their scores on widely circulating psychopathy quizzes that ask users to agree or disagree with statements such as, “I never feel remorse, shame or guilt about something I’ve said or done.”

“I’m 19-per-cent psychopath!” they announce. Or: “I scored five out of 10!” As if the chilling absence of human empathy I witnessed as a crime reporter in covering trials like that of serial killer Paul Bernardo had become a fun little personality quirk.

What fire, exactly, are we playing with? Have we taken a tolerance of difference, of identity, of moral relativism, too far?
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The diagnosis may be clinical, but the issue, fundamentally, is moral. What kind of a society do we wish to inhabit, with what kinds of leaders and heroes?
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Real-life psychopaths do not resemble charming, focused and ruthless business leaders and politicians, or breathtakingly intelligent investigators like Sherlock Holmes. Instead, they are impulsive and greedy. Their conduct destroys companies and devastates communities. In his book The Psychopath Test, British journalist Jon Ronson points to Haitian death squad leader Emmanuel Toto Constant, a charming brute whom he interviewed in New York, and Al Dunlap, a prime corporate predator who eviscerated the labour force at Sunbeam. These men, Mr. Ronson argued, would be much closer approximations of a clinically assessed psychopath than the fair-minded Dexter.
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Any bid to normalize or even celebrate psychopaths’ absence of emotional intelligence is disturbing to those who see compassion and empathy as critical to social growth. “Empathy is actually the essence of a life that contributes to civil society,” says Mary Gordon, the Canadian founder of a celebrated school program called Roots of Empathy, which is now working, for example, with Protestant and Catholic children in Northern Ireland to overcome decades of violent hostility. “If we cannot connect, we cannot collaborate.” - The Vancouver Sun decries the stench of corruption as mining companies get special treatment and avoid responsibility for their environmental disasters after greasing the wheels with the Clark Libs. And David Frum (!) discusses the dangers behind the use of private donations to influence the management of public pension assets:Finding ways to use public funds for private benefit has been one of the longstanding preoccupations of American finance. The villain-hero of Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier gets his start by persuading the treasurer of Philadelphia to let him invest city funds to enrich them both. The United States has progressed since those times, but perhaps not as far as you might suppose...
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To put it bluntly: Nobody needs to pay an intermediary $13 million to entice investors into a great deal. These fees only make sense when the goal is to attract state funds into deals that cost too much, deliver too little, or are burdened with fees that are too high. Placement-agent fees are in themselves, and almost inherently, warning signs of trouble.

And yet in our belief that it’s politicians who are always and everywhere to blame for everything that goes wrong in a political system, we consign to the financial pages the abundant evidence that the most fundamental vulnerability of state pension plans to corrupt influence is located less in politicians’ need for campaign funds, and much more in the weak governance of state pension plans themselves.  - Finally, Jim Bronskill reports on the Cons' priorities when it comes to trade barriers: while they're eager to sign agreements preventing governance in the public interest, they have no interest in discussing how to reduce or even competently manage restrictions set up purely out of spite.

Saturday Morning Links

sam, 08/16/2014 - 08:14
Assorted content for your weekend reading.

- Amanda Connelly reports on the Alberta Federation of Labour's latest revelations as to how the temporary foreign worker program has been used to suppress wages. And Jim Stanford reminds us that the employment picture for Canadians remains bleak even after Statistics Canada's job numbers were revised:
(F)ull-time employment is now estimated to have declined by about 20,000, instead of the original 60,000.  Not exactly something to boast about.  60,000 part-time jobs were created (same as the original report).  The unemployment rate is the same as the original report — and exactly the same as 18 months ago.  The participation rate is unchanged from June: higher than in the original report, but still stuck at its lowest level since 2001.

I published a Globe and Mail commentary on Canada’s stagnant labour market based in part on the original LFS report.  Today’s revised numbers do not materially change the argument I made there, which is that Canada’s much-vaunted economic recovery was over-rated in the first place, and in fact ran out of steam a long time ago.  There has been no sustained labour market progress for over three years.  The employment rate is languishing just a hair above its level in June 2009 — the trough of the recession.  That means job-creation since the trough of the recession has only just kept up with growth in the working-age population (ageing demographics is part of that story, too, on top of poor job-creation).
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The U.S. unemployment rate has dropped 1.7 points since January 2013.  Canada’s hasn’t budged.  The stark difference in macro policy stance between the two countries is clearly an important factor behind this take of two recoveries: American policy is emphasizing job-creation, and mobilizes conventional and unconventional levers to get there, while Canadian policy is dominated by orthodox concern with balancing the budget.

