Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Reflections on what Trump's win does and doesn't mean

Like most Canadians, I watched in relative horror as I saw Donald J. Trump rise to the office of President last night. And while I wouldn't have bet a whole lot of money on him winning , I did say as early as February that Clinton was a poor match-up against Trump, and how Sanders' democratic  socialist populism was a bulwark against Trump's xenophobia.

But what does this election mean right now, about 24 hours later?


The spectre of racism and sexism can't be ignored in this election: many have pointed out how America is less safe today for women and most minority populations. This is unacceptable, and the election is a sad reminder that white people--especially men but also women--supported a man for president based in part on his misogyny and white supremacy.


But the narrative around this being a massive racial shift in American politics is not in accordance with emerging data. While it is certainly the case that Clinton did substantively better among non-whites, the reality is that her numbers fell in relation to Obama's in 2012: not just among blacks, but among Asians and even Latinos. According to the New York Times' exit polling, Trump gained no fewer than 7 points from each of these minority groups.

This says a couple things: American politics is deeply racially-segregated, has always been so, and is likely to remain so. But it also says that race was less polarizing among actual voters than it was when Obama ran. It was--from the voters' aggregate perspective on racial terms--an election like any other.

And despite Trump's pervasive misogyny, much the same can be said about gender. Exit polling data here demonstrates that while Trump did indeed gain 5 points from men, he only lost 1 point from women. The 5 point male pickup could very well be due to the appeal of his anti-feminist rhetoric, but the collapse of female support for the Republican nominee failed to materialize, whatever the media narrative.

So while many activists are right to be skeptical of class-based analyses that patch over Trump's white misogyny, we really do have to examine the stark trends in income demographics


One of the narratives that came out of the election was that Trump's win was based on a 'lower class' revolt against the liberal elite. And while this has been tempered by people noting that Clinton won a majority of support among those making 50,000 or less, many of the same people failed to acknowledge relative trends in income data vis-a-vis 2012.

What this shows is that while that the richest Americas stayed more or less static in their preferences (which were evenly divided between the parties), there were shifts among populations making less than 200,000 dollars. And those shifts do demonstrate a revolt against the Democratic status quo among lower and middle income Americans. Clinton picked up negligible support among those making 50 to 100k, but gained nearly 10 points among 100-200K earners.

Trump is the real story-maker here, picking up 16 points among the lowest income Americans, and another 6 points among those in the 30-50K range.

In a sense, this is a rejection of the general Democratic strategy to ignore the struggles of working Americans. When Michelle Obama said that America was already the greatest country on earth, she--and the Democratic establishment--were happy with a status quo that is predicated on growing inequality of both opportunity and condition. Clearly, the message was lost among the masses.


Perhaps one factor which can be emphasized above all is the general turnout. As the below image shows, the issue was less a mass racist turnout for Trump, and more an enthusiasm gap for the Democratic coalition, which was extremely effective in the two Obama campaigns. Simply put, Trump got fewer raw votes than either Romney or McCain, but was still able to eke out a Electoral College victory.

At the end of the day, this was a sad day for American politics, and a partial indictment of the white working class there, but it was also a failure of the Clinton campaign, and the broader DNC. 

They failed to acknowledge working-class discontent, failed to visit key battleground states, failed to marshal their massive warchest, failed to pull the vote, and failed to select a candidate that was--above all--a generator of much-needed enthusiasm.

Monday, April 4, 2016

What Hassan Yussuff's Comments mean for Tom Mulcair's Leadership Review

--NDP leader Tom Mulcair (left) with Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff (right)

As I have noted on this blog and in the media, including Calgary News Talk 770, the question of if Tom Mulcair should stay or go is proving to be the primary one going into the NDP convention taking place this weekend in Edmonton.

Up until last week, it appeared that while Mulcair was facing criticisms from members, the media, the NDP Socialist Caucus, and isolated MPPs like Cheri DiNovo, it was unlikely that he would face any substantive institutional challenge to his leadership.

In a format where every single NDP member could cast a vote, the role of institutions would be less imperative, because a member could have a say even if they couldn't afford a trip to the convention.

