Give everyone money

Following a successful petition initiative, Switzerland is set to be the first Western nation to vote on whether to implement a basic income program.

The idea has various names: Basic Income, Negative Income Tax, or Guaranteed Annual Income, which have the same basic premise of giving everyone money. Rather than rely on complex welfare or unemployment systems that require the un(der)-employed to jump through various hoops in order to collect benefits, the state simply provides a cheque every month to top people’s income up to a living wage, regardless of how much work is done.

Perhaps most interesting was that this policy was actually tested experimentally in Manitoba, Canada during the Liberal 1970s. The Mincome Program ran for five years and measured a number of social outcomes. Unfortunately, when the Liberal government fell in 1979, the following Progressive Conservative government shut down the experiment and locked away the results were locked away for 30 years until researchers managed to gain access.

Their findings were quite impressive.

Continue reading Give everyone money

Brian Topp stakes out his ground

Stephen Harper and his cronies must be happy today. With Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the Conservative war room had to argue against a carbon tax and quote mine extensively to find a suggestion that a tax hike wasn’t off the table.

Now, NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp comes right out with out:

Brian Topp is boldly going where most Canadian politicians fear to tread: promising to make the wealthy pay more in taxes.

The perceived frontrunner in the NDP leadership race wants his party to make higher income taxes for high-income earners a key plank in its next election campaign platform.

He told The Canadian Press he intends to unveil a detailed proposal in the weeks to come.

"I will be talking about income taxes and I think it’s time for our party to step up to that plate and to be pretty clear about that because then we’ll have a mandate to act if we’re elected," Topp said in a wide-ranging interview.

He also called for a hike in corporate taxes and did not rule out a sales tax increase "at some point," once the fragile economy is on surer footing.

I like it though.

With the Occupy protests and growing awareness to the increasing inequality worldwide, calling for a fair tax system is long overdue.

Where Ignatieff went wrong was when he caved to the Conservative attacks. They attacked him for taxes, he fell beck. They attacked on coalitions and cooperation, he fell back.

I see Topp standing up to the attack ads and saying, “Yes, I will raise taxes for the wealthy so that this country can be great.” It will paint a stark picture of the different visions that the NDP and Conservatives have for the country.

One with cradle-to-grave health care and peacekeeping; the other with austerity and peacemaking.

My personal preference is for the underdogs, but so far, Topp is painting a pretty promising picture.

It’s not all flowers though. Topp does go out and suggests that NDP MPs should toe the line and oppose the gun registry

"The fact of the matter is, the money has been spent, the registry is here, police services are using it, the public overwhelmingly supports it, there’s no compelling case for dismantling it that isn’t emotional," he said.

"There is precedent in our party for letting people sit out a vote. But I could not support arrangements in which members of our caucus vote with the government on this bill."

He may be right, but the evidence of its efficacy is limited at best.

He’s likely going to alienate a few voters in the prairies, which will threaten his chance at expanding where most of the new seats are going. Blowing off the prairie voters like this could have long-term consequences.

I do not mourn for Steve Jobs

Back in early August, I recall reading a comparison between the NDP and Apple.

At the time both leaders were still alive, but had each taken a leave of absence for health reasons.

When Jack Layton left, it was unclear who could fill his shoes. When he became leader in 2003, the party appeared lost and was written off by nearly all media pundits. Through a combination of tireless work and personal charisma, Layton built the party up both internally and in the minds of the electorate. With each successive election, he increased the party’s seat count, and increased the NDP’s vote in every region. In 2008, the NDP could truly claim to be a national party, winning seats in Alberta and Quebec. Finally, after cancer and a hip injury early this year, his determination paid off with a record-breaking performance in the election. He turned the Parliament’s conscience into the Official Opposition and government-in-waiting.

Similarly, Steve Jobs returned to the company he founded in 1997 when as it drifted into oblivion. Microsoft was dominating the computer market and there seemed little space for Apple. Yet through his vision and dedication, Jobs brought Apple back. He introduced style to the personal computer and marketed the company aggressively to urban artists. While Apple didn’t invent the portably mp3 player, the iPod made it cool. Very quickly iPod became synonymous with mp3 player. The iPhone revolutionized the smartphone industry and recently the iPad made the tablet mainstream.

