Saturday, June 09, 2018

On Trump and the G7 Meeting

The meta messages coming from Trump over the G7 conference are interesting.  It's not the actual messages themselves, but the the framework that they imply.

On one hand, we have Trump spouting a bunch of trade war rhetoric on Twitter.  Taken on its own, you might simply interpret that as part of Trump's usual ham-fisted approach to negotiations.  However, when you take it as part of a larger gestalt picture, the focus starts to shift.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Tying A Few Things Together

I have written a few posts recently which criticize quite strongly the recent spate of conservative "we must cut everything" hysteria over Alberta's budget:

All of these posts revolve around the basic theme of how ridiculous a narrow focus on money really is when we are talking about government. Fundamentally, these arguments all boil down to money - how we're spending too much, the cost of repaying the debt, and so on. This is "banker speak".  Bankers think in these terms, because that is their framework of understanding. A banker doesn't bother to look at how the monies are being used, the policies that they are supporting, how the public benefits from it. No, they only look at the money and their ability to make further profits from it.

Then, as if to underscore my point, we get this "study" out of Goldman Sachs which basically says "curing disease is bad business".
"The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically-engineered cell therapy and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies," analyst Salveen Richter wrote in the note to clients Tuesday. "While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."
 I have long believed that the corporate business mentality which places profits ahead of "doing the right thing".  Medicine has never been about making huge piles of money - it has been about helping people. Talk to anyone going into medicine, and you will rapidly find that money isn't the top of their list of motivations (yes, doctors are well paid, but few who go into the field do so primarily for the money they can make).  Doctors like Jonas Salk created vitally important cures for diseases like Polio  - and gave them away because they understood that the benefit to the world vastly exceeded any short term pecuniary interest.

There's an old saw about conservatives:  "Conservatives know the cost of everything, and the value of nothing".  Bankers are in so many ways the "original conservatives" - the only thing they have ever paid attention to is money, and making money using money. Borrow to buy a house? Cool. But never make the mistake of thinking that the bank will be there to help you out if you fall on hard times.

The analysis of the investment bankers at Goldman Sachs echoes criticisms made about Alberta's 2018 budget.  The 2018 budget has been criticized for not laying out a clear plan to achieve a balanced budget, how it's "racking up the debt" and so on.  Like the Goldman Sachs commentary on gene therapies, this is a very narrow focus. We should also be asking where the money is going, what are the benefits to society, and so on.  Just as good medicine isn't necessarily "good business", good government isn't good investment.  We should never lose track of that reality. 

Sunday, April 08, 2018

About Hospitals ... and Ian Brodie

So, this week Albertans were treated to a column from Ian Brodie on the subject of building hospitals. Mr. Brodie is a former Harper advisor, so we shouldn't be too surprised that he doesn't especially like the idea of spending public money on projects that he or his companions can't directly profit from.

However, a lot of Mr. Brodie's comments aren't merely rooted in the long standing right-wing desire to privatize everything in sight.  No, they are rooted in some the most malicious ignorance I've ever seen on display - and considering that this blog has been running for fourteen years, now, that's saying quite a lot.

Friday, April 06, 2018

About Carpay's Bill 24 Lawsuit

So, apparently John Carpay has managed to persuade a bunch of fear-filled people to participate in an attempt to quash GSAs in Alberta schools.

Carpay runs a Canadian version of the American ADF under the guise of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF). Although the JCCF bills itself as "defending constitutional rights", it has a long history of taking up what are fundamentally defending religiously driven discrimination (which mysteriously overwhelmingly seems to affect Canada's LGBTQ citizens).

So, let's take a bit of a deeper look at the statement of claim the JCCF just filed in the Medicine Hat Court of Queens Bench, shall we?

Part 1:  The Applicants

Applicants As of April 6, 2018

There is a small handful of individuals, identified only by their initials, and a great long list of obviously religious organizations.  Overwhelmingly they appear to represent "Christian" schools.  This is not particularly surprising, since the loudest opposition to anything which involves LGBTQ issues is inevitably religious in its origins.  

Part 2: The Allegations

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Of Patterns and Puppetry

I've noticed a few patterns in this country's right wing politics that make me deeply suspicious.

Consider the following:

1)  Andrew Scheer flies to London to "prepare a trade deal with post-Brexit UK"

2)  Jason Kenney travels to BC to "sell pipelines"  (Facebook only)

3)  3 Conservative Senators Travel To Washington DC to discuss the "consequences" of marijuana legalization. (with "conservative" US senators ...)

