Author Archives: Nancy Leblanc

Annals of ruining political parties via donation reforms

This news out of the UK this week seems familiar for Canadian observers: “Labour could be ruined by proposed cap on political donations.” Limits on political party donations are being looked at in Britain at the moment and Labour would suffer the most if a cap were to be brought in to the system:

Labour could face financial ruin under plans being developed to cap the biggest donations to political parties, a Guardian analysis shows.

The independent standards watchdog is said to have agreed to recommend a new limit on donations, introducing an annual cap with figures ranging from £50,000 to £10,000 being considered. Such a move, in an attempt to clean up political funding, would end the six- and seven-figure donations to the Labour party from its union sponsors, as well as the Tories’ reliance on the richest city financiers.

An analysis of five and a half years’ worth of donations to the parties reveals the move would most dramatically affect Labour’s funding base. If the £50,000 limit had been in place over the period, Labour’s donations would have been reduced by 72%, the Conservatives’ by 37% and the Liberal Democrats’ by 25%.

A source close to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which has been reviewing the party funding system and is due to report in October, said it was trying to find a way to impose a cap without bankrupting any one party.

Now that’s good of them to try to avoid “bankrupting” any one party! The Brits are so civilized. No such considerations in play in Canada where our Conservatives have begun to dismantle our public subsidies of political parties and which could have grave financial consequences for the other parties.

There is a minority government situation in place in the UK though and the Lib Dems are saying no dice to such a change that would bring severe consequences for one party:

A Liberal Democrat spokesman insisted that the coalition would not impose a deal on the parties. “The history of party funding reform is littered with corpses. You have to do it in consultation with the other parties,” the spokesman said.

Yes, ideally. It detracts from the self-interested partisan taint of going it alone, particularly when certain parties’ interests are placed above others.

A publicly funded system is being considered as well although with Britain’s hyped up austerity mood, it’s not clear that a public system could be sold or that the Tories would want any part in selling it. The argument could well be made, however, that at such times it’s even more imperative to have a system free from moneyed influences.

Something to watch, to see what they come up with for comparison’s sake and for possible future reform in Canada in particular (the Harper Conservatives won’t be in government forever). Presumably it will not proceed with the result being forecast, with Labour taking the brunt of the reform’s fallout given the Lib Dem pledge. But we do know that irrespective of how integral many of us view viable political parties to our democratic health, that sentiment doesn’t necessarily prevail when matched up against partisan opportunism.

Carbon taxes may be the new debt reducers

There was an op-ed in Canada’s Globe & Mail last week by Todd Hirsch, a Calgary-based senior economist at a financial firm out there: “Debt is the new carbon.” His premise was essentially as his title states, that climate change, despite a lack of action to date, will fall off governmental agendas to be replaced by a focus on debt reduction. Hmmm. Except he missed the point that the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

The New York Times editorialized recently about revenue sources that will indeed need to be confronted in what is likely to be a difficult political debate. A carbon tax is staring Americans in the face as an opportunity:

Congress should consider raising revenues in other ways, like a value-added tax, or carbon taxes. That way all of the needed revenue for deficit reduction, and for what government provides, does not need to be squeezed from the income tax. A value-added tax is conducive to saving, and a carbon tax helps protect the environment.

Joe Romm at Climate Progress also set out the case for a carbon tax’s possible introduction in the U.S. as part of a future debt ceiling deal after an Obama re-election (which he puts at 50-50). He cited this point from a Climate Wire piece in his blog item:

“A carbon tax could be an appealing alternative to even more ambitious cuts to entitlements and defense spending as well as a national value-added tax, repealing the home mortgage tax deduction, or higher income taxes,” [economist Joe] Aldy said in an email. “A well-designed carbon tax could raise some revenues to finance deficit reduction and enable a reduction in payroll tax rates, for example.”

In Canada, Professor Harrison of UBC recently made the argument as well:

…carbon taxes offer some near-term economic, and thus political, advantages that may have been underestimated.