But at this convention decisions will be determined by the people in the room, and only the people in the room. Beyond a discussion of if this model is democratic and accessible (it isn't), the reality is that those institutions with logistical and financial resources are vital in the course of convention debate.

With all this in mind, the voice of organized labour is the biggest variable in Mulcair's hope of keeping his job. And as of a few days ago, the narrative was that major unions were backing Mulcair to lead the party, if not into the next election, than for at least the next two years. These unions include the United Steel Workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers, and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

But a crack in this wall of labour support came in a recent Globe and Mail piece, where Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff declared that a new NDP leader is needed, and that Mulcair has no valid claim to a continued leadership tenure.

The importance of Yussuff's claims, especially given their timing and unambiguousness, cannot be overstated. The CLC is the single largest federation of unionized workers in Canada and Yussuff's claims put him at odds with the above-mentioned pro-Mulcair unions, most of whom are chief affiliates to the CLC. It also matters that he is a planned speaker at the convention, which brings these tensions right to the mainstage in Edmonton

The main question here, however, is just how this might serve to affect the convention:

1. The vote on Mulcair's leadership: If the vote on keeping Mulcair turns out to be a close one, then Yussuff's claims might well make all the difference.

But we should keep in mind that the effect might not be as strong as expected. First, pro-Mulcair unions have been proactive, and have organized their delegations better; Yussuff's claims come rather late, and the CLC lacks the same structures to send delegates that major pro- Mulcair unions have.

But perhaps more important than how it affects the vote itself is how it changes the general 'feel' of the convention:

2. The tone of the convention: Beyond the simple yes or no question about Tom, the convention is about policy and intra-party politics. There has been a vocal and passionate anti-Mulcair contingent in the party that has only grown since the October defeat, but it remains fractured without institutional linchpins. Yussuff's claims will serve to embolden these delegates, who now know that Canada's number one labour leader supports a change agenda in the party.

My view is that these claims, which underline existing divisions between Canadian labour's upper echelons, will increase the convention's intensity, leading to more tensions between delegates, more pointed debates, and a greater sense of opposition between the pro- and anti-Mulcair camps. Not even the convention's various social events will escape unscathed from these 11th hour remarks

Again: if Mulcair turns out to have a healthy delegate lead right now, Yussuff's comments won't likely change the game. But in a close race, they will. One caveat here, however, is that a super-charged convention floor might well add volatility to all aspects of the debate, including on Mulcair's job. For Mulcair, a peaceful and routine convention is the ideal environment for preserving his job. Any sort of tumult only increases his risk.

And beyond this--whether Mulcair survives or not--the way this plays out as labour and the NDP work towards the next election, is bound to be affected, as is next year's CLC convention, where Yussuff himself faces a re-election test.

Only one thing is certain, however: this convention just got a lot more interesting

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Why the Liberals' Approach to Federal Public Sector Bargaining could Spell Trouble for Unions

The Harper era was one of antagonism towards the federal public service, especially once he formed a majority in 2011. There were deep cuts to budgets and staffing, along with a growing distrust between public servants and the government, which led to censorship of the former, even in cases where experts simply wished to share research with the public or professional associations

As such, federal public service unions like the Public Service Alliance of Canada, The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees engaged in a historic campaign to remove Harper from power. It's no stretch to say that the defeat of the Conservatives was due in part to the work of labour to oppose Harper's message and policy. 

But the 'stop Harper' approach wasn't uncontroversial in labour circles. While most every major union wanted a new government, there were stark divisions between those that advocated an Anything But Conservative approach, and those more wedded to the NDP. In the end, the former approach won handily, as the Trudeau Liberals stormed to a majority government, with the NDP--and not the Conservatives--being the primary losers.

The federal public sector unions were linked to an ABC mentality, largely because their respective memberships were wary of partisanship beyond anti-Conservatism. Ultimately, and whatever the Liberals' long history--stretching back to the first Trudeau era--of attacking public servants, they were welcomed into power.

So when the new government came to power on a platform contrasted to the austere Harper years, there was optimism from labour. This feeling has continued into last week's budget announcement. On both fronts, leaders like Robyn Benson and Debi Daviau have cautiously praised the rolling back of laws like C-377, along with a general commitment reverse cuts, restore professional autonomy, and limit the contracting-out of work in the public service.

