Friday, January 31, 2014

The Prime Directive: Do Nothing

When it comes to managing the Canadian economy, Tom Walkom writes, the Harper government's prime directive is do nothing and let the American economy drag us along. The strategy is nothing new:

It is, in fact, a classic Canadian strategy. The Liberal government of Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin used it to great political effect during the downturn of the ’90s. But it requires the U.S. to play ball. The Americans, somehow, have to goose their own economy.

The problem this time is that Barack Obama faces a House of Representatives who believe in the same mythology which infects the Harperites. And the odds that Obama will be able to stimulate the American economy enough to revive our economy are slim. Even though U.S. unemployment numbers have improved:

Census figures reported by the New York Times show that median household income in the U.S., after adjustment for inflation, has not recovered since the recession. In fact it is 9 per cent lower than it was in 1999.
To even begin to solve America’s problems requires strong government action from Washington. But as Obama, in effect, admitted Tuesday, Washington remains dysfunctional.

The Republicans -- and their northern cousins, the Harperites -- continue to believe that the way to salvation lies in cutting spending and doing nothing. Hooverian economics is alive and well.

And all that really matters is re-election.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Force To Be Reckoned With

Yesterday, Justin Trudeau gave Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair migraines. Micheal den Tandt writes:

In one bold, risky and unexpected gambit, Justin Trudeau has turned the national debate about the Red Chamber on its head, blasted a crater-sized hole in the Conservative government’s strategy to sell its version of Senate reform, and forced NDP leader Tom Mulcair to play catch-up on his marquee issue.

Trudeau knows that the Supreme Court will rule that the Senate cannot be reformed without the participation of the provinces. He also knows that Harper doesn't negotiate with the provinces. He knows too that, while Mulcair might get Brad Wall's support to abolish the Senate, there are other provinces steadfastly opposed to abolition.

While Harper and Mulcair will argue that they have been stymied by institutional inertia, Trudeau will argue that he has begun to reform the Senate from within. There are potential pitfalls, of course, such as the identity crisis Liberal senators now face. Perhaps they will call themselves Independent Liberals. After all, the Conservatives used to be the Progressive Conservatives. And before that -- under John A. Macdonald -- they were the Liberal-Conservatives.

It's beginning to look like Pierre's kid is a force to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Too Close To The Sun

Once again, Chris Hedges has returned to the Pequod as a metaphor for North American society. The ship and crew in Melville's Moby Dick are doomed because they willingly supported one man's mad quest. And like them, Hedges writes, we are teetering on the edge of collapse:

Our financial system—like our participatory democracy—is a mirage. The Federal Reserve purchases $85 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds—much of it worthless subprime mortgages—each month. It has been artificially propping up the government and Wall Street like this for five years. It has loaned trillions of dollars at virtually no interest to banks and firms that make money—because wages are kept low—by lending it to us at staggering interest rates that can climb to as high as 30 percent. ... Or our corporate oligarchs hoard the money or gamble with it in an overinflated stock market. Estimates put the looting by banks and investment firms of the U.S. Treasury at between $15 trillion and $20 trillion. But none of us know. The figures are not public. And the reason this systematic looting will continue until collapse is that our economy [would] go into a tailspin without this giddy infusion of free cash.

The ecosystem is at the same time disintegrating. Scientists from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, a few days ago, issued a new report that warned that the oceans are changing faster than anticipated and increasingly becoming inhospitable to life. The oceans, of course, have absorbed much of the excess CO2 and heat from the atmosphere. This absorption is rapidly warming and acidifying ocean waters. This is compounded, the report noted, by increased levels of deoxygenation from nutrient runoffs from farming and climate change. The scientists called these effects a “deadly trio” that when combined is creating changes in the seas that are unprecedented in the planet’s history. This is their language, not mine. The scientists wrote that each of the earth’s five known mass extinctions was preceded by at least one [part] of the “deadly trio”—acidification, warming and deoxygenation. They warned that “the next mass extinction” of sea life is already under way, the first in some 55 million years. Or look at the recent research from the University of Hawaii that says global warming is now inevitable, it cannot be stopped but at best slowed, and that over the next 50 years the earth will heat up to levels that will make whole parts of the planet uninhabitable. Tens of millions of people will be displaced and millions of species will be threatened with extinction. The report casts doubt that [cities on or near a coast] such as New York or London will endure.

Yet we, like Ahab and his crew, rationalize our collective madness. All calls for prudence, for halting the march toward economic, political and environmental catastrophe, for sane limits on carbon emissions, are ignored or ridiculed. Even with the flashing red lights before us, the increased droughts, rapid melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, monster tornadoes, vast hurricanes, crop failures, floods, raging wildfires and soaring temperatures, we bow slavishly before hedonism and greed and the enticing illusion of limitless power, intelligence and prowess.

Like Starbuck, the Pequod's first mate, Hedges warns that our collective madness is blasphemy. But, like Ahab, our movers and shakers respond, "Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

We are too close to the sun.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Steve, Neil And The First Nations

Neil Young is now on Stephen Harper's enemies list. Michael Harris writes:

In the thug state Stephen Harper is busily constructing, Young has become Stephane Dion with a guitar, or Michael Ignatieff with a tambourine – just another opponent of the prime minister to be torn down. In Harper’s one-opinion world, to engage is to destroy, never to discuss.

Young’s offence was to express his opinion and to make a donation. In normal democracies, that would be no big deal. You might agree with the rock-star, you might not. Ninety-nine percent of the time, most wouldn’t even notice. 

But Canada is no longer a normal democracy. The evidence is everywhere:

  • Governments in normal democracies don’t introduce legislation seeking the right to ask about your political beliefs when applying for a job;
  • Governments in normal democracies don’t put through 40 per cent of the legislative output of parliament in one bill that effectively prevents scrutiny of its contents;
  • Governments in normal democracies don’t produce endless commercials about themselves paid for by the public they are trying to indoctrinate rather than inform;
  • Governments in normal democracies don’t use the full weight of official wrath against individual citizens who speak out against their policies.

People whose opinions do not jive with the regime's are enemies of the state and must be destroyed. The problem is that Young cannot be destroyed as Dion and Ignatieff were. And the people who Young speaks for cannot be shunted off into oblivion. They know who the prime minister is:

The PM promised to hit the re-set button in the Ottawa/First Nations relationship after his much-ballyhooed public apology to Canada’s Aboriginals for their treatment at residential schools. Then he refused to provide documents to the very Truth and Reconciliation Commission he himself had set up to get to the bottom of it. He went on to slash native funding, ignore the Idle No More leaders, and set the Mounties on native protestors trying to wake up the nation to their plight.

The PM’s idea of consulting with First Nations over resource development was to palm it off on corporate executives and pretend that his constitutional obligation was discharged.