In particular, carbon taxes bring in government revenues that can be deployed for various purposes: investing in clean-energy infrastructure and (politically popular) job creation; stimulating the economy by cutting other, less efficient, taxes; and reducing government deficits at a time when traditional revenue sources are not delivering. The last of these probably accounts for the “public benefit surcharges” on electricity that some two-dozen U.S. states have quietly adopted in recent years. It has arguably also contributed to the survival of the B.C. carbon tax (and several long-established European carbon taxes), the revenues from which are essential to avoiding increases in other taxes.

So, it doesn’t seem to be as simple as Hirsch made it out to be in his Globe op-ed where he concluded “Sorry, carbon, you’ve been replaced” as a focus of governments in favour of debt reduction. Carbon and debt reduction could go hand in hand.

Two sides of the Obama coin

There was a great read in the New York Times last Sunday on Barack Obama’s presidency given the debt ceiling events of the preceding week, “What Happened to Obama?” It was a piece by Drew Westen, professor and author of the acclaimed book “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.” The central point in the op-ed was the importance of storytelling in politics and how Obama, surprisingly, has failed in that regard.

When Barack Obama rose to the lectern on Inauguration Day, the nation was in tatters. Americans were scared and angry. The economy was spinning in reverse. Three-quarters of a million people lost their jobs that month. Many had lost their homes, and with them the only nest eggs they had. Even the usually impervious upper middle class had seen a decade of stagnant or declining investment, with the stock market dropping in value with no end in sight. Hope was as scarce as credit.

In that context, Americans needed their president to tell them a story that made sense of what they had just been through, what caused it, and how it was going to end. They needed to hear that he understood what they were feeling, that he would track down those responsible for their pain and suffering, and that he would restore order and safety. What they were waiting for, in broad strokes, was a story something like this:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.” A story isn’t a policy. But that simple narrative — and the policies that would naturally have flowed from it — would have inoculated against much of what was to come in the intervening two and a half years of failed government, idled factories and idled hands. That story would have made clear that the president understood that the American people had given Democrats the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress to fix the mess the Republicans and Wall Street had made of the country, and that this would not be a power-sharing arrangement. It would have made clear that the problem wasn’t tax-and-spend liberalism or the deficit — a deficit that didn’t exist until George W. Bush gave nearly $2 trillion in tax breaks largely to the wealthiest Americans and squandered $1 trillion in two wars.

And perhaps most important, it would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative of the right, that our problem is not due to spending on things like the pensions of firefighters, but to the fact that those who can afford to buy influence are rewriting the rules so they can cut themselves progressively larger slices of the American pie while paying less of their fair share for it.

But there was no story — and there has been none since.

The main point was the pitfall of not having a narrative, raising doubts about what you stand for and leaving yourself exposed to others who do have a story to tell. Additionally, there was some highly critical analysis of Obama’s character and background that jumped out as well, suggesting that he is perhaps incapable of meeting the moment, of meeting the challenge of these Republicans who are seemingly incapable of compromise. It was a very critical column but also one that really offered a rude awakening/opportunity to the White House.

As a Canadian political observer, I found the Westen piece interesting. On the liberal side of the political spectrum up north, we too could use some good storytelling and storytellers, for that matter, too. Let’s just say we’re in a bit of a deficit situation on that score at the moment and looking to dig our way out. In fact, three of the opposition parties are in interim leadership situations. Leaving our political narrative a little too tilted in a conservative direction at the moment and in need of a strong counter (our new Conservative majority government obtained just 39.62% of the vote in the May 2011 federal election yet still managed to obtain a majority of seats).

Not everyone agreed with Westen’s take on Obama’s failed narrative and the critique that it embodied. Speaking to the other side of the Obama coin was Andrew Sullivan who offered up one of his blog items “Who is Washington’s Most Effective Politician?” as a counter to Westen’s attention getting op-ed.

I think Obama is easily the winner and currently stupidly under-rated – and drowned out by all the noise in the conservative-media-industrial-complex.

Here are the political accomplishments: defeating the most heavily favored party machine in decades (the Clintons) while actually bringing his biggest rival into his cabinet, where she has performed extraordinarily well; helping to cement the GOP’s broad identity as extremists opposed to compromise; entrenching black and Hispanic loyalty to his party; retaining solid favorables and not-too-shabby approval ratings during the worst recession since the 1930s. 44 percent of the country still (rightly) blame Bush for this mess, only 15 percent blame Obama.