But there are signs that, with bargaining looming, the tone from both sides is set to change. As I've noted in other sources, the real test of this new relationship will be in how the parties address issues around general compensation, hiring, and sick leave. On that latter issue, the government has already faced opposition from the PSAC among others.

Indeed, the government's approach is hard to pin down, because while the budget has laid out expansionary elements for the public service, claims by Finance Minister Bill Morneau, and Treasury Board President Scott Brison have emphasized the continued need for concessions from civil servants. Specifically, They want to offset the supposed 900 million dollar cost of sick leave, and have also stressed the need for restraint more generally, whatever the budget's tone.

Speaking in broad terms, my biggest takeaway here is that should tensions rise between the government and civil service unions, the options for the latter will be far more limited than under the Harper Conservatives. This is for three primary reasons:

1. The unions' ABC tactics have given a mandate to the Trudeau government's actions:

Unlike with any of Harper's victories, Canadian unions are at least partially responsible for this government's rise to power. This means that should the government take positions unpopular with labour leadership, they will have less of a political mandate to oppose them.

While it was easy for unions like the PSAC to rally members around a Fightback plan when Harper won in 2011, the messaging on why the Liberals may need to be opposed will be much more difficult to draft and proliferate. Members will rightly ask why the union is opposing a government they worked to put into power only months prior.

2. The Liberals' messaging, if not their actions, are much more tactful:

Harper was a shrewd leader, and a gifted political tactician. He knew is base well, and despite being unpopular with a majority of Canadians, was able to hold power for the better part of a decade. But when it came to dealing with labour and the public service, his government was often brash, confrontational, and inflammatory. The result was that rank-and-file public servants--who may not have been politically motivated historically--now had an affirmative interest in seeing the government change. Further, the media's coverage of such an approach made labour much more sympathetic to the average Canadian, meaning that leaders could correlate Harper's general unpopularity with his attacks on public services and those who provide them

The Trudeau Liberals, conversely, will not be so forward in their conflicts with public servants. They understand that image and tone are vitally important, and that even if they take actions similar in intent and effect to Harper, they can limit the activation of rank-and-file and public animosity to decisions.

Liking to point 1, this will limit union leadership's ability to win supportive voices from voters, members, and the media, all of which were imperative in the effectiveness of the Stop Harper campaign.

3. The anti-Harper alliance is no longer in play:

As noted above, Stephen Harper, even when basking his majority government glow, was disliked by a majority of Canadians, who were divided between supporting the four other federal parties, all seen as nominally 'left of centre.' This meant that even as his party wielded absolute parliamentary power between 2011 and 2015, he face opposition at every corner.

The public service unions were able to capitalize on this environment, winning numerous allies to their cause because even though they might not normally be pro-labour forces, they had a common goal in ousting Harper. The PSAC especially was able to may media hay with the "Harper Hates X" buttons, allowing Canadians of all classes to unite in their opposition to the Conservatives.

But the Liberals, even if they take right-wing action, are never as polarizing as the Conservatives. They are consistently the top second choice of Canadian voters, and their actions are less likely to be seen as vindictive or ideologically-motivated. The result is that should the Trudeau regime turn against its civil service, there won't be a pan-Canadian movement willing to stand with them. Most small business people, students, professionals, environmentalists, and non-old-stock Canadian groups will stand with Trudeau as he attacks the rights and standards of unionized workers.


My concern is that the Liberals will be able to get away with attacks on public servants that wouldn't be tolerated from Conservatives. People forget that, however bad Harper was, Chretien and Martin were at least a step worst, and Pierre Trudeau violated fundamental labour rights in a manner that would make today's Conservatives blush.

Much like how the turfing of Mulroney allowed a right-wing Liberal regime to sneak into power on vague left promises, so too might we be entering another era of Liberal austerity and anti-worker animus that will prove much more difficult to withstand.