Now the majority of Canadians are onside with the first nations. According to an Abacus poll, 68% of us think  the prime minister is neither honest nor accountable. His personal attacks don't work anymore. Canadians know from whence they come.

And they know they've been had.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Perfect Ponzi Scheme

Last week, Thomas Perkins complained that governments were treating the very rich like Jews in Nazi Germany. Paul Krugman writes that such plutocratic paranoia is not an isolated instance:

There are a number of other plutocrats who manage to keep Hitler out of their remarks but who nonetheless hold, and loudly express, political and economic views that combine paranoia and megalomania in equal measure.

I know that sounds strong. But look at all the speeches and opinion pieces by Wall Streeters accusing President Obama — who has never done anything more than say the obvious, that some bankers behaved badly — of demonizing and persecuting the rich. And look at how many of those making these accusations also made the ludicrously self-centered claim that their hurt feelings (as opposed to things like household debt and premature fiscal austerity) were the main thing holding the economy back.

 What is even more disturbing is that the new plutocrats know they are parasites: 
I also suspect that today’s Masters of the Universe are insecure about the nature of their success. We’re not talking captains of industry here, men who make stuff. We are, instead, talking about wheeler-dealers, men who push money around and get rich by skimming some off the top as it sloshes by. They may boast that they are job creators, the people who make the economy work, but are they really adding value? Many of us doubt it — and so, I suspect, do some of the wealthy themselves, a form of self-doubt that causes them to lash out even more furiously at their critics.

And, completing the vicious circle, our political class have likewise become parasites. They rely on the plutocrats for nourishment. It's the perfect Ponzi scheme.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Canada's Herbert Hoover

Some people rejoiced last week, when Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz announced that interest rates would remain where they are. But Scott Clark and Peter Devries write:

Reading between the lines suggests that the Bank does not expect a strengthening in employment growth and any significant reduction in the unemployment rate over the next eighteen months — before the 2015 election, in other words. And there is very little the Bank can do about it, short of lowering the overnight rate further.

The simple fact is that there is a need for more aggregate demand in the economy. This has been the case for the past three years. Since 2010, growth in output and jobs has been falling and in 2013 only 102,000 net jobs were created; 60,000 full-time jobs were lost in December alone. Unused capacity in the Canadian economy has been growing for the past four years.

However, Jim Flaherty  -- or rather Stephen Harper, who is Canada's real Minister of Finance -- is not concerned about  the lack of demand:

Mr. Flaherty is simply not prepared to do what is necessary to raise aggregate demand in the economy. For years, the government’s strategy has been to cut the deficit it created and hope that exports and investment would fill in the gap. This hasn’t worked. . . Even the International Monetary Fund thinks he’s wrong. It has recommended that, in the absence of a strong recovery in growth and job creation, the date of deficit elimination could be delayed.

Instead, Flaherty and Harper have decided to follow Andrew Mellon's advice to Herbert Hoover: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” In their quest for re-election, they are slashing, burning and not spending. Jason Fekete reports that:

Approximately $10 billion of authorized budgetary expenditures have gone unspent each of the past three years, with the government forecasting departments and agencies will spend $7 billion less than authorized in the current 2013-14 fiscal year.

For the Harperites, history is all about military prowess. It has nothing to do with economics, which they believe exists outside history, and is governed by hard and fast rules. Unfortunately, they are doomed to repeat history.

Stephen Harper is Canada's Herbert Hoover.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A Failed Economist

As Lorne over at Politics and Its Discontents noted yesterday, there has been much gnashing of teeth as the Canadian dollar has slid down to 90 cents (U.S.) But Tom Walkom writes this morning that the dollar can and should fall farther:

With luck, it will end back up at roughly 80 cents. Under the purchasing power parity rule, which compares the prices charged for identical goods in two countries, that’s about where it should be.

The rise of the dollar was predicated on the prime minister's ambition to turn Canada into a petro state and himself into a blue eyed sheik. But that dream is beginning to crumble:

There are more fundamental reasons behind the dollar’s decline. One is that commodity prices are easing world-wide – which means there is less demand for the currencies of countries, like Canada, that export natural resources.

Another is that the U.S. dollar is rising – largely because traders expect that country’s central bank, the Federal Reserve, to hike interest rates. (So-called hot money tends to flow into whichever country offers the highest yield).

Mr. Harper's dream of building a Canadian economy on a 19th century strategy simply isn't succeeding. And no matter how many loonies he spends on advertising, trying to convince Canadians that sound economic management depends on sending bitumen to foreign markets, it's clear that the game is up.

Mr. Harper is a failed economist.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Hot Air

Stephen Harper likes to crow about his government's management of the economy. But the facts are out of synch with the hype. Two days ago, Alex Roberts tallied up the record after eight years of Conservative stewardship. The report should be read in full. But consider just a few excerpts:

  • National unemployment rate in January, 2006: 6.6
  • National unemployment rate in December, 2013: 7.2
  • Increase in the number of unemployed in Canada since January 2006: 236,200
  • Youth unemployment rate, January 2006: 12.2
  • Youth unemployment rate, December 2013: 14.0
  • Rank of Canada’s unemployment rate in 2013 compared to other G7 countries: 3rd
  • Rank of Canada among the 34 OECD nations in employment creation 2007-2012: 20th

  • Then consider the following:

  • Number of governments since 1935 that have presided over a slower rate of real economic growth per capita than the Harper Conservatives: 0
  • Number of consecutive annual federal budget deficits: 6
  • Number of budget deficit targets hit by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty: 0
  • Number of consecutive annual federal budget surpluses under the previous Liberal   (Chrétien/Martin) governments: 9
  • Amount added to the federal national debt since Conservatives took power in 2006: 
  • $123,500,000,000.

  • And, finally, note the following numbers:

  • Percentage increase in the inflation-adjusted average hourly manufacturing wage, 2006-2013: 0
  • Percentage drop in productivity (GDP produced per employed person), 2006 to September 2013: 1.9

  • Mr. Harper likes to reward the private sector. But, in that hallowed world, an executive with that kind of record would be dumped. Yet he's still with us. And he's still full of hot air.

    Thursday, January 23, 2014

    The Liberal Paradox

    Tom Walkom writes this morning that the public celebration of Jean Chretien's 80th birthday underscores the paradox which is the Liberal Party:

    The Liberals are a paradox. They build institutions and then demolish them. They insist they walk the middle line even when they don’t.
    They pride themselves on their crafty pragmatism. But they can be fooled time and time again by their own PR.

    Consider what happened during Chretien's fifty years in politics:

    He was lauded for being part of the Liberal government that, 50 years ago, worked to build and expand the great social programs of the 20th century. These included federally funded welfare, medicare and what is now called employment insurance.
    Then he was lauded for decimating these same social programs when, as prime minister during the 1990s, he slashed spending in order to eliminate the federal deficit.