On policy: ending the US torture regime; prevention of a second Great Depression; enacting universal healthcare; taking the first serious steps toward reining in healthcare costs; two new female Supreme Court Justices; ending the gay ban in the military; ending the Iraq war; justifying his Afghan Surge by killing bin Laden and now disentangling with face saved; firming up alliances with India, Indonesia and Japan as counter-weights to China; bailing out the banks and auto companies without massive losses (and surging GM profits); advancing (slowly) balanced debt reduction without drastic cuts during the recession; and financial re-regulation.

Yes, there have been failures. The election of Scott Brown; the 2010 mid-terms; the surrender to Netanyahu and AIPAC; the botched and ill-conceived war in Libya; the failure to embrace Bowles Simpson up-front; the collapse of cap and trade (maybe not such a bad thing anyway). But notice what hasn’t happened. Where are all the scandals promised by Michelle Malkin? Where are his Katrinas and Monicas?

When I read commentaries expounding on the notion that this man is competely out of his depth, I just have to scratch my head. Given his inheritance, this has been the most substantive first term since Ronald Reagan’s. And given Obama’s long-game mentality, that is setting us up for a hell of a second one.

Now if only the guy can convince his nation that he is a winner…

What happens when august institutions are disrespected

(Source, click to enlarge. Story background.)

It breeds disrespect. That reference in the blog post title is to Mr. Harper’s government and the actions it has taken which have bred that disrespect for one of the most esteemed institutions in Canada. The seat of our government has seen tremendous disrespect under his leadership. Not caring that one of your ministers inserts a “not” after a document had been signed by others, for example. Not respecting members of parliament who ask the government for the most basic of financial information supporting billions in purchases the government seeks to make. Making light of an historic contempt verdict. To cite the more egregious examples of recent memory and not even needing to go near the famous incidents of prorogation.

Breed disrespect, reap protest.

Some say the Throne Speech’s reading in the Senate was not the place, tut tut. The easy group think response rears its head right from the get go. It allows you to give a nod to the sentiment of protest but just say, well, maybe it should have been somewhere else. Essentially agreeing with the protest then, which is the most important aspect. But if it had been somewhere else, it wouldn’t have achieved a fraction of the impact.

Friday’s incident may be a harbinger of things to come under the Harper majority. Creative protest in forms unseen to date. Brigitte DePape, the protesting page, felt strongly about the Harper agenda for Canada. There are many, many more just like her and she certainly sent her message during Friday’s Throne Speech.

The first Liberal interim leadership candidate

It’s Marc Garneau. Just a quick post here on yesterday’s news out of Ottawa that the Liberal party has its first post-Ignatieff candidate for the party leadership, at least for the interim job, anyway.

Garneau was Canada’s first person in space, travelling three times on American space shuttle missions. Garneau was a “payload” specialist with expertise in operating the Canadarm of the shuttle, its famous Canadian content. Post space ventures, he became President of the Canada Space Agency. A scientist, engineer, military officer, it’s quite an impressive background and definitely would be a contrast to other party leaders in Ottawa.

In the past year, he distinguished himself on the F-35 purchase issue (see video here, for example, where he really seemed to be enjoying himself in the political sparring) and in challenging the Conservative decision to axe Canada’s long form census. Both issues were in his wheelhouse, given his background, and he seemed to mature politically due to his involvement in those issues. He’s only been in Parliament since 2008.

He also has a sleeper likability about him as well. Unassuming and solid are two other adjectives I’d use. And see his twitter feed for more of the personality aspect. That May 9th tweet suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

Interesting that news of his bid came one day after the caucus first met to begin discussions on the interim leadership, among other things. This Canadian Press report indicates the caucus has still not accepted the national executive’s conditions for the person seeking the interim leadership. Meaning he threw his bid out there before the question of whether the interim leader can become permanent leader is resolved (at least, that question is unresolved to the public eye). That’s interesting and it may say something about a selflessness he brings, or, he just doesn’t have any ambition for the permanent slot at all.

There still may be other interim leadership candidates to come, but that’s a brief initial take on Garneau’s bid.