My expectation and hope is that labour leadership, if only hypothetically, is working on how exactly they can energize members should they need to against the solidly popular Trudeau regime. With oil prices low, a deficit quickly increasing, and a government demanding concessions, unions will need to find allies, lest they find themselves an isolated scapegoat of the Liberals once again.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ed Broadbent and the Promise of Canadian Socialism

--Ed Broadbent (centre), with David Lewis (left), and Sanley Knowles (right)

Over the past few weeks, many have been celebrating Ed Broadbent's 80th birthday by reflecting on his venerable legacy. Some of these tributes have come from his own Broadbent Institute, and some from world-renowned scholars like Charles Taylor. People have emphasized his political longevity, his personal kindness, his passion, and the effect he's had on our society and democracy. Some, like Luke Savage, have honed on how Broadbent--especially the young Broadbent--was an ardent champion of a democracy beyond the ballot box:

Ultimately, while many have lauded Ed's life as a social democrat, I feel his most poignant legacy is his democratic socialism, which was centred less on reforming capitalism to improve it, but enacting reforms as means to building a socialist society north of the 49th parallel. This was a consistent value-statement of Broadbent, at least until the early 1980s.

Broadbent, for instance, looked at unions, public control, and socialism as essential to democracy. He suggested socialism must be won in a two-front battle, whereby labour pushed for increasing power over capitalists in the workplace and the NDP pushed for laws that undermined the anti-democratic rights of property. The result would be the supersession of liberal democracy, leading to “the eventual passing of a law which will remove all rights of control from those who own companies or who own shares in companies.”

This was all part of what Broadbent deemed a socialist citizenship, which included recognizing unions as a fundamental aspect of citizenship within the realm of the workplace:

"Just as a native in a modern nation is not required to decide whether or not to become a citizen of a country so too in a place of work, men should not be required to show cause for the formation of a union. It should be an automatic right, i.e., no stipulated minimum support should be required before a union local can be formed. Unions should exist where working people exist, just as citizens exist where nations exist"

Indeed, Broadbent was a proud socialist. Even as the neo-liberal consensus was growing in the 1980s, he was adamant that socialism continue to be the NDP's raison d'ĂȘtre:

"Whatever happens, we must retain our socialist faith and use this to inspire the creation of a better Canada. We believe in equality not because it’s popular. We believe in liberty not because it’s a winner. We believe in social ownership not because of the polls. We believe in these because they are right, we must never forget it"

Much more could said about Ed, but what's important is that the NDP had a leader within many Canadians' lifetimes who was a proud democratic socialist with a vision of a post capitalist Canada. Over the years, he has moderated his views, arguing now that social democrats in the NDP vein seek to build a fairer capitalism more than anything else. But as history unfolds, I believe his lasting legacy--along with the legacies of other leaders like David Lewis and Tommy Douglas--will be as voices prophetically crying out into the wilderness, presaging a post-capitalist age which will come, even if we have yet to see its glint over the horizon.

Happy Birthday, Ed. Here's to plenty more, so that we can see a socialist Canada, together.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Three Things I Want to See at the NDP Convention

As I will be a delegate to the upcoming NDP convention next month in Edmonton, I'll be devoting a series of blog posts to some key questions. This will build upon my recent article, in which I argued that Tom Mulcair's merits need to be debated in a context beyond the belief that there are no replacements for him.

But as we build to the convention, I want to see at least three things not directly related to the leadership vote of confidence:

1.  The Ideological Direction of the Party

As some of been quick--and largely correct--to note, the broader ideological trends of the NDP are not solely due to Mulcair. Before Tom, before Jack, and even into the later days of Ed Broadbent's leadership tenure in the 1980s, the party has been on a fairly gradual rightward trajectory. Blaming Tom for all this is unfair.

If the party is to take a leftward move, it goes beyond the leadership question and into the bones of the party. Much has said about changing the constitutional preamble in 2013, but what is inarguable is that the amendments have ended commitments to production beyond profit motives, to social ownership, and to the abolition of poverty.

In my view, those three concepts are essentials in building a society based on economic and social democracy. Without them, we offer only marginal differences from the Liberals and Conservatives. I will support those resolutions that emphasize a democratic socialist economy and society, and reject all those that emphasize a continued turn towards the right.

Again: it isn't all about Tom, so with this in mind, delegates, party members, and the media should be wary of ignoring policy debates.