    Which raises the question, what do the Liberals stand for? The answer seems to be that depends. Walkom recognizes that the eighties were a good time for conservatives:

    He governed during a time when the right was in ascendency worldwide. And like any successful politician, he tried to balance interests — including his own.

    But, when all is said and done, Chretien's career should serve as a cautionary tale. It's a story that Justin Trudeau  -- who doesn't seem to stand for much -- should read and re-read.

    Wednesday, January 22, 2014

    Something To Think About

    Stephen Harper has pledged unwavering support for Israel. That pledge sounds hollow coming from a man who has a long history of abandoning friends and allies when they become inconvenient. Consider a few names: Preston Manning, Garth Turner, Tom Flanagan, Mike Duffy, Nigel Wright. And now, Lawrence Martin writes, you can add Barack Obama to that list:

    The Conservatives no longer seem very concerned about irritating the Obama administration. They were always hesitant to take on the Democratic messiah because of his great popularity in Canada, but things have changed.

    Conservatives sense that the President is wounded and take a measure of pleasure in it. Mr. Obama’s health reform rollout was a disaster. Security leaks about surveillance of Americans have embarrassed his administration. Now a critical book by Mr. Obama’s former defence secretary, Robert Gates, is attracting lots of attention.

    It's hard to believe that Harper's trip to Israel is striking fear in Obama. But the noises he is making there must raise the president's blood pressure. He is not helping Obama deal with Iran. Domestically, he wants an answer on Keystone. However, he has done nothing environmentally to help the president sell the deal.

    The truth is that Stephen Harper loves to lecture the world. But he doesn't know how to deal with it. And an even more important truth is that he always acts -- first and foremost -- in Stephen Harper's interest. That, after all, is why he is in Israel. The trip is about Canadian Jewish votes, not international peace.

    That's something Bibi Netanyahu would be wise to think about. If he becomes inconvenient, Mr. Harper will turn on a dime.

    Tuesday, January 21, 2014

    Ignorance Personified

    Stephen Harper claims that criticizing Israel is a new form of Anti-Semitism. Of course, he defines Israel as the Netanyahu government. But, as Gerry Caplan writes, there is so much more to Israel than the Netanyahu government:

    But it’s not Israel that he supports. It’s the government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Among the great truths the Canadian delegation will not be reminded of is that Mr. Netanyahu represents only one faction of Israel today, just as Mr. Harper represents only a minority of Canadians.

    Like Mr. Harper, Mr. Netanyahu has generated a great deal of opposition. But Harper will not see that opposition:

    Never having seen it for themselves – although it’s the easiest thing in the world to do – Mr. Harper and crew will not see how Israeli soldiers at many West Bank checkpoints casually humiliate and torment Palestinians way beyond any legitimate Israeli security needs. Instead, they will join the Netanyahu chorus and dismiss anyone who makes this point, or criticizes virtually any Israeli government policy regarding the Palestinians, as anti-Semitic. The Holocaust is routinely invoked.

    I wonder if any of Mr. Harper’s fellow travellers, including the accompanying journalists, might be interested in branching out a bit for themselves. There is, after all, a veritable cornucopia for them to experience. For just one example, the Israeli group Breaking the Silence, founded by disillusioned Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and veterans, collects testimonies from IDF soldiers who can no longer remain silent about the brutal treatment they’ve witnessed by Israelis of Palestinians. About 900 from all ranks have spoken out. Wouldn’t it be vaguely interesting to talk to them?

    The prime minister works very hard to not see what doesn't fit into the way he frames the world. In his world, only the like minded have any legitimacy. He is Ignorance personified. And his ignorance drives his paranoia.

    Monday, January 20, 2014

    Fundamentally Wrong

    Stephen Harper, we are told, has received a rock star welcome in Israel. Leaving aside for the moment the diversion it creates from scandal at home, one should be very uncomfortable about what Harper is stirring up in the Middle East. Jeffrey Simpson writes that, while successive Canadian governments have always supported Israel,

    none, however, has gone as far in embracing Israel as Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government – to the point of distancing Canada from traditional allies in the United States and Europe, abandoning even the pretense of balance and nuance, and contributing to Canada’s defeat (for the first time) in seeking a seat on the UN Security Council (a seat won the next time by Australia, whose governments had also been strong supporters of Israel but not as abrasively as the Harper government).

    The reason for the shift has everything to do with the man himself. Harper does not base his policy on experience or knowledge:

    His deep commitment does not spring from personal experience or considerable reading about the Middle East and its history – indeed, while he was leader of the opposition, foreign diplomats in Ottawa who managed to secure a meeting (often difficult) with him were struck by how little interested he was in any international issues.

    Mr. Harper sees the world, like Canadian domestic affairs, in rather Manichean terms, wherein the forces of good and evil are arrayed against each other, with threatening enemies everywhere, prepared to pounce on any weakness. The forces of good are democracies, especially of the Anglo-Saxon variety and a few others, including Israel. The forces of darkness and instability are other kinds of political systems.

    For Harper, it's a battle between good and evil. And he, of course, is on the side of good. He is in all things a fundamentalist -- in economics, politics and religion. And, as is so often the case, he is fundamentally wrong.

    Incidentally, John Gray and I are not related. But we share the same name and -- in this case -- the same opinion.

    Sunday, January 19, 2014

    A Canadian Snow Job

    While Neil Young was reminding Harper and Co. that they had obligations to Canada's native peoples, John Baird was in Washington, trying to extract a promise from Barack Obama and John Kerry that the United States would build the Keystone XL pipeline.

    But Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry were unmoved. They know that American opinion is turning against Keystone. And they know the real reason Baird was in Washington. Jane Kleeb, the founder of Bold Nebraska -- a network of American activists -- understands what's going on:

    "Canada and TransCanada made a really bad investment in tar sands, and the only way they can make their investment back is to get their product to the export market," Kleeb said. "Canada started producing tar sands in small amounts in the 1980s then began ramping up production in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Their investors want to see a profit."

    Elizabeth Bader writes that Americans know that all the talk about jobs is hogwash:

    By Jack Gerard's [the president of the American Petroleum Institute] count, 20,000 will be created immediately, with another 117,000 added by 2035. At other points API has claimed a larger number: 300,000. Why the change? It's anybody's guess, and Gerard did not elaborate. Later, when asked about pollution, his answer was surprisingly brief: "The risks to the environment are minimal," he said.