In short, I think Canada’s relative underperormance (sic) since 2011 will become increasingly damaging to the Harper government, given how much it has invested in its reputation (deserved or not) as the “best economic managers.”- Brian Gifford writes that more progressive taxes could go a long way toward getting our economy on the right track:
To promote strong economic growth, tinkering won’t do. Neither will clinging to failed orthodoxies of tax cuts and cutbacks. We can do much better. Why increase taxation? To invest in new services that will help grow the economy and improve social conditions. Quebec’s universal child-care program saves governments money by increasing women’s participation in the workforce and enabling them to pay more taxes. Housing chronically homeless people saves on emergency services costs. A universal Pharmacare program would reduce drug costs and fewer people will be deprived by unaffordable medications from getting treatment they need. We could go on.
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Growing the economic pie is important, but only when equality is increased at the same time. It is not an either-or choice: some policies do both while others grow the economy while undermining equality. Given the empirical evidence, we really are at a point where cash-strapped jurisdictions such as Nova Scotia must justify why they are not leveraging the tax system to alleviate poverty and broaden social supports. We cannot afford not to commit to serious social investments to achieve greater equality and economic growth. - But of course, tax dollars are of limited use if an anti-social government won't allow them to be used for anything but its own perpetual campaign. And the Cons' insistence that a modest amount of housing spending be used on photo-op-friendly new construction rather than maintaining existing infrastructure makes it clear that they're fully focused on PR rather than actual housing needs.

- Instead, the Cons are again obsessed with getting governments at all levels out of the business of improving citizens' lives. And the CETA is providing a prime example, as both Les Whittington and Andrea Rexer write that "buy local" policies which can serve as important economic stabilizers are being trashed at all levels of government.

- Finally, the CP reports on the Carbon Tracker Initiative's list of oil projects which are least likely to make a profit if prices aren't extremely high. (And it's well worth noting that many of the projects with the lowest likelihood of any return are also the ones with the most damaging environmental effects - including deepwater drilling as well as tar sands operations.) Meanwhile, Chris Mooney discusses the growing scientific case as to the dangers of fracking.

Musical interlude

ven, 08/15/2014 - 20:13
Dinka - Elements (EDX Remix)

Friday Morning Links

ven, 08/15/2014 - 06:36
Assorted content to end your week.

- Glen McGregor reports on Michael Sona's conviction as part of the Cons' voter suppression in 2011. But both Michael den Tandt and Sujata Dey emphasize that Sona's conviction was based on his being only one participant in the wider Robocon scheme - and that Stephen Harper and company remain fully responsible for covering up the rest of it.

- Meanwhile, Carol Goar duly mocks Tony Clement's attempt to talk up open government while serving as one of the least accountable ministers in the most secretive Canadian government ever.

- And Justin Ling discusses the myriad of areas in which the Cons are signing away Canadian sovereignty through closed-door trade deals while refusing to admit to what they're doing. 

- David Sirota writes about Los Angeles' attempts to reverse credit swap arrangements which are handing hundreds of millions of dollars from the public to the financial sector - and points out in the process that the city spends more on giveaways to Wall Street than on its own roads.

- Mike de Souza exposes Alberta's sad publicity campaign intended to greenwash the tar sands - or at least muddy the waters in the U.S. But Bob Weber reports that long after that misinformation campaign intended to portray Alberta oil as well-regulated and environmentally responsible, Alberta's government is refusing to regulate pollution based on its assertion that it has no clue how to do so.

- Finally, David Gratzer examines the urgent need for stronger public policy on mental health:
Mental illness is a human tragedy. A patient – off work and sick with depression – recently told me what he missed most from his old life: the ability to laugh. Stuck in darkness, he wished to laugh again. Health-care professionals like me hear such things too often: stories of lost jobs, lost loves, lost years. A recent Danish study suggests that more than a third of the population will have some form of mental illness over their lifetime, with mood and anxiety disorders being the most common.