2.  The Election of Party Officers

Deeply important are the elected women and men who lead the party mostly behind the scenes. These officials have importance in and of themselves, but also via what they represent through their campaigns and candidacies.

On the face of it, there will likely be two broad slates of candidates, one representing the party's mainstream  and institutional consensus, and another put forward by the Socialist Caucus. These two slates will likely face off across most positions, with additional 'independent' candidates running for select spots.

More than specific endorsements--which I feel unqualified to make until I've heard speeches and had to time to more directly parse platforms--I wish to see broad diversity among the executive. This includes diversity in terms of traditional equity-seeking groups, but also in terms of social class, geography, and profession.

Equally important is at least some indication that the national executive contains some unabashed democratic socialist elements. Its unlikely at this stage that the executive will be filled with left voices, but for the party to move forward, socialism needs to be consistently present at the its institutional zenith.

3. Tom Mulcair's Plan for the Future

Beyond the direct question of yes-or-no to Tom, vital is his 2019 road-map to victory, as well as his vision for what Canada the NDP should endeavour to build.

I want to see evidence that Mulciar has taken responsibility for the electoral failure. In some ways, he already has, noting that whatever the strategic blunders, he as leader bears the full brunt. But I want to see that he recognizes that party's liberal turn to be a big part of the 2015 defeat.

While strategic voting played a role, so did it in Ontario, where despite a prominent Stop Hudak campaign, the NDP managed to increase its vote share and maintain its seat count. The federal loss of seats and votes cannot be drawn fully to strategy: ideology factors in, too.

With this in mind, I want to see Tom in some fashion address the following issues:

  1. The zero deficit pledge: I am not opposed deficit-free governance, but made as a promise without substantive tax increases was a recipe to endorse austerity measures so familiar under Conservative and Liberal governments. If we're going to promise no deficits, we must pair that with the promise that, if needed, taxes will be raised before we entertain cuts. While Mulcair in the run up to convention is backing away from this policy, I want to see a more forceful rejection of this key election platform.
  2. The refusal to raise income taxes: Tom has repeatedly proclaimed that income taxes are bordering on unjust for Canada's wealthiest. This position is in opposition to equality of condition and opportunity, and needs to be changed as soon as possible. We need, as I've argued on this blog before, substantive tax increases, including on middle class Canadians. Socialism isn't cheap, and we can't (and shouldn't) trick Canadians into thinking it is.
  3. A Deeper Embrace of the Canadian Left: One personal issue I've had with Mulcair is the feeling that he sees himself as outside of Canada's socialist tradition. This is in part driven by his long ties to the Liberal Party, but more than that: Its his skittishness around the word 'socialism,' his defense and praise of Margaret Thatcher, his continued support of the Quebec Liberals over the socialist--whatever the federalist question--Quebec Solidaire.

    All of these points make me feel that Tom really isn't one of us. He can better attempt to address this in the run up to the convention, and seems to have already started, terming himself a "democratic socialist" only days ago. But he needs to keep showing us that he's willing to move in the right (left) direction. 
For me to make my decision on the leadership question, I need to see the outcome of the above points over the following weeks. My hope is that we can turn to a position that emphasizes economic equality, security, and democracy for all Canadians. If we can do that with Mulcair, then so be it. If we can't, then the party can and should be prepared to move in an alternative direction.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Progressive Alternatives to Corporate Tax Increases

Since Tom Mulcair has become leader of the NDP, the party has fervently opposed the concept of tax increases on the wealthy, which Mulcair deemed confiscatory. As an alternative, the NDP put forward modest increases to the corporate taxes, along with closing some loopholes that have given tax relief to executives.
All this meant that Justin Trudeau and the Liberals were able to position themselves as the only party raising taxes on the rich to offer tax breaks to the middle class. And while the Liberal tax increases have given not helped the vast majority of Canadian tax filers, the perception was that the Liberals took the NDP's left flank on taxation. 

The purpose of this piece isn't about if the NDP was to the left or right of the Liberals on taxation. Rather, the goal is to explore the limitations of corporate taxes, as well as the benefit of increases to other taxes. The two we're going to focus on here--given that income tax is more of a topic on its own--are capital gains and sales taxes.