    And, if job creation is a priority, the United States faces an infrastructure crisis. The authors of a report titled The Keystone Pipeline Debate claim that:

     "America is facing an infrastructure crisis. Unmet water and gas infrastructure capital investment and operations and maintenance needs exceed more than $32 billion along the proposed Keystone XL corridor. The failure to repair and maintain this vital infrastructure causes gas leaks and explosions, sewage overflows, water main ruptures and the loss and contamination of drinking water. The damage caused by leaking gas pipelines has cost these states more than $450 million in damage since 1984."
    They estimate that in the states the pipeline would cross:

    177,000 [jobs will be needed] to replace the failing water mains that carry drinking water and 106,000 [will be needed] to repair wastewater pipes to get the eroding system back on track. They then project the need for another 15,000 permanent maintenance workers to do ongoing upkeep. "Every dollar spent on gas, water and sewer infrastructure in these states generates 156 percent more employment than the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline," the report concludes.

    In short, the Americans have figured out that Keystone XL is a Canadian snow job. And they will not be snowed -- the way Canadians have been.

    Saturday, January 18, 2014

    An Information Holocaust

    Andrew Nikiforuk has been documenting the closure of government libraries and the wholesale destruction of their contents. The process has been chaotic and blind:

    "The fact that many materials were thrown away or given away [most of the books at Saint Andrews Biological Station] is heartbreaking to those of us who are dedicated to marine science and the history of science in Canada," said ocean pollution expert and former federal researcher Peter Wells.

    The dismantling of the libraries was so chaotic that no attempt was made to retrieve books on loan. At some of the closed libraries, books were given away to staff or ended up in landfills. In Winnipeg, private consultants took away truck loads of material from the Eric Marshall Library, while some members of the public scavenged shelves for Christmas gifts.

    The party which claims to revere the nation's history has been destroying it:

    "We are used to narrowing and broadening of the focus of federal libraries," said one former librarian. "But previous governments never went back and destroyed what other people did. Going back and destroying everything that came before is simply vandalism."

    There is a reason for the vandalism. Destroy the history and you destroy the baseline that serves as the foundation for comparison. You destroy the metric by which citizens can judge their government's performance.

     We are witnesses to an information holocaust.

    Friday, January 17, 2014

    Afraid Of People

    The Conservatives have introduced a bill to "reform" the civil service. Lawrence Martin writes that, essentially, it is a directive that non conservatives need not apply:

    Call it the Loyalty Act. According to the bill brought forward by MP Mark Adler of the York Centre riding, if the disclosures turn up suspicious past political activities, MPs or senators could then demand an investigation of the offender or offenders.

    What might those suspicious activities be? Who knows? The employee might have done something terrible in the past … like holding a membership in a non-Conservative party riding association.

    If this all sounds very familiar, that's because it is. This government doesn't trust anyone who has not received its imprimatur. And there are lots of the anointed who have since proved they were unworthy of that imprimatur. So the solution has been to impose a code of silence on any and all who do their bidding:

    This is the crew which faced a backbench revolt over MPs being gagged on the Commons’ floor, which sent out party interns to disrupt a speech by an opposition party leader, drafted an enemies’ list, muzzled Canadian scientists, tried to bring in a draconian union disclosure bill, and is demanding that employees at Library and Archives Canada and elsewhere sign highly-restrictive loyalty oaths.

    This is the government which imposed gag orders, closure and time limits on committee work with near-record frequency; bars cabinet ministers on the hotseat from answering questions in the House; crushed Rights and Democracy and other groups which failed to follow its political line; suppressed reports; eliminated databases; cut down the census; used vast sums of taxpayers’ money to propagandize its own work and demonize opponents; is under the microscope for alleged suppression of voters’ rights; and ran a cover-up out of the PMO on the Senate expenses scam.

    The bill is a product of full blown Conservative paranoia. And it speaks volumes about the psychological health of the man who leads the party. He's afraid of people.

    Thursday, January 16, 2014

    The Hole We're In Gets Deeper

    Yesterday, the Supreme Court was put in the embarrassing position of deciding whether or not to approve one of its potential members. The reason was another of Stephen Harper's attempts to get his way. The arguments in front of the court were legal. But the real question was -- and is -- whether there were eminently more qualified justices than Marc Nadon. Andrew Coyne writes:

    No legal expert that I am aware of considers Mr. Nadon to be among even the first rank of jurists from Quebec, except in the relatively narrow field of maritime law. I haven’t seen anyone question his competence, either. But: distinguished? Influential? Authoritative? Add to that his age (64) and semi-retired status, and you have what in legal terms is called a head-scratcher.

    What seems to have closed the deal, so far as anyone can explain it, was rather a vague sense in the Prime Minister’s Office that he was ideologically sympatico, apparently largely on the strength of one ruling: his dissent in the case of Omar Khadr, the convicted terrorist/child soldier (depending on your point of view), in which he sided with the government’s position that it was not obliged under the Charter to seek his return from the United States.

    The argument has nothing to do with Nadon's character. By all accounts, his personal reputation is blameless. The problem is that this prime minister has politcized the civil service and the military. Now he is attempting to politcize the last branch of government which has offered him any opposition. Nadon is a political conservative. That credential, more than anything else, recommended him to the prime minister. Coyne writes:

    What you have here, in other words, is an example of affirmative action for right-wingers. The Prime Minister wanted a conservative on the court — so that, rather than merit, became the criterion.

    That has always been the criterion for Stephen Harper's personnel appointments. And consider his choices -- Mike Duffy, Arthur Porter, Bruce Carson -- names that now live in infamy. Harper's eye for talent is notoriously bad. If Marc Nadon takes a seat on the nation's highest court, Canadians should worry. Every time Mr. Harper gets his way, the hole we're in gets deeper.

    Wednesday, January 15, 2014

    A Tale Of Two Countries

    When it comes to oil, Mitchell Anderson writes, Canada and Norway have written two different narratives:

    A recent news item showed that Norway's massive pot of petroleum of money, now totaling CA$909.364 billion, has made every citizen a millionaire in Norwegian kroner. That works out to about $178,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. By contrast, every Canadian lumbers under an individual debt of $17,000 as Ottawa is in hock to the tune of $600 billion.

    What accounts for the difference? It all comes down to taxes:

    Alberta has run consecutive budget deficits since 2008 and since then has burned through $15 billion of its sustainability fund. In spite of Alberta's vast petroleum wealth, the province has not contributed a penny to the now moribund Alberta Heritage Fund since 1987. The belief that all tax is bad has led Canada's three western provinces to the bizarre position where they proudly collect less resource revenues on behalf of their citizens than any other jurisdiction in North America.

    The anti-tax worldview has migrated from Calgary to Ottawa, where it is being imposed on the rest of the country. In 2009, Prime Minister Harper stated flatly, "I don't believe any taxes are good taxes." Not merely a remarkably ignorant statement from someone who holds a Masters degree in economics, this position indicates Canada's elected leader is opposed to the very project of government -- not unlike hiring a hijacker as an airline pilot.