Mental illness is also a societal tragedy. By one estimate, 500,000 Canadians missed work today because of a mental health problem. The lost productivity and direct health expenses have an economic cost; in a recent analysis for the Mental Health Commission of Canada, the value was pegged at $50-billion a year. Labour economist Richard Layard argues that such estimates are inherently conservative: Mental illness casts a long shadow, over our jails and emergency departments, with total costs of more than 8 per cent of a country’s GDP.

But if mental illness is devastating, common, and costly, there is good news. In many cases, it’s also highly treatable.
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Yet studies show that people with mental illness routinely fall through the cracks. Only about 1 in 3 will get the health care they need. A pathetic paradox, then: Psychiatry has never been better able to help people yet many don’t get the help they need.

Thursday Afternoon Links

jeu, 08/14/2014 - 16:39
This and that for your Thursday reading.

- Nora Loreto reviews the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights' Unions Matter:
Unlikely to convince someone who is anti-union on its own, Unions Matter provides the fodder for union activists to be able to make important arguments in favour of unionization. Even more important, the statistics and arguments in Unions Matter could be used by labour activists to convince the ambivalent of the fact that, yes, unions matter.

Section one, "Reducing Income Inequality Through Labour Rights," gives an impressive overview of the role that unions have played to reorganize wealth in Canada. As union density has dropped, Canadian society has become objectively more unequal. The data presented in this section demonstrates that the trend between union density and inequality is not casual, but directly connected.

Unions are not just agents of economic redistribution, though. In section two, "Promoting Democracy, Economic Equality and Social Rights," the articles examine the role that unions have played and should play in defending social rights and fighting against injustice. The section examines how, through activism rather than simply through structural redistribution, unions defend democracy and the human rights of all people, regardless of union membership.
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Armine Yalnizyan ends her chapter by arguing that the greatest threat to income distribution is the profits amassed by the 1%, and that unions cannot necessarily stop this trend through collective bargaining alone. "Ultimately," Yalnizyan writes, "the long-term impact of unions on Canadian trends in economic inequality is primarily through their political action… and only secondarily through their direct impact on wages."

Indeed, building the necessary campaign to fight neoliberal and austerity measures will require unions to engage in political action. While Unions Matter might not provide union activists with a road map on how to do that, it does offer the requisite facts to shut down any anti-union, right wing argument that might be floating around the ether.  - And in a prime example of what can happen when the balance of power tilts thoroughly in favour of corporations, Jodi Kantor writes about the complete control employers exercise their most vulnerable employees through erratic scheduling for low-wage workers:
Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes. “It’s like magic,” said Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, which supplies the software for Starbucks and many other chains.

Yet those advances are injecting turbulence into parents’ routines and personal relationships, undermining efforts to expand preschool access, driving some mothers out of the work force and redistributing some of the uncertainty of doing business from corporations to families, say parents, child care providers and policy experts.
...
Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: “How many hours do you work?” and “What do you earn?”
...
(F)lexibility — an alluring word for white-collar workers, who may desire, say, working from home one day a week — can have a darker meaning for many low-income workers as a euphemism for unstable hours or paychecks. Legislators and activists are now promoting proposals and laws to mitigate the scheduling problems. But those who manufacture and study scheduling software, including Mr. DeWitt of Kronos, advocate a more direct solution: for employers and managers to use the software to build in schedules with more accommodating core hours. - Meanwhile, weinenkel highlights how privatized probation services are turning poverty into a crime in and of itself.

- Bill Curry reports that the Cons' general public-sector vandalism is resulting in newly-unemployed Canadians seeing a delay in the processing of their EI applications, while Jason Kirby writes that a disastrously botched jobs report is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the destruction of Statistics Canada. And Colin Freeze discusses the Cons' broken promise to rein in an intrusive and unaccountable CSEC surveillance apparatus.