4)  Jason Kenney writes a letter to Ottawa demanding that our next senator be one of the names from the last "senatorial election" held in Alberta.

5)  Rob Ford "dumps" the media bus for his upcoming provincial election campaign.

There's more - a lot more I could draw from, but let's talk about the patterns lying just below the surface of this:

First of all, items 1-4 all have something in common:  They have conservative politicians trying to be seen to "be doing things".  They are part of a campaign to give the appearance of being serious.

On what basis does Scheer think he has any standing to represent Canada in discussions about free trade with the UK?  Those discussions have rightly already been framed by the government of the day, long before the Scheer's trip.  On this basis alone, I think we can dismiss Scheer's trip as little more than political theatrics.  Theatre intended primarily to "impress" an audience at home that has been cool to Scheer as a leader of the CPC, at least in part on the basis of suspicions that he represents a takeover of the party by socially conservative elements who were kept "under thumb" during Harper's tenure.

Likewise, Kenney's foray into BC to "sell" is more political theatre. Kenney is not the Premier of Alberta - he's the Leader of the Opposition.  Further, given his pugilistic comments regarding BC's opposition to the TMX pipeline project, any speech in BC he might give is undermined by the two-facedness of his presentation.  However, the speech I linked to above wasn't a "public speech" - it was a closed door event for conservatives.  (Note CPC flag in the background)  I was unable to find a copy of the video anywhere except Kenney's own Facebook account.  (Oddly, not even on Rebel Media's website - but we'll come back to that).  Kenney, to my knowledge, has never met with BC Premier Horgan, or face to face with any of the opponents of the pipeline ... at least not willingly.

Similarly, Canadian Senators seldom travel abroad to represent the government.  There is good reason for this - that's what we hire diplomats to do.  So, the three senators who travelled to Washington this week were doing this for partisan political reasons. It is important to note that Senator Batters has been one of the most vocal Harper-appointed senators, especially with regards to the legalization of marijuana. Again, this can have no official standing with respect to the position of the Canadian government, so all that we can surmise is that this is yet another attempt to show the conservatives in Canada as having "political gravitas".

Then there are the items related to media access.  Kenney has been good at this for years.  It is rare to find full media of his events, even more rare that you would find them anywhere except under his very careful control.  There are reasons for this.  He never wants to be caught out for what he says.  Mass media is rarely allowed in the room when he holds the microphone - a few trusted allies is all.  When he does face the public, it's always scripted within an inch of its life, and designed with a purpose.  So, when Kenney travels to BC, or when he "appears" on talk radio, it's always done in a context where he won't have to face awkward questions, or any missteps will be quickly edited out.  (Talk radio on the whole is notoriously oriented towards the right-wing outrage machine, making it an ideal place for Kenney).

Today, we have Doug Ford deciding to eliminate the "media bus".  Ever since his election as leader of the Ontario PCs, I've noticed that Doug Ford has become increasingly scripted.  If he doesn't have to say anything, he won't; and if he does, it's carefully engineered.  Clearly the party is worried about a "loose cannon" moment jeopardizing their chances of ousting Kathleen Wynne this spring.  The decision to make it more difficult for the media to keep up with his campaign during the election is interesting.  It echoes Harper's distaste for the media, and it erodes the ability of that media to actually cover his campaign - leaving him somewhat freer to pander to the "Ford Nation" base.

While I make no secret of my own distaste for the degree of direct control that media owners have come to exert of late, access to our politicians is an important dimension of our democracy.  Attempts by our politicians to hide from the media, or to restrict their visibility to "friendly" outlets is a dangerous trend that does a disservice to Canadians.

Okay, so what we have here is political theatre.  In terms of the governance of the nation, it's relatively minor, right?  Or is it?  All of this starts unfolding a month after the Manning Centre Networking Conference in Ottawa, which ran in early February.

So what?  Well - all of the major players mentioned in this post were also "featured speakers" at this year's conference.  It would be stunning if there weren't a significant number of backroom strategy sessions happening as the country heads into two or three years of back to back elections at provincial and federal elections. 

The similarities in strategies being executed is profoundly disturbing. I believe we are witnessing something unprecedented in Canadian politics:  a full court press by a political faction using the same strategies at all levels across Canada - and right in the middle of it all, you find a secretive non-profit that appears to be organizing the shots.  I have no problem with organizing politically, but the idea of a group of puppet masters pulling the strings from behind a curtain of secrecy is not only wrong, it's so wrong that it stands to damage our electoral processes and the credibility of any government.  