    True to his ideology, Harper's collective cuts to the GST, corporate taxes and personal income taxes now total about $45 billion per year in forgone government revenue. Canada is eliminating up to 30,000 public sector jobs in a supposed effort to balance the budget and currently collects less public revenue as a proportion of GDP than even the U.S. 

    In Norway, however, "national wealth is heading in the opposite direction at more than 10 times that rate, with savings of $142 million per day." And consider what that money buys:

    Norwegians enjoy universal day care, free university tuition, per capita spending on health care 30 per cent higher than Canada and 25 days of paid vacation every year. By owning 70 per cent of their own oil production and taxing oil revenues at close to 80 per cent, Norway is now saving about $1 billion per week. 

    And the Harperites keep chanting the same mantra: Their most salient virtue is their competence.

    It's almost funny.

    Tuesday, January 14, 2014

    Taking Goebbels' Advice

    The CBC reports this morning that the Harper government spent $2.5 million to promote its non existent jobs program:

    CBC News has also learned that that advertising cash came from an $11-million fund set aside last year for Employment and Social Development Canada to promote the government as a job creator.

    Before the Canada Job Grant TV ad went to air, the government paid Environics Research Group almost $70,000 to conduct market research. Focus groups saw a near-final version of the commercial.

    Environics reported that the ad would have the desired result:

    "The main message was consistently seen as positive and one that inspired hope…. In light of seeing the new ad for the Canada Job Grant, most now believe the Government of Canada is on the right track regarding skills training and the job market in Canada.”

    Of course, the ad was simply untrue. The program required provincial and industrial participation to get it up and running. It wasn't up and running at the time the ads were broadcast; and it's still not up and running.

    Michael Harris writes that this is only one chapter in a long saga. The Harperites don't believe in funding government. But they do believe in advertising:

    The Economic Action Plan was a propaganda vehicle originating in the Finance Department to make Canadians think Jim Flaherty is the best finance minister on the planet … you know, ‘STFU’ Jim.
    Jim Flaherty isn’t the only Harper minister who has dropped a major ad bill on the public (his was the biggest, though). The government has earmarked $16.5 million to promote pipelines and “responsible resource development” — up from $9 million last year. Joe Oliver may be pleased, but not even Rob Ford on a bender could fail to see the politics at work here.

    On the issue of the Northern Gateway pipeline project, the Harper government has never acted as a regulator — always and only as an advocate. It has nothing to do with access to government services, or programs for citizens, or civic pride. It’s about making Canadians get with the only program this PM really cares about: rigging the system to get bitumen-bearing pipelines to the B.C. coast come hell or high water.

    And, as for the claim that the Harper government was creating jobs, remember we lost 46,000 of them last month. Scott Clark and Peter Devries report that: "In 2013, only 102,000 net jobs were created — the worst job creation record this country has seen since 2009, with most of the gains in part-time employment."

    Mr. Harper rode to power on public outrage at the Chretien government's spending on ads in Quebec. And, in 2002, he rose in the House and asked:

    “Will the prime minister stop the waste and abuse right now and order a freeze of all discretionary government advertising?”

    Joseph Goebbels showed us how the Big Lie works. Stephen Harper has taken his advice to heart.

    Monday, January 13, 2014

    A War On the Poor

    As Republicans and Democrats argue about whether they should extend unemployment insurance to the long termed unemployed, Paul Krugman writes that the Republican argument is part of a war on the poor:

    Right now Republicans are doing all they can to hurt the poor, and they would have inflicted vast additional harm if they had won the 2012 election. Moreover, G.O.P. harshness toward the less fortunate isn’t just a matter of spite (although that’s part of it); it’s deeply rooted in the party’s ideology, which is why recent speeches by leading Republicans declaring that they do too care about the poor have been almost completely devoid of policy specifics.

    Republicans view unemployment as a moral failure, not an economic failure. In fact, they firmly believe that poverty is the result of moral turpitude. Consider what is happening in Republican states:

    The most important current policy development in America is the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, a k a Obamacare. Most Republican-controlled states are, however, refusing to implement a key part of the act, the expansion of Medicaid, thereby denying health coverage to almost five million low-income Americans. And the amazing thing is that they’re going to great lengths to block aid to the poor even though letting the aid through would cost almost nothing; nearly all the costs of Medicaid expansion would be paid by Washington.

    Meanwhile, those Republican-controlled states are slashing unemployment benefits, education financing and more. As I said, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the G.O.P. is hurting the poor as much as it can.

    The truth is that, for Republicans, economics is essentially a matter of Old Testament morality. The poor are sinners in the hands of an angry God. The fact that the supply of jobs is woefully inadequate to the demand is simply irrelevant information. They believe they must save the poor from themselves.

    And, in pursuit of that objective, they have put an end to the War on Poverty and declared a War on the Poor.

    This entry is cross posted at The Moderate Voice.

    Sunday, January 12, 2014

    Here He Comes

    So you thought the election was in 2015. And now, like Humphrey Bogart -- who went to Casablanca for the waters -- you discover that you have been misinformed. The election campaign has begun. Don Martin writes:

    Stephen Harper photo-ops are being booked across the country. Advance squads deployed to handpick participants to ensure partisan purity, gender balance and ethnic diversity. Film crews have been hired to document it all. Editors will varnish over any negative optics. And a velvet-voiced narrator will script the action during breaks in the Maple Leaf Forever soundtrack.

    And there is PMO TV,

    a weekly life-of-the-prime-minister feature called 24 Seven, which debuted Thursday on government websites. But it’s clearly propaganda, Stephen Harper-style. And you, the taxpayer, picked up the tab.

    The first effort was a three-a-half-minute sham of this week’s travels featuring adoring coverage of Harper surrounded by pre-cleared children in contrived settings with nary a discouraging word to be heard -- and certainly no sign of those disruptive protestors.

    The cost of planning and production will be huge. The viewing audience will be small.

    Mr. Harper has told us that he is not aware of what is going on in his office. I guess it's all a rogue operation. That's why it costs so much.

    It's all about avoiding the filters. The media might not believe the pitch:

    Contact with media is being studiously avoided, lest they pop his happy place in the bubble with prickly questions about Canada’s deteriorating job picture, the worrisome state of rail tanker safety or, perish the thought, a Senate scandal question or two.

    From now on, wherever he goes, the bunker goes with him.

    Saturday, January 11, 2014

    Unadulterated Stupidity

    In the wake of yesterday's news that Canada lost 46,000 jobs in December, it's instructive to consider what Henry Ford did one hundred years ago. He raised his worker's wage to five dollars a day -- double the going rate. Tony Sanger writes:

    Ford was virulently anti-Semitic, anti-union and paternalistic, but he realized higher wages would reduce the turnover of workers, boost productivity and also ultimately increase demand for autos. And it was remarkably successful. Turnover plummeted, his company's profits doubled in two years, and with surging productivity and production, the price of a Model T Ford was cut in half in a decade -- from about $500 in 1914 down to $240 in 1925. At $5 per day, an autoworker had to work 100 days to earn enough to buy a Model T Ford in 1914 and less than 50 days to afford one in 1925.