- Finally, Iglika Ivanova looks at how tax rates and revenues have actually changed over the past 50 years. And Jennifer Wallner and Daniel Beland respond to the Fraser Institute's spin with a dose of reality:
What the study fails to report is that, thanks to government programs, Canadians are paying less for many of these necessities. Government programs that are paid for by, you guessed it, taxes.In 1961, there was no universal health care, limited public education, limited public transportation systems and the Trans-Canada Highway wasn’t even open....
Keeping careful watch on the quality of programs provided by the government and paid through public taxes is our democratic responsibility.Failing to acknowledge the necessity of these programs and the individual benefits they provide through collective action is misleading at best, as it deprives us from the big public policy picture through which we should understand taxation....
The latest report on taxation is a case in point in using misleading information to infuriate Canadians about taxes rather than make them see the big picture about why taxes are the way they are in the first place, and how the major public programs they finance improve the social and economic life of Canadians.As Oliver Wendell Holmes once claimed, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” This was the case in the past and this is even more the case today, regardless of what the Fraser Institute wants you to believe.

New column day

jeu, 08/14/2014 - 07:04
Here, on how the Harper Cons' kabuki consultations can't mask the fact that their budgets utterly neglect what's most important to Canadians.

For further reading...
- Dean Beeby has previously reported on the disconnect between the public position on policy issues and the Cons' budget choices, while Andy Radia also comments on the lack of public interest in tax baubles.
- And both CBC and Bill Curry note that the same pattern is playing out once again, as the Cons' anti-government orientation is taking precedence over any interest in listening to good ideas.
- James Baxter writes about the Cons' general message of "shut up" to Canadians. 
- And among the submissions which do deserve further attention, I'll highlight those of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres and Citizens for Public Justice (PDF). 

Wednesday Morning Links

mer, 08/13/2014 - 08:03
Miscellaneous material for your mid-week reading.

- George Monbiot discusses how a market-based society makes people unhealthy in a myriad of ways - and how it's worth maintaining our innate reluctance to value everything and everybody around us solely in terms of dollar values:
The market was meant to emancipate us, offering autonomy and freedom. Instead it has delivered atomisation and loneliness.

The workplace has been overwhelmed by a mad, Kafkaesque infrastructure of assessments, monitoring, measuring, surveillance and audits, centrally directed and rigidly planned, whose purpose is to reward the winners and punish the losers. It destroys autonomy, enterprise, innovation and loyalty, and breeds frustration, envy and fear. Through a magnificent paradox, it has led to the revival of a grand old Soviet tradition known in Russian as tufta. It means falsification of statistics to meet the diktats of unaccountable power.

The same forces afflict those who can’t find work. They must now contend, alongside the other humiliations of unemployment, with a whole new level of snooping and monitoring. All this, Verhaeghe points out, is fundamental to the neoliberal model, which everywhere insists on comparison, evaluation and quantification. We find ourselves technically free but powerless. Whether in work or out of work, we must live by the same rules or perish. All the major political parties promote them, so we have no political power either. In the name of autonomy and freedom we have ended up controlled by a grinding, faceless bureaucracy.

These shifts have been accompanied, Verhaeghe writes, by a spectacular rise in certain psychiatric conditions: self-harm, eating disorders, depression and personality disorders.
...
So, if you don’t fit in, if you feel at odds with the world, if your identity is troubled and frayed, if you feel lost and ashamed – it could be because you have retained the human values you were supposed to have discarded. You are a deviant. Be proud. - And Brian Bethune highlights the end of connections to neighbours (and any associated "social immune system") as an increasingly worrisome social trend in Canada.

- Douglas Skinner points out that major U.S. companies are increasingly obsessing over the extraction of cash (both through repurchases and dividends) at the expense of any sustainable development. And digby links the obscene profits for the U.S.' privileged few to the excessive borrowing required of anybody else wanting to live what's seen to be a normal life.

- Alexander Knight traces the incestuous relationship between oil money and political power across Canada. Fern Hill focuses in particular on Enbridge's apparent attempt to buy favour with police departments in communities which are likely to see opposition to its Line 9 project. And Dermod Travis connects crony capitalism to the Mount Polley tailings pond spill:
Since 2005, Imperial Metals has donated at least $149,890 to the BC Liberals. With a win, place and show wager, that total includes $2,500 to each of the leadership campaigns of Christy Clark, Kevin Falcon and George Abbott. It also tossed $3,000 into the kitty for Bill Bennett's 2009 re-election campaign.