 

The Attention Deficit Society

If you have the time this weekend, there is a very worthwhile video at the Milken Institute site from a conference held this week. The session linked to was titled, “The Attention Deficit Society: What Technology Is Doing to Our Brains,” where four expert speakers addressed this subject matter:

Put down the iPad and pay attention: Technology may be rewiring your brain. Scientists say our ability to focus is being undermined by Twitter feeds, smartphones and other digital distractions. Many experts believe excessive use of technology can make users more impatient, impulsive, forgetful and even narcissistic. It may reduce the ability to process information and think deeply and creatively. Distracted drivers have become a menace on the roads. Even worse, tech-obsessed parents spend less quality time with their children, causing not only hurt feelings but potentially stunting a child’s vocabulary and development. At the same time, studies show Internet users are more efficient at finding information, and gamers develop better visual acuity. Is the technology that was intended to make us more productive actually dumbing us down? Is its use in the classroom counterproductive? How does it change our culture and society in general?

That our brains are adapting to the constant use of technology is the contention of the first panellist, Nicholas Carr. Doesn’t sound like rocket science when you put it that way, it sounds like common sense but I’m not sure how much time people actually spend thinking about how they are using their own technology – smart phones, iPads, iPods – and how it is really changing their lives and their own capacities. It is very intriguing to hear the entire panel speak about the issues set out above. One of the other professors on the panel is presently living in the dorm rooms at Stanford to observe the way students are using technology. The MIT professor is fascinating.

If you have time for it, even part of it, it’s a good one. Our politics are affected by the way people are living with, using new technologies and getting changed by them. Anyone interested in crafting policies and messages going forward might be interested in giving it a look.

(h/t)

Mercer on “The Harper Government”

 

Rick Mercer hits another one out of the park. For those American readers who are unfamiliar with Mercer, think Jon Stewart but Canadianized. Our leading comedian who hits on political issues and who will, clearly, speak truth to power.

For more on the insanity going on in Canada at the moment, with respect to Mr. Harper’s directive that the Government of Canada be referred to in official government communications as the “Harper Government,” see this recent Canadian Press report.

Lakoff, Krugman on Wisconsin

Worth a read today in its entirety, here is the beginning of Lakoff’s weekend piece on Conservatives and what is at stake in the Wisconsin conflict:

–Dedicated to the peaceful protestors in Wisconsin, February 19, 2011.

The central issue in our political life is not being discussed. At stake is the moral basis of American democracy.

The individual issues are all too real: assaults on unions, public employees, women’s rights, immigrants, the environment, health care, voting rights, food safety, pensions, prenatal care, science, public broadcasting, and on and on.

Budget deficits are a ruse, as we’ve seen in Wisconsin, where the governor turned a surplus into a deficit by providing corporate tax breaks, and then used the deficit as a ploy to break the unions, not just in Wisconsin, but seeking to be the first domino in a nationwide conservative movement.

Deficits can be addressed by raising revenue, plugging tax loopholes, putting people to work, and developing the economy long-term in all the ways the president has discussed. But deficits are not what really matters to conservatives.

Conservatives really want to change the basis of American life, to make America run according to the conservative moral worldview in all areas of life.

Paul Krugman wrote on Monday about the power play that is at work in Wisconsin in trying to bust the unions:

In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. Billionaires can field armies of lobbyists; they can finance think tanks that put the desired spin on policy issues; they can funnel cash to politicians with sympathetic views (as the Koch brothers did in the case of Mr. Walker). On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate.

Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.

You don’t have to love unions, you don’t have to believe that their policy positions are always right, to recognize that they’re among the few influential players in our political system representing the interests of middle- and working-class Americans, as opposed to the wealthy. Indeed, if America has become more oligarchic and less democratic over the last 30 years — which it has — that’s to an important extent due to the decline of private-sector unions.

And now Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to get rid of public-sector unions, too.

There’s a bitter irony here. The fiscal crisis in Wisconsin, as in other states, was largely caused by the increasing power of America’s oligarchy. After all, it was superwealthy players, not the general public, who pushed for financial deregulation and thereby set the stage for the economic crisis of 2008-9, a crisis whose aftermath is the main reason for the current budget crunch. And now the political right is trying to exploit that very crisis, using it to remove one of the few remaining checks on oligarchic influence.