If you don't want Canada to follow in the footsteps of the United States, this is important. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Junk Science: Universe As Simulation Theory

On CBC Radio's "The Current" this morning, there was a long segment about the bogus hypothesis that the universe we live in is really just a giant computer simulation. I've heard this concept before - it's rattled about in computer science circles since I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s.

Superficially, this is little more than the philosophy "Brain in a Vat" thought experiment.  It has some interesting uses for those interested in the subject of ontology, but it makes for awful science.

At its most fundamental level, it's bad science because it is unfalsifiable. A little like the question of "does God exist?", testing it requires the ability to inspect our universe from outside.  So far, we have no means of even describing how that might happen, much less making it actually occur.  This is one of the reasons that any hypothesis that ends with "and therefore God" (or some variation thereof) is fundamentally not science.  The minute you can invoke an unknowable external entity which has no meaningful description, you are simply not engaging in science.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

On Alberta's Budget 2018

The Alberta Government released its 2018/19 Fiscal Year Budget this past week, and many people are talking about what it does, or does not address.   Yesterday, noted Alberta economist Trevor Tombe released his thoughts on the budget in the form of an editorial piece on CBC.

Normally, Dr. Tombe is someone who sheds more light than shadow on things, but his opinion piece on CBC is not one of those times.  Instead, we are treated to a piece where there are several key assumptions underlying it that I think do a disservice to the discourse in Alberta around public finances and budgets.

CBC kindly puts the following line as a subtitle to the article, so I'll start there:
'What global credit agencies are looking for, this budget doesn’t offer’
My first thought on this is a fairly blunt "who cares?".  More seriously, does anyone believe that these credit agencies have the interests of Albertans at heart?  These entities are, at the end of the day, driven by financial investor interests. They are part of the banking system, and in many ways live in the world of making the banks happy.

From this writer's point of view, by allowing these agencies to "rate" different governments based on their "financial behaviour", we have given them unwarranted political clout - effectively turning them into financial equivalents of lobby organizations like the Fraser Institute.  Instead of "whispering in politicians' ears", they use their "credit rating" lever as a way to influence - and punish - governments.

We have seen several instances where the credit ratings agencies have gone after the NDP government in Alberta - "downgrading" our credit rating for one reason or another.  Yet, their approach has seemed almost partisan.  Did we see a downgrading of our credit rating when ostensibly "conservative" governments went into deficit?  No. We did not.  Yet, the minute it is a "left wing" (and I put that in quotes because the Alberta NDP has been governing from what I would consider a political centre position) party in power, suddenly every time there is a minute change in our fiscal position, we get these rumblings from the credit agencies.  Forgive me for being skeptical, but this starts to look distinctly like it is a partisan issue where the agencies don't like the stripe of the government that was elected, and I am reluctant to ascribe a great deal of significance to the opinions of such organizations.

Of the budget itself, Dr. Tombe seems to feel it is long on aspirations, and short on specifics:
The budget did contain hints of a potential path to a balanced budget.

It described the total revenues, royalties and spending that the NDP government needs to balance by 2023.
But this does not constitute a plan. It lacks any credible detail. It's an aspiration (barely).

It's one thing to know where we have to go, but it's quite another to map out how to get there. Without that detail, fiscal uncertainty remains.

The government projects spending levels of $65.5 billion by 2023/24. But in what ministries or on which programs is not known.

How much for health, how much for education, how much for community services, and so on? And what of the compassionate cuts the government repeatedly referenced? Your guess is as good as mine.
Anyone with a modicum of experience knows that forecasts which reach beyond the current fiscal year are about as reliable as Scrying when it comes to predicting the future.  Rough revenue/expenditure forecasts are as far as I expect such projections to go.  There may be more detailed analyses lurking about in various departmental budget files, but frankly they are irrelevant to the overall forecasts.  Past governments have often put "detailed" plans into their budgets, giving a false sense of detail to them.  Inevitably, reality tends to come along and swat those detailed prior year plans with a baseball bat.  Political, and fiscal, realities tend to shift and change dramatically with time, and to argue that such forecasting provides the credit rating types with "certainty" is at best a polite fiction, at worst, it becomes an attempt for today's politicians to hamstring tomorrow's with expectations and constraints that will have little to do with the realities seen in the moment.