    Sharing capital with labour increased productivity. Compare that to what we've been told for the last thirty-five years:

    For decades we've been told we need to increase productivity and competitiveness, we must work harder and smarter, be more flexible, cut taxes, reduce regulations, cut government spending, expand investor protection and "free trade" agreements and provide more incentives for business and entrepreneurialism.

    It's called supply side economics. It has been Margaret Thatcher's, Ronald Reagan's and Stephen Harper's claim to fame. And we know where it leads. Overstimulating supply depresses demand. When Henry Ford raised his workers' wages, he stimulated demand for his product and increased productivity.

    What we need, writes Sanger, are policies which stimulate demand:

    Real wages must be increased, and no longer suppressed through wage freezes, expansion of a precarious and temporary labour force and attacks on unions. Collective bargaining rights need to be strengthened, minimum wages increased and measures put in place to control excessive compensation at the top.

    Public spending should be increased, not just on infrastructure, but also in areas that increase the "social wage" and expand public services and push back against increasing corporate control. These include improved public pensions, social security, education, health care, affordable housing and public transit. A national early learning and childcare program modeled on Quebec's program could not only pay for itself, but also generate tens of thousands of jobs and allow more parents to engage productivity in the labour force. Meeting the challenge of climate change will require billions in investments, but will pay off in both jobs and economic activity in the short term and in a more efficient and sustainable economy over the longer-term.

    Mr. Harper has been doing just the opposite. Like Pickett's charge, Harper's economic charge is an exercise in unadulterated stupidity.

    Friday, January 10, 2014

    A Reliable Stooge

    One of the reforms Michael Chong wants to implement is open riding nominations, free from the interference of party leaders. That proposition is currently being tested in Calgary West, where Rob Anders is being challenged for he nomination. The riding's recent history is interesting. Lawrence Martin writes:

    Mr. Harper represented Calgary West from 1993 up to 1997, when he stepped out of politics and Anders, then only 25, took over the riding. Before Harper, Jim Hawkes, a Progressive Conservative, held the constituency. Harper worked for Hawkes but then abandoned him, ran against him on the Reform ticket and won.

    It was a bitter family feud and animosities between moderates in the riding and core Conservatives remained. Harper wants the riding to stay out of Red Tory hands and has gone to great lengths to make sure of it.

    In the run up to the 2011 election, Donna Kennedy Glans -- a feminist lawyer -- challenged Anders for the nomination:

    Kennedy-Glans and her supporters won control of the riding executive. They planned a referendum at the next general meeting to show that Anders no longer had support.

    It all sounded democratic enough — until party central in Ottawa got into the action. It disallowed the annual meeting and seized control of the riding membership list, of the funds, of the offices. The Kennedy-Glans bid was crushed.

    By way of explanation, the party said she was too liberal. She was very moderate, more moderate than Jim Hawkes. But did that mean it was okay to resort to an anti-democratic, banana-republic operation to get her out of the way?

    For Mr. Harper -- who preached Reform in his youth, but who even then suffered from a garrison mentality -- that wasn't and isn't the issue. Anders may be a stooge. But he is a reliable stooge.

    He is precisely the kind of supporter Harper seeks out and then protects.

    Thursday, January 09, 2014

    Steve, Maggie and Ronnie

    Stephen Harper has never been a big tent politician. But he has always been devoted to Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Jeffrey Simpson writes:

    In March, 1989, with the Progressive Conservative government of prime minister Brian Mulroney safely re-elected, a young right-wing maverick wrote a long memorandum about how to create a stronger, sharper conservative movement.

    Stephen Harper was by then a Reformer, having abandoned the PCs, and he offered advice on how to shift the Reform Party from being a populist critic of the status quo to what he called a “modern version of the Thatcher-Reagan phenomenon.”

    Twenty years later, Maggie and Ronnie's view of creation collapsed. But Harper remains a true believer. Like William Jennings Bryan -- who was convinced that Bishop Usher correctly dated creation from Sunday, October 23rd, 4004 B.C -- Harper believes that Maggie and Ronnie showed us the path to salvation.

    He also believes that he needs just enough voters to agree with him:

    Today, with perhaps 30 per cent (maximum) of the electorate prepared to vote Conservative, the party commands the loyalty of far fewer voters than the old Progressive Conservatives. In 1979, Joe Clark won 36 per cent of the popular vote in defeating prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals (who actually won 40 per cent themselves). Brian Mulroney won 50 per cent in his landslide victory of 1984.

    But, if Clark -- who Harper passionately dislikes -- could win with 36% of the vote, Harper can, too. So he has no reason to change his strategy. After all, Maggie and Ronnie paved the path to paradise.

    But, as Bryan discovered at the Scopes monkey trial, when people reject the old time religion, they can make a monkey out of you.

    Wednesday, January 08, 2014

    Insanity Drives The Bus

    Stephen Harper insists he is all about strengthening the economy. Not so, writes Tom Walkom. He is abandoning it:

    The reasons are political. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his finance minister, Jim Flaherty, now have only one goal in mind — the 2015 federal election.

    And they are determined to slash government spending in order to balance Ottawa’s books before then.

    They calculate that a fiscal surplus in 2015 will allow their party to offer voters a platter of tasty tax cuts that will win it four more years in power.

    As a political strategy, it has worked before. It's been all about buying votes with tax cuts. But as an economic strategy, it's madness:

    In Canada, the official unemployment rate still hovers near 7 per cent. The Canadian Labour Congress calculates that when those who have given up looking for work plus involuntary part-time employees are added in, the real jobless rate reaches about 17 per cent.

    The country remains divided. Canadians able to take advantage of the oil boom are doing all right. But those connected to manufacturing, particularly in Ontario, are not.

    The rich make good money. Census figures show that those in the top one per cent of income earners average $381,300 a year — about 10 times the national average.

    Yet those at the bottom find they need two or three minimum-wage jobs just to stay alive. Debt-burdened students graduate from university and college only to find that full-time jobs simply don’t exist.

    Mr. Harper owes his political existence to the wealthy. And he's quite willing to strangle everyone else to stay were he is:

    All of this is having a direct effect on jobs. The Parliamentary Budget Office says Ottawa’s spending cuts cost the economy 12,000 jobs last year. It estimates that this figure will rise to about 80,000 by 2016.

    Up to now, Harper and Flaherty were careful to leave their options open. Both routinely warned that the fragility of the world economy might interfere with their budget-balancing plans. In 2009, the Harper government willingly incurred billions in debt to get the shell-shocked Canadian economy moving again.