Mount Polley got in on the action as well, with the mine topping up donations to the Liberals by $46,720.
...
Giraud -- then vice-president, corporate affairs at Imperial Metals -- called on the B.C. government to retain the flow-through tax credits for the exploration industry, to keep the PST off capital investments for mining companies and, most importantly, to reduce the approval process for a new mine from upwards of 10 years to as little as three.

As he noted to the committee: "I think if we're really looking for some flexibility on budget in terms of the mining sector, there is perhaps some wiggle room, but it needs to be in the context of 'I'm going to build a mine in three years, so maybe I'll tolerate those additional tax rates.' People are willing to pay for certainty and for time."

Lo and behold, six months later the BC Liberal Party was promising voters that it would streamline the mining application processes, work with the federal government to ensure mining projects undergo only one environmental review process, and that it would extend the new mine allowance and other credits allowing new mines and mine expansions to receive depreciation credits of up to 133 per cent to 2020.
...
There was one last thing about Giraud's presentation that jumped out. Arguing his case for a shorter approval process, he claimed: "Nobody trusts experts anymore from an NGO or from a third party, saying: 'You know what? We don't trust what you've done.'"

After Mount Polley, that can be marked down as famous last words.- Richard Brennan reports on a federal-provincial program which will provide money for affordable housing in Toronto. But as Brennan notes, the real story lies in what isn't included: the city is barred from using a dime of it for maintenance rather than new construction, meaning that the senior levels of government will maximize their photo ops while actively refusing to do anything to maintain the existing (and equally necessary) housing stock.

- Finally, Frances Russell weighs in on the continued clash in values between a progressive Canadian public and a hard-right Con government. But Paul Adams notes that based on current popular support, that conflict could be resolved in the next federal election by a Con collapse into third place among federal parties.

Tuesday Night Cat Blogging

mar, 08/12/2014 - 19:08
Backdoor cats.




History repeating

mar, 08/12/2014 - 16:21
Shorter Joe Oliver:
Sure, we're getting thoroughly lousy results after years of setting our economic policy based almost exclusively on corporate interests, with special privileges for the resource sector. But I've got an idea: what if we instead based our economic policy even more exclusively on corporate interests, with even more special privileges for the resource sector?

Tuesday Morning Links

mar, 08/12/2014 - 07:41
This and that for your Tuesday reading.

- Jack Peat argues for trickle-up economics to ensure that everybody shares in our common resources (while also encouraging economic development):
Good capitalism is the ability to promote incentives and opportunity in equal measure. Sway too far one way and the potential of human capital is stifled, sway too far in the other direction and the willingness to realise this potential also goes amiss. Of late, bad capitalism has manifested itself in incentives over opportunities, and has become a parasitic drag on our economic growth as a result.

A recent IMF study has caused quite a stir in the western world, finding inequality can sabotage a market economy and can be a hindrance on economic growth. The findings point to the fact that, particularly in the US, things like food stamps, universal health care and perhaps a few other basic human rights might actually be a good idea. Not that we can now all go home feeling a little better about ourselves at night, but it actually makes economic sense.
...
The IMF and S&P reports present politicians with a chance to act on inequality based on prudent economic factors. Rather than place spikes on doorsteps to prevent the homeless from getting shelter or squandering millions of pounds on water cannons to prevent the next London riots we could consider the impact trickle up economics could have on everyone, rather than the few. If “income distribution is robustly associated with higher and more durable growth”, why not consider passing a bit of wealth through the poor fellow’s hands?  Trickle up will benefit us all.- Iglika Ivanova discusses how the B.C. Libs are using their own reckless tax slashing along with false spin about "affordability" as an excuse to needlessly attack health care and education:
The provincial government’s decision to underfund health care and education has nothing to do with affordability as defined by our ability to pay... To sum it up: our ability to pay for education, and other much-needed public services, depends on two things: the size of our economy and our tax rates.