Both of these men were able to tap into the public consciousness to make their brands cool. And now cancer has taken the lives of both of these men.

Yet there is a stark contrast between their legacies.

I mourned the loss of Jack Layton, while I feel little about the loss of Jobs. A part of this difference has to do with my personal connection to each brand.

I have voted for the federal NDP consistently since turning 18 and in 2008 spent many afternoons knocking on doors in Edmonton-Strathcona to help elect Linda Duncan. I have seen Jack speak a couple times and met him in 2008 at a nomination meeting. I saw his commitment to bringing diversity and social justice to the House of Commons.

Conversely, I can honestly say that I have never owned an Apple product. I find iTunes to be an inconvenient and bulky software and have never been a fan of Apple’s proprietary hardware. I have built most of the desktop computers I have used, which allowed me to keep costs low while getting exactly the performance I want. This meant I was always tied to PCs, whether Windows or Linux. Apple products felt like you spent more just to get the logo. To me they are the Nike of computers.

But there is more to this difference than my subjective attachment to each brand.

To put it crassly: One dedicated himself to a life of public service, seeking to make life better for the people of Toronto first, and then Canada; the other made billions of dollars by making products that he convinced people they needed.

Now, it is not my intention to slander the legacy of Steve Jobs. Hence why I delayed posting this until after the long weekend. I really don’t want to come off as Christie Blatchford, who, mere hours after his death, rhetorically danced on his grave over the public mourning that followed.

Jobs was a visionary; however, it feels shallow to celebrate the corporate icon as anything more than he was.

One of my friend’s pointed out on Facebook how we ought to instead remember the exploited sweatshop workers who make Apple products and are often driven to commit suicide. Another friend questioned why we don’t mourn for the heroic Arab Spring protesters, murdered by tyrannical regimes. The sad fact of my generation is that too many of my peers identify with brands and logos rather than fellow human beings. The irony is that people are not mourning Steve Jobs the man, they are mourning his brand.

A similar criticism could be levelled against the outpouring of grief after the loss of Jack Layton. But where Layton’s death left us with a progressive message of hope, Jobs death leaves us with cheap gadgets.

The idea of a brand is morally neutral. It is a device that can be used for good or bad, progress or profit. Brands, as Naomi Klein argues in No Logo, are much more effective than products. She notes in the 10th anniversary edition how politics has absorbed the branding ideals, turning politicians into brands – notably Barack Obama, but arguably Jack Layton. The problem with this transformation is that brands tend to be shallow. They are substitute emotions. Layton and Obama became substitutes for hope in politics, while Jobs became a substitute for being hip and cool.

And this is where I think the two legacies diverge.

I believe there was more to Layton than his brand. While he would compromise with other politicians, it was always to advance a progressive project of his own. His support for Paul Martin’s budget brought in several NDP projects, and his support for a coalition in 2008 was dependent on a progressive alternative to the Harper Conservatives. Even with Stephen Harper, Layton would offer conditional support when it could bring better support for seniors or the unemployed.

Further, Layton’s positive brand inspired a positive legacy that succeeds his life. His death echoes Obi-Wan Kenobi’s final statement that “In death I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Tragic though it remains, Jobs’ death leave us with no similar inspiration.

I want to add one additional note that doesn’t really fit in the above discussion. The extra tragedy of Jobs’ death is how preventable* it was. Had he employed modern medicine, rather than succumbing to modern snake-oil salesmen, he would still be alive today. It is unfortunate that this story is not receiving the attention it needs to. Alternative medicine kills.

*Modern science would likely only have bought him an extra 10 years, but death can only ever be delayed.

Wrong, wrong, so very wrong

Apparently people respect Vito Tanzi. At least, that’s what an article in the Globe and Mail tells me, and their journalists must be impartial right?