    Stimulus kept the Harperites in power. Now they calculate that austerity will do the same. But, Walkom warns:

    In such a world, fixating on deficits is madness. Nonetheless, Flaherty and Harper are rolling the dice. The stakes are dangerously high.

    The situation is grave when Insanity drives the bus.

    Tuesday, January 07, 2014

    When Corruption Trumps Economics

    Going forward, Stephen Harper's strategy appears to be ride out the scandals and crow about the economy. If he had any sense of history -- even recent history -- the prime minister might re-evaluate that strategy. He would only have to revisit Paul Martin's tenure as prime minister. Michael Harris writes:

    If anyone saved Canada from going into the abyss of Mulroney-era deficits, it was the former finance minister in Jean Chretien’s government. As Preston Manning observed, Canada dodged a bullet in the financial meltdown of 2008 precisely because Martin got the deficit under control in the mid-1990s, casualties and all.

    Martin also produced successive budget surpluses, reduced the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio from 70 per cent to 50 per cent and got Canada’s AAA credit-rating restored. Despite this solid domestic record, and international successes involving the creation of the G20, the electorate was unkind. The best Paul Martin could do with voters was a minority government, followed promptly by defeat. 

    What brought Martin down was corruption. And the irony was that the corruption wasn't of his own making. Harper, on the other hand, is steeped in scandal -- from Mike Duffy, to robocalls, to Arthur Porter -- and his economic record isn't nearly as impressive as Martin's. Like Martin, Harper's claims he is eliminating the deficit. But he is not growing the economy:

    As for balancing the budget, it’s being done not by growing the economy but by cutting social services, selling foreign embassies and flogging Canada’s stock of gold coins. It is a shaky plan, premised as it is on the idea that the only thing that matters to Canadians is their pocketbooks.

    Despite his management of the economy, Canadians turfed Martin. Mr. Harper assumes he can avoid Martin's fate. But corruption -- more often than not -- trumps economics

    Monday, January 06, 2014

    The Triumph Of Mean

    Michael den Tandt writes that, if you're wondering why you keep getting those fund raising emails from political parties, blame Jean Chretien and Stephen Harper. Chretien brought in public financing for elections, but limited contributions. Harper eliminated public funding but kept the small contributions:

    Chretien never intended for things to go in the direction they’ve gone. His reform, Bill C-24, limited corporate and union donations to $1,000. Corporations without operations in Canada were banned from giving, as were Crown corporations. Individuals were limited to contributing $1,000 to any riding or candidate, up to a total of $5,000. Any donation of more than $200 had to be disclosed. But C-24 also introduced the $2-per-vote subsidy, for any political party that managed to garner two per cent or more of the popular vote.

    In 2006, in the full blush of its early puritan zeal, the new Harper government slashed the total individual limit to $1,000, indexed to inflation, and banned corporate and union donations outright. In 2008 Harper famously moved to wipe out the per-vote subsidy, precipitating the coalition-prorogation crisis, but was forced to recant. Following his majority win in 2011 he pressed ahead, resulting in the system we have now – no corporate or union donations, no per-vote subsidy, a $1,200 individual annual limit and endless, cadging emails begging for your money.

    Harper's changes were meant to give his party an advantage -- and they did. The problem is that small donors tend to be angry donors. Now the other parties have copied the Conservative model and there are a lot more angry voters. Our politics is a lot meaner. And, as we are constantly bombarded with requests for money, we get meaner still.

    What have we become? For starters, consider that Rob Ford is the mayor of Toronto.

    Sunday, January 05, 2014

    A Country For The Old

    Stephen Harper has always been up front about one of his political objectives -- the destruction of the Liberal Party. Recent polls suggest that he hasn't succeeded on that front. But, if Frank Graves' latest numbers are correct, he may well have gone along way to obtaining his second objective -- the destruction of the middle class.

    Harper bought into the touchstone of the American Right -- Ayn Rand's dictum that selfishness is a virtue. Graves writes that, in both countries, the results have been the same. The middle class is in decline:

    A comparison of poll tracking in Canada and the United States shows just how recent and clear this decline has been. This tracking covers a little over a decade and corresponds with one of the longest periods of tepid growth in Canadian and American economic history. What Tyler Cowan called the ‘Age of the Great Stagnation’ is working in depressing lockstep in Canada and the United States. And while the U.S. is more advanced on the inequality curve, both economies are seeing a much larger share of a much smaller pie go to a very small portion of the über-wealthy. 

    Graves' numbers indicate that Canadians are deeply concerned about something that Mr. Harper cares nothing about -- income inequality:

    This has made the issue of income inequality a pinnacle political concern for the Canadian public. This isn’t about the perennial divide between rich and poor — this is a political split between those at the very top of the pyramid and everyone else.

    It is an odd, slow-building sort of crisis. Labour market confidence is stronger than it was in the 1990s and most citizens are still faring pretty well. But the trendlines are disturbing and describe deepening public pessimism: Only around 10 per cent of Canadians and Americans think the next generation will enjoy a better quality of life. Once we disentangle the issue of intergenerational mobility by generational cohort, we see that this gloomy long-term outlook may be unfolding now.

    What  this means, writes Graves, is that now is "a dismal time to be young." It didn't used to be that way:

    Seniors born before the end of the Second World War inherited a much more prosperous life than their fathers (over three-to-one upward mobility). The swollen baby boom cohort enjoyed a similar, if much less dramatic, pattern of upward mobility, with a plurality of 40 to 34 moving up versus down.

    Young Canadians live in a country which has ditched the concept of social mobility:

    Now consider the plight of generations X and Y. They’re considerably less likely to be moving upward compared to their fathers and the incidence of upward mobility is literally three times lower than for the oldest senior cohort. This result for the millennial cohort is not conclusive — there are a lot of students in the mix, they belong to generations that enter the workforce relatively later — so it’s early days yet in terms of nailing down what all of this means.

    But here’s what we can say: Vertical intergenerational mobility seems to be collapsing for young Canada (and in the U.S., we suspect). It looks an awful lot like the flattening and reversal of progress may already be well underway.

    In the end, Stephen Harper has built a gerontocracy. John Kenneth Galbraith wrote that his adopted country rewards senility. Canada now apes its southern neighbour.


    Saturday, January 04, 2014

    Thatcher's Ugly Children

    The longer a leader stays, the more his or her party takes on the leader's personality. That's certainly the case with Stephen Harper's Conservatives. Andrew Coyne writes that, whatever good news the Conservatives may have to deliver, it gets drowned out by their in your face ugliness:

    How could a government presiding over such a strong economy be so unpopular? It is unusual enough for a governing party to fall, and stay, below 30% in the polls. But to do so in good times? Unheard of. And while governments sometimes are obliged to take a hit early in their tenure, traditionally the time for taking tough decisions, it is hard to think of what the Conservatives might have done on the policy front to make them so unpopular.