Our economy is not booming, but the BC budget projects it to grow by 19% over the next 5 years. This is before adjusting for inflation, but so is the BC government’s estimate that teachers’ demands for wages, class size and composition funding would add up to 14.5% over five years. Future economic growth would easily cover those.

Is it reasonable to expect that economic growth will translate into improvements in education? I’d say so.
...
The thing to keep in mind is that governments choose how much revenue they have available to spend on programs by setting tax rates. Saying there’s no money in the budget for education improvements doesn’t mean we can’t afford it. It just means we can’t fund them with our current taxes. - Barbara Yaffe writes that the Clark Liberals have given British Columbians nothing but reason to doubt that their province's environment is safe from industrial disasters. Michael Smyth discusses the history of deregulation that led to the Mount Polley tailings pond failure - and figures to lead to far more tragedies to come. And Michal Rozworski examines the broader policy issues surrounding Mount Polley.

- Meanwhile, Marc Jaccard explains why a moratorium on new tar sands development makes a world of sense if we have any interest in combating climate change. (Spoiler alert: the Harper Cons have no interest in combating climate change.) And in an example of the hidden effects of underregulation, Matthew Yglesias points out the connection between lead contamination and all kinds of social problems.

- Finally, Gareth Kirkby writes that we should expect charities to fight back against the Cons' abuses of power rather than allowing themselves to be silenced. And Dean Beeby reports that foreign aid charities in particular are starting to do just that.

On progressivism

mar, 08/12/2014 - 07:25
Joe Fantauzzi explains his reasons for avoiding the term "progressive" in defining his own political beliefs. But I'll argue that the proper response to Fantauzzi's concern is to work harder in defining what terms mean - not to abandon them altogether:
The achievement by marginalized people of social citizenship. Collective movement toward big goals that make life better on a societal scale. State intervention with the aim of lessening the burden caused by the market. Smoke from an oil field and tailing ponds as the economy chugs along.

Progressivism is typically identified as a synonym for activist liberal and is often associated with the types of things talked about in the first three examples above.

But the conflation of the economic, as seen in the fourth example above, with the political leads to a conflict that I can’t resolve.I'll readily agree that we shouldn't accept that even destructive economic development should be classified under the term "progressive". But does that mean we should throw away the term altogether?

Let's first ask where it fits in comparison to other political terminology. And most prominently, "progressive" (both on its face and in its most common usage) serves as an ideal foil for "conservative". Conservatism can generally be defined in terms of a belief in the primacy and desirability of enforcing power relationships, including all the unfairness and imbalance that entails; progressivism can then be defined in terms of one's belief in the importance of instead ameliorating that unfairness or imbalance.

From that starting point, there's plenty of room for subsets under the "progressive" banner, depending primarily on one's perception as to which power relationships most require collective action and how to go about challenging them. A personal preference for addressing economic, social or environmental issues, as well as an inclination toward state, cooperative or individual action can give rise to a wide range of policy proposals - while still being consistent with a broadly progressive view. (Likewise, conservatism can include individuals focused on enhancing the accumulation of power within states, churches, corporations or families.)

But what about, say, John Tory's attempt to define airport enlargement as "progressive", which seems to trouble Fantauzzi?

There, the proper answer seems to be that Tory is stretching the term further than it should go. But we should treat that as a reason to criticize the spinmeisters trying to bend language to fit their political purposes, not a reason to abandon useful terms altogether.

And indeed, other terms can be abused in similar ways - and almost certainly will to the extent they're seen as carrying positive identifications.

Replacing one's "progressive" framing with "liberal" certainly does nothing at all to eliminate any confusion: in fact, large-L Liberal parties in Canada include some of the most conservative governments in the country by any reasonable definition. And on a case-by-case basis, other potential identifying terms can also be spun toward regressive ends - such as flat-taxers using egalitarian language to claim that "fairness" and "equality" should be based on how much one pays in income taxes rather than one's standard of living.

In sum, we shouldn't let the people most motivated to corrupt the language of collective action dictate the terms of political debate. And while "progressive" may not be everybody's choice of identifying term, we're better off ensuring that it keeps some meaning - particularly when it can serve as a useful shorthand and rallying point for a majority of Canadian voters.

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