Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Canadian Election 2015

Pollsters have taken on the chin this year. The UK has a public panel looking into how they were so far off on the final results from earlier in 2015. The Gallup Organization in the US recently announced that they are ditching polls during the presidentially primary season. The good news is that some did a good job forecasting the Canadian result. In fact the often quoted Forum Research poll had results that showed the Liberals at 39, Conservatives at 31 and NDP at 19, as close to perfect as one could hope.

Except that poll was from June 2014, fifteen months before the actual election. They had another in October 2014 with the Liberals at 38, Conservatives at 34 and NDP at 18. Pretty close to the results. What does this mean? That in the end the campaign meant very little except that it confirmed the opinion that people had a year before. They wanted change and that meant a bigger rejection of Harper than in previous elections. So the question was which of the opposition parties would be the face of that change. And Canadians like Trudeau and voted for him and his Liberal Party. This result should not be a surprise as it was called a year before the election.

The Canadian system is unique as it is a very pure form of first past the post. This means with three strong parties the winner can have even less than 40% nationwide, as frequently happens. Looking at the fate of the NDP in Toronto where three very strong candidates, women all, were defeated by more than 20% reinforces the conflicting nature of the vote .. while the election is decided by 338 ridings, it is in fact a national election, modified by provincial conditions, that make the individual personalities of the candidates less important than they are in a race for Congress in the US.

I am sure there will continue to be some soul searching by the NDP as to why they could not build on their extraordinary performance in 2011. I have read quite a bit of criticism regarding the issue of taxes and spending, the face covering issue and revival of the Bloc in Quebec and the personality of the leader Tom Mulcair. In my opinion the biggest factor was the impression made a year ago that Canadians wanted the Liberals. An opinion not unusual from their past. In the US we were in awe of an election cycle that was so short ... 78 days. While the longest official run up to the poll in modern history ... the politicking and positioning of the parties operates on a permanent cycle in Canada just like the US. It is why Forum, and I am sure others, had the numbers right a year ago.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Labor Day Thoughts

Here are some Labor Day thoughts from some folks whose ideas and talents I truly admire ...

Harold Meyerson for A Happy Labor Day

David Cay Johnston on why American Workers Deserve Better

The New York Times on Wages and Interest Rates

The President takes action on Paid Sick Leave while in Boston

John Lippitt on Investment in Human Capital

Friday, September 4, 2015

Show Me a Hero

There are three issues in US politics ... money, race and gender. Everything falls into this framework or across the issues. The campaign of Donald Trump, fueled by the fear of the immigrant and the mass resentment of working people offered a simple scapegoat for their economic stagnation. This is not a unique scene in our political landscape. We've seen this over the decades with Fr. Coughlin and Huey Long, with Strom Thurmond, Lester Maddox, George Wallace ... not to mention the 19th Century "Know-nothings" and other racist tendencies. 

The most painful episodes are when these figures pit one group against the other. This is the story behind the recently concluded HBO series. It is a must watch for anyone interested in politics, urban affairs, housing, race and gender. The story follows the fight between the City of Yonkers, NY and the Federal courts over a housing desegregation plan which required the city of 200,000 plus to build 200 units of low income housing and another 800 units of affordable housing in various predominately caucasian neighborhoods.

Like the Forest Hills controversy in Queens or many of the busing controversies in the 1970's this issue pitted middle class homeowners against the poor and working poor. Be it Mario Cuomo or Tom Foglietta, some admirable public servants emerged from these fights. They had careers that took them to national prominence or Congress ... or in some of the names above ... infamy. In Yonkers the story shows the same type of positioning by politicians, leading the charge on behalf of the white residents until the city's intransigence forced municipal bankruptcy and contempt for members of its Council.

The main character in the study is the one term Mayor and multiple term councilman, Nick Wasicsko.     He enters the story as an opponent of the housing plan. Over time, as the constraints of the system overtake the actors, he becomes one in a line of politicians that realize that the city must accommodate the court's order and build the housing. Even his successor, who ousted Wasicsko on the basis of opposition to the project, eventually must make his peace. He too loses and is followed by another one term Mayor, consumed by the challenges of urban America.

The six hour series was done by David Simon, the creator of The Wire, and his writing partner, William Zorzi. They make even mundane City Council meetings, gripping drama. As he did in The Wire, Simon and company show the struggle for power between the vain and ambitious, between the venal and the courageous. He paints the good and the bad of the urban experience. The crime, the hopelessness of poverty, the violence and neglect are contrasted with the struggle for a better life and a peaceful way forward. 