Tanzi apparently believes that because government spending has dropped as a fraction of the GDP in Canada and Sweden over the past 20 years that it will continue to drop into the future. I guess two data points does make a linear trend. Neil Reynolds, the author of the article, compares the levels that we’re spending with those of the 1920s and the 1700 and 1800s, and seems to argue that we should go back to such spending.

That’s right.

Continue reading Wrong, wrong, so very wrong

The Fraser Institute: “It’s crap”

This quote really made my day.

"Even when I could say, yes, this is great, this is validation of what we’re saying, it’s, it’s crap," he said. "I’m sorry, are ministers not supposed to say that?"

The quote comes from Nova Scotia NDP Finance Minister Graham Steele when asked to comment on his province’s third place ranking in the Fraser Institute’s timely report that ranked provincial premier’s according to some voodoo math that assessed their “fiscal management.”

Nothing like calling a spade a spade.

The sad part is the response by the Vice-President of the Fraser Institute, who says without a trace of irony:

Our work is based on transparent measurement of policy.

The irony comes from the fact we have no clue who funds the Fraser Institute.

Why I’m voting YES for NO HST

So the referendum is technically on for the BC HST; however, with the postal strike, it’s hard to know when I’ll actually get my ballot. Nevertheless, when my ballot does come, I will be voting yes to extinguish the HST.

Of course, it’s not a simple issue. The HST is a simpler tax for businesses and requires only one set of paperwork to fill out. I normally wouldn’t care about arguments from business (since they tend to be trite and only further the privileged), but I can imagine that this extra bureaucracy negatively affects the small, local business owner more so than the (multi)national corporation who just pockets a bit more at the end of the year.

I also support a consumption tax from an environmental point of view as a means to curtail excess and reduce waste. Of course, this is made null by Premier Clark’s promise to eventually lower the HST to 10%, hence the 12% PST+GST option is a better deterrent. Further, the PST option retains the ability to target specifically bad (or good) items with extra taxes or exemptions. This was the case with the luxury car tax and restaurant exemptions under the old scheme. Ideally the federal government would agree to pass legislation for anything we wanted exempted provincially, but perhaps I’m just cynical.

Selfishly, I also like that as a poor student I get a larger HST rebate than under the old system.

Then there’s the “stick-it-to-the-man” argument, which is fairly irrational, but is an effective way to demonstrate that decisions cannot be made by executive fiat as Gordon Campbell did. One could argue that the successful petition drive, Campbell’s resignation, and Clark’s long-term promise to reduce the tax demonstrated that the government heard and cares what the people said; however, by voting in favour now, it somewhat forgives and forgets the original misgiving. I’m not convinced that the government has actually listened, and recent actions seem to suggest more unilateral action. This referendum represents a chance to actually reverse government policy.

So in summary, my main reason for choosing the “Yes” side to the exceptionally poorly-worded referendum is that I prefer a higher consumption tax that we, as a province, have greater control over.

When will BP ruin BCs coastlines?

By the time you finish reading this post, well over 5500 litres of oil will have leaked into the Gulf of Mexico. The oil continues to pour out of a busted well and the slick continues to grow and has already hit land in some parts of Florida. Meanwhile, closer to home, the question that seems to be off of the provincial radar is when will our offshore wells be built so they can threaten our fragile habitats?

It has been over a month since an explosion rocked British Petroleum’s (BP) Deepwater Horizons oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The blast left eleven people missing and presumed dead and well over 790,000 litres of oil has gushed into the sea. There has been little success at stopping the flow so far.

It seems hard to tell if any remorse is being felt by the heads of BP for a disaster that is shaping up to be worse than the Exxon Valdez spill in the North Pacific years ago. Perhaps their biggest fear is either the public relations hit or that they will not be able to profit off this spilt oil.

Just a week prior to the last provincial election in 2009, Premier Gordon Campbell signalled that a provincial Liberal government would continue to lobby for an end to the offshore drilling moratorium that inhibits BC from building wells at sea. This position was in line with the Liberal’s 2001 commitment to have an offshore drilling industry in BC by 2010.