The Problem with Corporate Taxes 

The issue with corporate taxes isn't a total one; such taxes have value, and shouldn't be slashed without consideration. The corporate tax rate is likely in a good position right now. But as a mechanism to promote a stable and equal tax base, it is far from ideal. 

This is largely because they are among the easiest taxes to evade, given that corporations can move much more easily than individuals bound by matters of citizenship and the desire to live in a nation like Canada.

Many studies have indicated that a hike in the corporate tax rate is among the least efficient to raise revenue, because  corporations are adept at artificially lowering their tax burden through the employ of accountants and lawyers. 

The issue of corporate taxes in Canada is also fraught with arbitrary definitions, with many people arguing that the rate should be set, not on some universal standard, but on the nebulous concept of what a 'small' or 'large' business is. Ultimately, the very definition of corporation is more political than technical.

The evidence that high corporate taxes are not required for strong social programs and redistribution is how many Scandinavian countries--known for high levels of social security and equality--don't have high tax rates on businesses, instead choosing to tax individual incomes and habits. 

Sales or Value Added Taxes

Under the recent Conservative government, the federal sales tax was cut from 7 to 5%, meaning that in provinces like Ontario, the sales tax is 12%. Many people argue--correctly--that sales taxes in and of themselves are regressive, meaning that the burden of this taxation is higher on those with less ability to pay. From this perspective, a sales tax has the appearance of an inegalitarian flat tax. 

But it doesn't need to be this way. Already today we offer low-income Canadians GST/HST rebates to help offset sales taxes, and there is no reason that should these sales tax rates rise, that the rebate won't rise as well. And while rebates come quarterly, meaning that low income people have to up-front the little money they have, an increased tax base can improve social services, which may well make lives easier for poorer Canadians

A final point on this: we currently have a arbitrary sales tax distinction between goods that are necessities and those that are not. In recent years, this has been a matter of political debate, with the Ontario NDP demanding that home heating be deemed a necessity, and many women successfully making the case that products like tampons were as well.  

I feel that excessive energy is wasted on the classification of goods in terms of their essentiality. Why buying a hot pizza from a restaurant carries a tax, but an identical cold pizza carries does not offers no meaningful distinction. Its  just an exercise in hair splitting.

We should end necessity exemptions. All purchases--whether diapers or diamonds--should be taxed. Again, concerns about effects on lower-income people can be offset by changes to the GST/HST rebate. 

If the purpose of a sales tax is to tax consumption, then all consumption needs to be factored in. Sales taxes are not a directly progressive form of taxation, but they are an efficient way of raising funds.

Capital gains Taxes

 In basic terms, a capital gain is the profit made from the sale of an asset, usually applied to things like businesses, stocks, bonds, or property. If you buy a stock at 100 dollars, and sell at 200 dollars, you've obtained a capital gain of 100 dollars. 

Capital gains are currently taxed in Canada, but at a significantly lower rate than income tax. In other words, making 50,000 dollars a year working as a teacher or electrician constitutes a higher tax burden than an investor selling a portion of her stocks for a profit of 50,000 dollars.

I would propose--in agreement with the 1968 Carter Report--that capital gains income not be given a 50% reduction in taxation vis-a-vis income. That, in the words of the report, 'a buck is a buck' and capital gains be taxed at the full rate. This means that 100,000 dollars of income would be taxed identically, regardless of if one made it as a nurse or as a real-estate flipper.

An increase to capital gains tax rates also wouldn't hit the average person too hard. For most Canadians, they see capital gains primarily through the sale of their family home, which is already exempt from taxation.

In short, a capital gains tax which doesn't reward investment more than labour, but would also help address part of the concern with corporate profits. Because as investors sell stocks in profitable corporations derive their capital gains, they will be taxed at a much higher level. 


With increases to these two tax rates, we can raise additional money, continue to protect the poor's standard of living, and hopefully move on to productive discussions around increasing income taxes for all those but the poorest Canadians. For what makes Scandinavia Scandinavia isn't corporate taxes, but higher sales taxes along with higher taxes across the wealth spectrum.