The show also depicts the capability, or not, of political actors to let go. How can you live outside the limelight once you have been at the center? I have seen this in my own career (nine years as a local elected in Massachusetts). I know people who can't let go and those that have and need to make a clean break. There is nothing quit so disaffected as a former elected watching and questioning the every move of their successors, even knowing that they are making fatal mistakes. There is a scene toward the end of the show where Wasicsko goes to the newly built town homes, now occupied in large part by former residents of horrid high rise public housing. He starts knocking on doors trying to engage the residents thinking they would remember him and the sacrifices he made on behalf of the project. They have no idea who he is or what he wants from them. He is hurt. Forgetting that you can't do the work for gratitude, but for the intrinsic value of the work itself.

This is a beautifully done series. Sharp and smart and candid. The title comes from a quote from F Scott Fitzgerald ... Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy. Watch it and enjoy. Think about what we need to do to pull together to make life better for all without the resentments and conflicts and ignorance. As we watch the drama unfold in Europe this week, another reminder that we are tied together in a common humanity with the urge to make things better for ourselves and hopefully for all our neighbors.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Greece and Democracy

The voters of Greece are heading to the polls as I write this and results should be in by 9 PM tonight. Ironically, despite the exercise of democracy in voting for or against the continuation of EU imposed austerity, the Greek people are not really voting on the details of public policy . Rather they are voting for or against a particular direction to deal with the issues of economic health that have plagued Greece since its entry into the Euro Zone. In short Greece has been asked by their government to support further austerity, in the form of higher taxes and lower spending (all of which has already happened in the past few years) or to point in a new direction by rejecting the calls for further austerity and charting a future navigated by the Greek people and their elected government rather than bankers and politicians from the European core.

As James Galbraith writes in The American Prospect and elsewhere ... The challenge in Europe is the narrowness of vision of the European elite. Centered in the governments of the core and bureaucracy of Brussels, these narrow minded leaders, not worthy of the word, have forced the continent into deflation and depression and threatened the whole European project. Achieving nothing but broader smiles in the face of David Cameron and the like who are bound and determined to blowup the entire structure.

All countries knew when they joined the EU they were sacrificing some sovereignty. The hope was the trade off resulted in more peace and more prosperity. And so it did as long as the bubble of trade deficits/debt/housing continued. When that popped the house of cards came tumbling down and with it the vision of Calvanistic punishment for incorrectly perceived profligacy. In the case of Greece, the price of relief from the commercial bankers was a regime imposed by The Troika. Today's vote is a chance for the Greek public to say No!

Yet their democratic choice has been complicated by the interference from the core. It is sadly funny to hear German politicians lecturing the Greeks about responsibility. The bottom line is that Greece should be free to make its choice and move ahead with its direction even if that means leaving the Euro Zone. Greece couldn't join Europe until it through off the shackles of dictatorship and moved to democracy. Why should Europe be demanding a step back when it benefitted from the policies that brought Greece to this point? Obviously leaders like Germany's Merkel are worried about the precedent of Syria in Greece leading to other anti-austerity tendencies like Podemos in Spain (who have elected Mayors in Madrid and Barcelona), the SNP in Scotland and the exciting emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate for Labour Party leadership in the UK. So they are saying let's rupture democratic processes so we can hang onto our jobs, continue the disastrous conventional wisdom and teach a harsh lesson in moral hazard.

Greece please, Just Vote No. #oxi

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Good news from President Obama ... OT Edition

This week the Administration announced a change of rules which will significantly expand the eligibility of wage earners for overtime pay. This is the type of action that will help the economic fortunes of working families. This is the type of action that the President should concentrate on to secure his legacy. Peace and prosperity should be the watch words for the next 18 months.

With the unemployment rate falling but the workforce participation rate and median wages still stagnant, the long steady recovery from the crisis of 2007 to 2009 has only begun to reach into the homes of working families. With the refusal of Congress to take aggressive action to promote job creation it falls to the President to use his executive authority to move forward a family friendly economic policy. Oddly enough the President pushed hard for fast-track approval to further the trade agenda with the pacific rim. Actions that will lessen the wages and employment prospects of American workers.