Days later he squeaked by with a slim majority government. It was soon leaked that the provincial deficit would be much larger than promised and that BC, along with Ontario, would be implementing an HST. It should not be a surprise then that after dropping twenty points in the polls that Campbell would not want to broach the subject of offshore oil wells.

Yet with the recent tragedy in the Gulf, it is more pertinent than ever to find out what our far-too-secretive government is up to. While the typically oil-friendly federal Conservative environment minister Jim Prentice has backed off from any new offshore projects and has reaffirmed moratoriums on drilling off BC’s shorelines.

Darrell Dexter, the newly-elected NDP premier of Nova Scotia, was quick to pledge his continuing support to offshore moratoriums in his province and even Barack Obama has gotten behind a temporary slow-down. Obviously no leader would want to publicly come out as pro-drilling right now, so I guess Campbell’s silence on the issue speaks as much to the issue as a press conference would. There is currently no sign that Campbell plans to back down on offshore drilling.

As a non-renewable resource, it is quite clear that at some point in the future we will run out of oil. And while there is still a lot of it underground, the remaining supplies are in increasingly difficult regions to access. Whether it is in the Alberta tar sands, under politically unstable regimes, or deep under the Arctic ice sheets, there are many political and environmental issues that must be addressed if we want to responsible drill for this oil. And while a leak off BCs coast may be containable, imagine the damage that could be done were a disaster to befall an arctic well, with hundreds of thousands of litres of oil covering the undersides of the ices sheets.

Of course, I personally would love to see the end of the oil age in my life time, the fact of the matter is that this laptop I am typing on, the synthetic portions of my clothes, and countless other products use barrels and barrels of oil, let alone the amount that we use for energy. A lot of work has been done on alternative energies, and there is a huge need for more investment, but until those industries are positioned to meet the demands, we will either have to continue drilling for oil, or massively cut out consumption.

I believe that it is possible to extract oil from the tar sands and deep underwater both safely and with as little environmental damage as possible, however, if our leaders fail to discuss if they are even interested in such activities, how are we to trust them to ensure the proper regulatory regimes are in place when corporations do begin to stick their pipes in the ground?

Fraser Institute vs Stephen Harper

I’m not completely sure what to make of two new studies in the Vancouver Sun and The Province today, one authored by the Fraser Institute, the other peer-reviewed by them, but both condemning the current Harper government.

The first study was done at UBC, and found that Canada’s recent mini-War on Drugs has caused increase gun violence and “has done nothing to stop the supply of street drugs.” The Fraser Institute, for some reason, peer-reviewed this study for the real researchers at the Urban Health Research Initiative. And of course The Province has to interview the apparently most ignorant cop in Vancouver, RCMP Staff Sgt. Dave Goddard who gave this money quote:

"These intellectuals who come up with these ideas are great at pointing out the problem, but what’s their solution?" demands Goddard.

Just read the comments Mr. Goddard, most people suggest legalize and tax, alternatively we have successes like the safe-injection site, InSite, which is helping to deal with the actual problems of addiction rather than just continually punishing it.

The other study is directly from the Fraser Institute, which the Vancouver Sun decides to inform us is “one of the country’s leading think-tanks,” and tells us first that the Economic Action Plan had very little to do with the start of the economic recovery, and second that private investment and exports did it all.

While I love slamming the HarperCons and the Economic InAction Plan, I’m hesitant to endorse this study. Where is the peer-review process within this bastion of neo-conservative libertarianism? And Vancouver Sun, if Canwest will print an anti-intellectual cop along with a story about a drug study, where is the government or anyone else arguing against The Fraser Institute?

My view, which ought to have as much weight as any random institute since neither are being reviewed by real economists, is that our “recovery” has failed to restore the number of jobs the country had prior to the crash, and that very little of that stimulus money actually made it to projects.

But I will grant the Economic Action Plan one thing, it gave sign makers and ad agencies a lot to do to continually tell us how much of our money was being thrown back at us.