The second major issue that appears in this segment is Tombe's apparent expectation that any "responsible" fiscal plan must include some kind of cuts to the apparatus of government.  I take a great deal of exception to this.  At no time has anyone shown that such cuts are necessary.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that cuts may in fact be quite undesirable in the face of other options which remain unexplored in this province.  Alberta is a province which has repeatedly refused to even begin to fully exercise its full fiscal capacity in terms of revenues.  We have cut personal and corporate taxes to levels unheard of outside of the United States, we have no sales tax, and a variety of royalty giveaways, subsidies, etc. to various resource industries have all cut into our ability to weather the inevitable fiscal storms that accompany having an economy dependent upon the sale of raw extraction resources whose price is driven by "world markets".

There seems to be a pervasive assumption that the moment there is a downturn in the economy that we must immediately start hacking up the apparatus of government in order to meet this ephemeral goal of a balanced budget.  I do not agree that this is reasonable.

Mr. Tombe's argument ignores a key reality:  just because the economy has dropped does not mean that the business of government has suddenly shrunk in proportion.  The number of people requiring health care, students in our schools and so on does not magically drop when the oil patch suddenly lays of tens of thousands of workers. If anything, it is at such times that it is most important to sustain those government services. Not only will demand on them be higher than it once was, but it will likely remain so until the shock waves of the downturn have subsided to the point that we have sustained positive growth.
For starters, Albertans have now seen five deficit budgets in a row.

Low oil prices made this unavoidable. But with economic recovery underway, we must turn to balancing the books without relying on royalties. If not now, when?

Credit rating agencies are also a factor.
Alberta has seen many downgrades in recent years, but not because we're drowning in debt as some suggest. Alberta has the strongest balance sheet in the country, now and for the foreseeable future. From such a position of strength, Alberta's government can make far more careful, nuanced, and longer-term fiscal decisions. But they aren't. 
To this, I must ask of Dr. Tombe the same thing that I ask of politicians who go on and on about how the government must "tighten its belt" (*cough* Jason Kenney *cough*):

What are your specific suggestions here?

It is one thing to criticize the sitting government on such matters, but quite another to simply argue that "better decisions" could be made.  If you wish to argue for significant cuts in the government's spending, we need to do far better than simply saying "axe 20% of the budget".  We lived through that little bit of political theatrics with Klein - and we're still paying the freight for it in terms of major infrastructure projects which have been kicked down the road so far that the cost of those projects has been hit by inflation to such an extent that they are many times what they would have been had we been more active in getting on top of it.  We often hear about Klein's "moment" of announcing that our debt had been paid off, but we seldom hear about how that fiscal debt was eliminated by shovelling most of it into deferred infrastructure costs.  Needed hospitals did not get built, roads we need did not get funding, class sizes in our schools grew, and maintenance on public infrastructure was deferred for so long that buildings which were viable, but deteriorating, a dozen years ago now must be closed because the cost of repairing them has exceeded the value of the building itself.
We're as reliant on royalties as ever. Despite government claims to the contrary.

In Budget 2018, we need $12.6 billion in resource revenues to balance — an amount Alberta has only seen once before (in 2005/06). To shrink our reliance, we need to shrink the deficit without relying on royalties. And we aren't.

Between now and 2023-24, royalty growth delivers three-quarters of what the government is counting on to balance.
 Alberta's dependence on resource royalties is not news to anybody.  It became a structural part of our government's finances back in the 1980s when Don Getty first decided to "raid the piggy bank" to reduce the government deficit, and stopped putting money into the Heritage Savings Trust Fund (HSTF).  In the subsequent years, a succession of governments has repeatedly poisoned the political well related to any form of increase in government revenues - whether that is increasing personal tax rates or instituting a Provincial Sales Tax (PST).  This has created a political atmosphere in the province which makes it very difficult for a government of any stripe to do anything reasonable with revenues.  We have been told that "taxes are bad" (they aren't), that we don't need a PST because we have so much oil revenue (which has repeatedly proven to be an unreliable stream of revenue).  This means that getting Alberta off the dependency on resource royalties to meet its fiscal needs is not a five year project, but rather it is a process which will take decades.

So, while the 2018 budget from the Alberta NDP may not be everything that various parties would like to see, perhaps we need to put a bit of a reality check on exactly what we are expecting.  Mr. Tombe's argument rests on some troubling assumptions that deserve more discussion in Alberta's political sphere:

1.  The role and influence of credit rating agencies. Do they have unwarranted power and influence?
2.  The assumption that "fiscal responsibility" means "cuts to government programs" - does it, and should it ?
3.  The political realities created by decades of governments poisoning the political well around ensuring adequate fiscal resources for normal operations.
4.  The often hidden costs of balancing the fiscal books at the expense of other aspects of the government's responsibilities.