Important economic actions are outstanding ... the surface transportation bill has survived on short term renewals; the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank languishes and we are about to go through another budget drama ... all of which contributes to economic instability at a time when the economy needs help to boost the fortunes of workers. The aggressive actions of the President will pay off with higher approval ratings. And with that perhaps he can drag Congress along in the right direction.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Greece, Democracy and the Way Forward

Writing as of late Monday the situation in Greece continues to grow more stark. The on-again/off-again negotiations between the creditors (The so-called Troika of the IMF, EU and ECB) and the Greek government have made no progress toward a win-win situation. Over the weekend the US was intervening to get the parties to work toward an agreement that involved some debt relief for Greece. The unfortunate timing of the announcement from Puerto Rico that it has a similar problem of unsustainable debt probably sidelines the Obama Administration at this eleventh hour. Tonight the sides are forming on a referendum called by the Greek government for the weekend to see whether the Greek electorate will endorse the next round of austerity imposed from outside the country.

Prominent voices in the US and Europe have called for the people to vote "No". Some like Paul Krugman have warned for years that a single currency zone absent political integration would end in disaster. Joseph Stiglitz also counsels on his approach to the conflict and his rationale for the vote against the next wave of austerity. Two weeks ago Amartya Sen called on the EU to end its austerity regime aimed at Greece saying that the Keynesian formula of spending in the face of contraction (Greek GDP is down 25% since the crisis began four years ago) is the right one and austerity counterproductive. If three Noble Prize winning economists are saying the approach of the Troika are wrong ... who supports their destructive ideas?

As the great summary of the crisis from Social Europe shows, the point of the bailout of the government and the continued assistance to the Greek banks was to help the holders of Greek sovereign debt ... banks in Germany, France and the rest of Europe. Now the Troika largely owns the debt. So what the Troika wants Greece to do is contract the income of their people more in order to generate trade and government surpluses to provide funds to pay off the creditors. The fact of the matter is many of these institutions made poor business decisions and now the Greek people are asked to pay the bill. The Troika wants the Greek government to continue to commit Macro malpractice after a generation of Germany (and other export driven economies) allowing Greece to import significantly more than it exported in order to enrich Germany (and other export driven economies) which expanded the nation's indebtedness.

Today Greece has eliminated its current account deficit and so is near to running primary government surpluses. However, this level is not enough to repay the creditors. So what is to be done? The answer is to leave the Euro with all the risk and confusion that will entail. With its own currency Greece can devalue its debts. It is the path that allows Greece to control its future and have some hope of generating economic growth and prosperity. The question becomes to what lengths will Germany, and the other European powers-that-be, go to prevent Greece from charting its own future and self revaluing its debt?

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Testament of Youth (2014)

One hundred years ago the world was in the engulfed in the first of the three great European wars of the 20th Century. Starting in 1914 the First World War reached out of Europe to include Africa and North America in its insane grip. Millions died in the war and its indirect misery and the stage was set for the second and third (Cold) wars where the impact grew across the globe. In the U.S. The milestones seem to flow by with little note. The sad anniversary of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania was in May. Perhaps a wreath bobs on the ocean left by someone connected to the event.

Thankfully the British have taken one modest step to remind us of the origins and impacts of the war to end all war. Last fall a new feature length film version of the heart wrenching memoir, Testament of Youth was released theatrically in the UK. This weekend it finally made it to Boston. For those of us familiar with the work by the pacifist campaigner, Vera Brittain, the opening scenes of the idyll of the British countryside and the young people engaged in their last flirtation before the war fills one with dread. The film, as the book, pulls no punches in its depiction of the hubris of the British public thinking the war will be brief and impact less.


When I read that the filmmakers were redoing the story and eventually recast the lead to be Alicia Vikander I was a bit concerned. Could a young actress from Sweden capture the proper spirit of the strong headed woman who would make such a mark on generations to come? The 1933 book took on a renewed life in the late 1970's through an epic telling on the BBC with Cheryl Campbell as the lead. In the new film Vikander shows the talent that promises to make her a giant in international film. Given a spare script, she leaves no doubt on her angelic face of the range of emotions that young Vera experiences and she goes from rebellion to love to loss and then rebellion again.

She is paired with the equally beautiful Kit Harrington as her fiancé Roland Leighton. He, like her brother and their cohort of friends and school mates, march off to war with the care free bravado seen in other films of the era, Doctor Zhivago or Nicholas and Alexandra come to mind. They return in a way that killed that innocent Edwardian idyll and has left the world with a set of problems we have not transcended across the century. Vera loses all she cherishes on earth during the war but gains a self which the film allows us to glimpse. The text crawl at the end could not possibly do justice to the importance she had as a writer and graduate of Oxford who dedicated herself to trying to make the world a more peaceful place.

The story has haunted me for nearly forty years. Hopefully one hundreds years from now someone will write about how we have better learned the lessons she was trying to teach us. Not romance but practically that these foolish wars, which we still insist on fighting, makes us less safe and secure. And that their prosecution changes us and not for the better.