    It seems, rather, to be almost entirely to do with their no-prisoners approach to politics. The criticisms on this front are well known; the point is it is wholly self-inflicted. The Conservatives are in such odium neither by bad luck (as governing in bad times usually amounts to) nor necessity, but by choice. They aren’t an especially bad government. Arguably they’re more competent than most. But they seem almost to have gone out of their way to alienate people.

    For it is patently obvious that the party -- like its leader -- doesn't like people. They don't know how to talk to people. They can scold; they can scream; they can deliver snide asides. But they can't carry on a conversation.

    That's why the scandals won't go away. Mr. Harper, try as hard as he may, can't put them to bed:

    The RCMP will continue to investigate the Senate mess, with charges likely (though possibly not before election day). At some point, too, the Auditor General will report the findings of his examination of senators’ expenses — the same senators who so lately sat in judgement of three of their fellows for abusing theirs.

    On another front, later this spring the trial of Michael Sona, the only person to be charged to date in the robocalls affair, gets under way. His lawyer has suggested Mr. Sona is being made to take the blame for a much larger plot. Whether that is true or not, the Conservatives’ handling of the whole matter has been so strange that its return to the headlines can hardly be a welcome development.

    A party which was in the least way reflective might consider changing leaders. But the Conservatives are -- in Charlie Angus' apt epithet -- "Thatcher's ugly children." And, so, they will live and die with the ugliest of their brood.

    Friday, January 03, 2014

    The Trust Deficit

    Frank Graves' latest poll confirms the conventional wisdom:  Canadians are losing trust in their democratic institutions. Trust in Canadian democracy has been on the wane for thirty years; but it has continued to decline during Stephen Harper's time in office:

    So while the Harper government is by no means responsible for the poor democratic health of the country, it certainly hasn’t managed to slow the trend — let alone reverse it. The rating of Canada’s democratic health has been on a straight line downward and is now at a historical nadir. Other polling from 2013 suggests that the public considers both the Senate spending scandal (the cover-up, rather than the initial infractions) and the vote suppression ‘robocall’ scandal to be more serious than the ad sponsorship scandal which crippled the Liberal Party of Canada. 

    The man who roared into Ottawa vowing to put an end to Liberals corruption is now seen by most Canadians to be more corrupt than the Liberals -- with the exception, of course, of his own supporters:

    The only striking division is across partisan boundaries. Nearly two-thirds of the remaining Conservative base rates democracy as ‘healthy’; across all other parts of the political spectrum, the average ‘healthy’ rating of healthy is around 15 per cent.

    Graves, however, says that there is good news. There is strong support for Michael Chong's democratic reform package -- and for the idea of mandatory voting:

    Although it includes other measures, the most notable would give sitting MPs the power to replace a leader who has lost their confidence. The idea enjoys broad public support — particularly with men and the university-educated. The only group which doesn’t express clear support for Chong’s plan is Conservative supporters — and even with them the proposal produces a pretty even split.

    As for mandatory voting, "although it’s a little more controversial than Chong’s bill, the idea of compelling all citizens to vote is supported by a clear majority and opposed by roughly one-third."

    Australia has instituted mandatory voting, and the idea seems to work well:

    Voter turnout in Australia is around 90 per cent; those Australians who fail to vote face fines, not jail time, and the measure enjoys the support of around 80 per cent of the country. Mandatory voting doesn’t seem to favour any particular party in the long run — and may have the added benefit of forcing parties to craft platforms and campaigns that address the needs and aspirations of all voters, rather than just narrowcasting to eke out a majority (a strategy ably described by Susan Delacourt in her recent book).

    I suspect Harper and his acolytes will claim that mandatory voting is an assault on personal freedom. But the real threat to the Conservatives -- or any other party -- would be that no party could form a majority government with the support of 25% of this country's citizens.

    So, in the end, there are two rays of hope amid the gloom.

    Thursday, January 02, 2014

    Fiscal Fever

    Earlier this week, Paul Krugman wrote that -- in the United States, at least -- the fiscal fever has broken:

    So the good news is that this fever, unlike the fever of the Tea Party, has finally broken.

    True, the fiscal scolds are still out there, and still getting worshipful treatment from some news organizations. As the Columbia Journalism Review recently noted, many reporters retain the habit of “treating deficit-cutting as a non-ideological objective while portraying other points of view as partisan or political.” But the scolds are no longer able to define the bounds of respectable opinion.

    In Canada, unfortunately, the scolds are still in power. All that matters is the deficit. Scott Clark and Peter Devries review Canada's recent economic performance:

    The year 2013 has not been a good year for economic growth and job creation in Canada. In fact the economy has not been doing well for some time. We’ve been in a growth decline since 2010 and job creation has been dismal since then. In 2009, real GDP declined by 2.9 per cent and then bounced back in 2010 to 3.3 per cent. Since then, growth has been slowing: to 2.4 per cent in 2011; to 1.7 per cent in 2012; and to a forecast rate of around 1.6 per cent in 2013.

    At the G8 summit in 2010, Stephen Harper pushed hard for a global dose of austerity, siding with Carmen Rinehart and Kenneth Rogoff, who claimed that government debt has severe negative effects on growth when it exceeds 90 percent of G.D.P.  Krugrman writes:

    From the beginning, many economists expressed skepticism about this claim. In particular, it seemed immediately obvious that slow growth often causes high debt, not the other way around — as has surely been the case, for example, in both Japan and Italy. But in political circles the 90 percent claim nonetheless became gospel.

    Then Thomas Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, reworked the data, and found that the apparent cliff at 90 percent disappeared once you corrected a minor error and added a few more data points. 

    That news never penetrated the Conservative bunker. Harper and Flaherty are focused on the deficit -- employment be damned:

    In February 2008, the unemployment rate hit a low of 5.9 per cent. In November 2013 it was 6.9 per cent. In February 2008, the labour force participation rate hit a high of 67.8 per cent; in November 2013, it had fallen to 66.5 per cent, clearly indicating that many Canadians had simply withdrawn from the the job market because of a lack of opportunities. It also means that the ‘real’ unemployment rate, which includes discouraged workers, is much higher than 6.9 per cent.

    In February 2008, the ratio of working Canadians aged 15 and over to the population aged 15 and over (referred to as the employment rate) reached a high of 63.8 per cent; by November 2013, it had fallen to 61.7 per cent. In other words, the economy is just not growing fast enough to create enough jobs for a growing working-age population. The youth unemployment rate remains stubbornly and unacceptably high.

    Austerity -- Mr. Harper's prescription for world economic health -- has been a disaster. The rest of the world has come to that conclusion. But, in Canada, the fever still rages.