So will the attack on unions succeed? I don’t know. But anyone who cares about retaining government of the people by the people should hope that it doesn’t.

For more background on this conflict, see Ezra Klein on the budget impact of the Governor’s tax cuts and this piece on the billionaire Koch brothers backing the Governor’s anti-union moves.

This is clearly an epic political battle playing out in Wisconsin with national implications for the U.S. Similarly, the conflict may prove instructive for Canada, also facing a very large budget deficit and presently led by a very right wing federal leader who likely sees similar opportunities to exploit as the nation will have to start grappling with that deficit in coming years.

Canada’s cybersecurity under attack

The above picture captures Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews during a sleepy Sunday afternoon cybersecurity public relations event held back on October 3, 2010. That Sunday afternoon event marked the official announcement of Canada’s cybersecurity strategy. It has turned out to be a rather unfortunate photo-op at the present moment. Canada was hit with major news this past week (that has actually been bubbling for a few weeks now) about a cyberattack against our government systems of Chinese origin. See, for example: “Foreign hackers attack Canadian government,”Chinese hackers targeted House of Commons.”

The talking points were deployed to downplay the attack, as if little of consequence had happened. Prime Minister Harper and Toews spoke on Thursday about the matter, Harper in what seem to be newly perfected dulcet tones that characterize his manner in recent months:

But he said at a press conference in Toronto that he recognized cybersecurity was “a growing issue of importance, not just in this country, but across the world.”

He added that in anticipating potential cyberattacks, “we have a strategy in place to try and evolve our systems as those who would attack them become more sophisticated.”

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said he could not speak about details pertaining to security-related incidents, but he said the government takes such threats seriously and has “measures in place” to address them.

Lulling Canadians to sleep, as they so expertly do. It’s as if nothing, really, bothers these guys. Cyberattacks are everywhere, not just in Canada. What’s more, they explained, a government strategy is in place, the October launched strategy. The Harper government strategy is so successful, in fact, that the computers of Treasury Board, Finance and National Defence have been attacked over the past few weeks and the hackers “also cracked into the computer system of the House of Commons.” The severity of the breach is canvassed in the video report from CBC below, which reports the hackers “trolled government networks for weeks without a trace” for example. See also this expert: “…even in just a few seconds, if it was properly targeted — and it sounds like it was targeted — information of immense value could have been exchanged.” It’s a heck of a strategy that’s in place.

Canadians have been told there will be no effect on the upcoming budget, presently thought to be forthcoming on March 22 or March 29, a budget which will be a confidence vote and could see the defeat of the government, provoking a spring election. How the government is able to assure us, however, that no information pertinent to the budget has been lost is unclear. A security expert cited in the New York Times reporting on the breach was not convinced. We can imagine the fallout if the day after the budget were to be released any suspicious market moves were to occur. That’s a matter of speculation at the moment, given the uncertainty surrounding the hacking and the inability to get definitive information, but it’s something for rational observers to consider. How the government acts now in respect of the budget is something to watch. Indeed, on Friday, the Prime Minister engaged in sudden budget consultations with the leader of the fourth largest party in Parliament, the New Democratic Party. Whether this attack has factored into that consultation to any extent is anyone’s guess, given that there are other major controversies facing the Conservative government at the moment that may just as likely motivate them to stave off an election (they need only the support of one of the three opposition parties in order to survive a confidence vote).

Other points of interest surrounding Canada’s efforts on cybersecurity and this recent attack…

A paltry $90 million has been allocated by the Harper government over a period of five years to the task of cybersecurity. Those funds were allotted in the 2010 budget after their having been in office for four years and represent less than one year’s worth of promotional advertising for the Harper government.

It’s worth wondering what’s been done prior to and since Toews’ hastily arranged Sunday October news conference. Inquiring minds would like to know. Much of anything? It certainly served a useful purpose this week for the government and media to point to the event as an indication of the existence of a government cyberstrategy.

Canada’s Conservative government likes to characterize itself as tough on crime. They budget lots of money to build brick and mortar jails, billions in fact. But the above referenced cyberattack that has come to light fully in the past week, as they say in the online community, looks to be a big fail.

CBC video: