News for progressives

The public service has lost a crucial function

Rabble News - Tue, 2018-01-09 22:27
Politics in Canada

This column's topic, civil servants, may sound boring. But really it's about the surprising, almost entertaining incompetence of the Trudeau government.

Picture what they've muffed: the Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; electoral reform; Bill Morneau's fairness-oriented tax bill. These weren't unpopular, they should've been doable. Yet the first keeps sinking; the second basically vanished; and tax reform limps along, wounded.

Year-end pundits' appraisals laid the blame on problems of "messaging" and communications. Trudeau's people seem to agree. Morneau said, "I've learned from this experience that we have to be very good at communicating to Canadians what it is that we're trying to achieve." I'd call that a delusion.

Why? Because they were already superb messengers before they won power. Trudeau was their message and they communicated him beautifully. When an early initiative, Syrian refugees, hit some bumps, they messaged Trudeau into Pearson airport to greet the arrivals, and smoothed it all out.

The problem is elsewhere, it's governing. That isn't so much a lost art; what's been lost is that there's an art to it at all. The bright-eyed party types, like Gerry Butts (Trudeau's minder) arrive in Ottawa with their candidates. But the civil servants were there all along. They're part of the furniture of government.

There's roughly a zillion things that can go wrong when governments try to change complex societies with new legislation or institutions. It's like opening up someone's chest or cranium; it's best to have advance knowledge and experience. Otherwise you'll probably make a mess. Surgeons can be obnoxious, but you wouldn't like to be operated on without one.

So, for instance, nothing was wrong with Morneau's bill (aside from not touching the megabandits at the top) but no one seemed able to think it through. That's always been the special skill of the loftiest civil servants, mainly deputy ministers.

It was once a prized rank (even assistant DMs were haughty). They gloried in being called mandarins, far above the mob. Ministers could state goals. But their job then was to do and say as their deputies directed, just like in Yes, Minister, and the smart ones (who may've been stupid, it didn't matter if they had good deputies) did so. DMs spent their careers absorbing the potential traps of governing. They were the ones who awoke at night fretting over what might happen. Every difficult project needs someone doing that.

 I'm not saying they were likable, they weren't. They were rivalrous, contemptuous and insufferably arrogant. They were a caste. The last notable wave included Bernie and Sylvia Ostry, who didn't bolt when others headed for the exits in the 1980s. They didn't get rich, as you could in business, but they had power and glory: the glory of serving your country, perhaps even your species! (If that sounds corny, think of Jonas Salk refusing to patent his cure for polio. Glory rules. Mere fame or celebrity is its wan successor.)

Now take my old camp counsellor, Mickey (Marshall) Cohen. He spent 15 years DMing around Ottawa, then leveraged his imposing resumé to move on to O&Y, Molson's and other pastures; like Derek Burney and myriad others. That was in the 1980s -- when government became, as Reagan said, the problem, with business as the solution. Nice to have a theory for going greedy. Public service transformed into merely the minor leagues before you moved up to The Show.

The result was that those overseeing the process kept getting younger and leaving earlier. Since messaging is easier than analyzing, manoeuvring, compromising and finishing, they fiddle with communication until it's time to move along. Every government in Canada has this problem. They try to make do with outside "strategists" but those are just party people waiting to return to power.

The practical problem is the wage gap. DMs make $221,000 to $326,000. As Jennifer Wells reported here, the minimum for Canada's top CEOs is now $5.2 million; the average, $10.4 million. That's 15 to 50 times more, and beyond. When DMs were earning half or even a quarter, they could talk themselves into staying. Now they'd feel like chumps -- encouraged to by our entire culture.

As I say, I won't miss them, though they were fun to talk to, with their cockiness and verbality. The question is what governments can do to replace their crucial function. I'm sure there's a solution, and I hope someone finds it.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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Categories: News for progressives

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The traditional party of the workers needs to step up in Ontario

Rabble News - Tue, 2018-01-09 16:44
January 9, 2018LabourWorkers are under attack: Where is the ONDP?Kathleen Wynne has been defending workers' rights during the recent backlash against minimum wage increases. By contrast, Andrea Horwath's NDP have only meekly supported the issue.$15 and fairnessontario labourKathleen Wynneontario ndp
Categories: News for progressives

Tim Hortons brew-haha shows fast-food industry doesn't get PR, economics, or what Canadians think

Rabble News - Tue, 2018-01-09 13:54
David J. Climenhaga

Having quite possibly won the next Ontario general election for Premier Kathleen Wynne and her admittedly long-in-the-tooth Liberal government, the association of perpetually infuriated rogue Tim Hortons franchisees half-heartedly tried to walk back last week's plan to beat the crap out of their employees because the government had raised the minimum wage in the province to $14 an hour.

No, no, the Great White North Franchisee Association said Friday in hopes of getting the dust to settle a little, "Tim Hortons team members should never be used to further an agenda or be treated as just an 'expense.' This is completely unacceptable."

Better late than never to come to this realization, I guess. But the whole brew-haha demonstrates how Canada's fast food industry doesn't really get it about Public Relations best practices, or for that matter Economics 101 and the mood of Canadians.

The threats and complaints about increases in the minimum wage taking place in many provinces are not just an Ontario phenomenon. I expect soon enough we'll be seeing some of the same petty bullying that cropped up among members of the franchisees' group in Ontario -- forcing employees to buy their own uniforms, no more paid breaks, and a spiteful end to insignificant perks like a free cup of crappy coffee at the end of a shift -- here in Alberta.

Still, the Ontario Hortons franchisees' foray from retail coffee and donuts into retail politics was so egregiously ham handed, and Premier Wynn's response to it so defiantly pitch perfect, that the damage they've done to whatever objectives they'd hoped to achieve is probably irreparable -- which, from the perspective of making Canada a better country for its citizens, is a good thing.

Indeed, it took a swift and harsh disavowal of "the actions of a reckless few" by Restaurant Brands International, the Brazilian-owned corporation that franchises the apostrophe-free Tim Hortons brand, to head off what could have turned into a national boycott of the company's hitherto iconic coast-to-coast coffee shops.

The brewing trouble first made the news when a franchise in Cobourg, Ont., owned by the daughter of the late Tim Horton himself and the son of the chain's other founder, sent a letter to its employees telling them they'd be losing paid breaks and other incentives because the government had raised the minimum wage and the corporate head office wouldn't let them raise prices.

"A 9 hour shift will be paid for 8 hours and 20 minutes," the employees were churlishly advised in the letter. They were told they'd have to sign a pledge saying they agreed.

This brain-dead rebellion soon spread to other Ontario franchises, whose owners had apparently concluded this would show Premier Wynne and RBI's head office honchos a thing or two.

Wynne's response took it directly back to one of the Coburg owners, Ron Joyce Jr., who, as the premier reminded Ontarians, is "a man whose family founded the Tim Hortons chain, which was sold for billions of dollars."

"I'll be blunt. It is the act of a bully. If Mr. Joyce wants to pick a fight, I urge him to pick it with me and not those working the pickup window and service counter of his stores." Premier Wynne must have been fighting to suppress a smirk when she said that, whether or not she cared that Joyce didn't personally pocket the $12.5 billion paid for Hortons by its Brazilian owners in 2014. (Dear Old Dad, Ron Sr., it's worth noting, is officially a billionaire.)

Ontarians everywhere -- and lots of Canadians elsewhere too -- muttered, "You go, Premier!"

At this point, I'd bet you the cost an overpriced can of Tim Hortons ground coffee that despite all the grunge thrown at her in the past couple of years, Wynne can cruise to victory on this performance. Just watch, it won't be hard for her to tie the bullying opposition to the minimum-wage increase to the would-be bullies of the Conservative Opposition in Queen's Park.

But if the Ontario Hortons franchisees don't understand the fundamentals of Public Relations -- you know, making it sound as if you're doing it for the people you're trying to persuade, not your own sweet selves -- Canada's small but potent network of AstroTurf organizations that lobby tirelessly against improvements in minimum wages certainly does.

So the good news last week for enemies of the widespread move by provinces toward a $15 minimum wage in Canada was that mainstream media took the lobby's bait on a recent Bank of Canada research note on the impact of higher minimum wages hook, line and sinker.

The actual Bank of Canada note concluded that, for working Canadians, the benefits of increased minimum wages outweigh any depressant effect they might have on job creation. The headlines almost universally concentrated on the depressant effect, and left the impression the note had said a minimum wage increase would cause 60,000 existing jobs to be cut, which it emphatically did not.

"This is not the first time the media have gotten worked up about the wrong numbers," observed Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives analyst Michal Rozworski in a thoughtful commentary on how the note was reported and what it actually said. "This is only one example of a recurring pattern of business-friendly bias in the media."

Here in Alberta, of course, United Conservative Party spinners used their usual pretzel logic to try to twist this technical debate into an attack on unions -- since they've been criticized for advocating policies that would result in the elimination of thousands of actual, existing jobs held by taxpaying Albertans, some of whom are union members.

But the restaurant lobby, as a number of observers noted, has been strangely quiet lately hereabouts.

The explanation for that is probably simple: Canada's professional anti-union, pro-temporary-foreign-worker, anti-minimum-wage lobby -- despite its powerful voice, amplified many times by the friendly media echo chamber noted by Rozworski -- is actually made up of a very small group of people.

This web of anti-union advocacy groups includes the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, Restaurants Canada, the Workplace Democracy Institute of Canada, the Merit Contractors Association, "Working Canadians," and the Canadian Labour Watch Association -- often led by the same people in multiple board and executive roles.

With limited human resources, they have to concentrate their fire where the fight is most intense. And with several provinces moving toward a $15 minimum wage at once, that means they are likely experiencing a shortage of qualified and ideologically certified propagandists to carry on the battle.

Right now that's in Ontario. It'll be back to Alberta next fall when the minimum wage here is scheduled by our NDP government to reach $15 and an election will be that much closer. Next, presumably, the campaign will move to provinces like B.C., which have scheduled that benchmark to be reached down the line.

The economics won't change. A $15 minimum wage, especially if it is tied to a cost-of-living index, will benefit working people and society in general in every province.

And the threats, misleading claims and whining -- especially by the fast-food industry -- will never abate, no matter how many times their dire predictions don't come true.

This post also appearsnon David Climenhaga's blog,

Photo credit: David Climenhaga

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Categories: News for progressives

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How Mainstream Media Lose Their Reputation - #Fakenews On Iran And Egypt

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Moving forward while looking back

Rabble News - Mon, 2018-01-08 16:05
January 8, 2018Politics in CanadaLooking forward by looking back, starting with 2008Ten years ago we had a federal election, the great recession and a prorogation crisis. As well, Justin Trudeau won his first election.2008stock market
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Looking forward by looking back, starting with 2008

Rabble News - Mon, 2018-01-08 15:51
Karl Nerenberg

Poet and memoirist Maya Angelou once wrote: “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you have been.” In that spirit, and while Canadian federal politicians are still far from the capital on their winter break, this writer proposes looking forward to the coming year by looking back a decade -- or two, or three, or more.

When the late 19th century socialist and journalist Edward Bellamy chose “Looking Backward” as the title for his utopian novel, it was because he had his protagonist fall into a deep sleep and then wake up in the future. The novel’s main character then looks backward to his time, a more primitive time more than a century earlier.

Here, in this space, we will look back not from the future but from the present, and we will do so a decade at a time, starting 10 years ago in 2008.

 Harper’s first term was coming to an end -- but who knew?

As the year began, Stephen Harper was quite comfortably in power in Canada.

After winning a minority in 2006, the first prime minister elected as leader of the party that resulted from the merger of the Reform/Canadian-Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives had a caucus full of political rookies, many of them Reform Party populists.

Harper chose to assign most of his senior cabinet posts to folks with political or administrative experience. He called on Mike-Harris-Ontario and Brian-Mulroney-federal Conservatives such as Tony Clement, Jim Flaherty and Rob Nicholson, and MPs who had significant experience managing large organizations, notably Lisa Raitt. The friskier, more ideologically oriented Harper zealots, such as Jason Kenney and Pierre Poilievre, had yet to take centre stage.

At the beginning of the year, we did not know that Harper would precipitate an early election in October, even though his own fixed election law gave him two more years. Harper thought he could take advantage of a Liberal Party that was not hugely enthusiastic about its own leader’s carbon tax policy. The Conservatives had demagogically ridiculed that climate change-fighting proposal as a tax-on-everything. They thought they could ride that ridicule -- paired with vicious personal attacks on Liberal leader Stéphane Dion’s Mr. Bean-like personality -- to a majority. It did not quite work out for Stephen Harper, although he did increase his minority.

The Great Recession

As 2008 got underway we also did not know that before the year was out we would experience the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. Hardly any respected economists had publicly made that prediction.

It turns out that decades of financial deregulation and benign neglect had given the wolves of Wall Street free rein to indulge in an orgy of greed, which produced such toxic financial instruments as bundled sub-prime mortgages. Wall Street’s speculative house of cards collapsed in the fall of 2008, and the ensuing catastrophe forced the U.S. and other governments to fork over billions of dollars to the very culprits who had caused the crisis. Those massive taxpayer-funded give-aways saved the financial status quo and the obscene profits and executive salaries of the investment banking industry. They did nothing for the hundreds of thousands who lost their homes and livelihoods.

The crisis also produced a new economic policy consensus in the capitalist, developed world. The slavish dedication to balanced budgets at all cost was out; Keynesian stimulus spending was in. An emergency G-20 summit in Washington in November 2008 focused mostly on modernizing and tightening financial regulation, but it also committed all members to “use fiscal measures to stimulate domestic demand to rapid effect”.

Fiscal measures meant government spending to create jobs and growth, a commitment with which Canada enthusiastically agreed. When the time came to actually do something, however, the Harper government welshed on its pledge, blithely indifferent to the severe and growing job losses in the country. Harper’s finance minister, the late Jim Flaherty, produced a fall economic update that, in an act of near-delusional fiscal fantasy, forecast a small surplus. There was to be not a single dollar for infrastructure or any other kind of pump-priming spending. Professionals in the federal finance department invoked their right to non-self-incrimination when asked if they had authored that dishonest travesty.

To add insult to injury, Flaherty slipped in a non-sequitur of a measure to abolish the per capita subsidies to political parties. The Chrétien government had introduced public funding for political parties when it banned corporate and union donations. When he announced his fiscal update, Flaherty poked a stick in the opposition parties’ eyes by declaring that the whole package would be a confidence matter. If the opposition voted down the update the government would fall.

The prorogation crisis

Harper and his team thought they had the opposition on the ropes. They reasoned that the opposition parties -- especially the Liberals, who had lost seats in the October election -- were cowed and dispirited and would not dare vote down a government mere weeks after it had won a convincing victory.

They miscalculated. The Liberals, New Democrats (then led by Jack Layton) and Bloc Québécois were so outraged by the government’s arrogance they announced they would suck it up and vote against the fiscal update. Rather than precipitating another election so soon after the previous one, the Liberals and New Democrats proposed a coalition government, for which the Bloc pledged tacit support.

We have never had coalition government in Canada, with the exception of the Unionist government of Conservatives and break away Liberals during World War I, and the mere idea seemed to scare many Canadians, especially at a time of grave economic uncertainty. 

But Harper was cornered. There seemed to be little he could do to head off defeat.  Then he came up with the clever tactic of proroguing the House (suspending its operation) mere days after it had convened following the election.

Now, if a coalition presented an unknown prospect for Canada, prorogation in such a circumstance had no precedent whatsoever in any parliamentary democracy.

In the end, though, Harper got his way. No governor-general would want to repeat Lord Byng’s gaffe more than seven decades earlier of denying a prime ministerial request. In Byng’s case, he had refused William Lyon Mackenzie King’s demand for dissolution and a new election after King’s Liberals had been defeated in the House. Instead, Byng invited Conservative Arthur Meighen to form a (very short lived) government.  During the election that followed shortly thereafter, King ran against Byng as much as against the Conservative leader, and won a healthy majority.

A temporarily chastened Harper; Trudeau enters the scene

Harper survived his brush with defeat a little more than 10 years ago. When the House returned in 2009, and his government presented a budget, it was chock full of stimulus measures and projected deficits for a number of years into the future. The plan to abolish federal funding for parties disappeared without a trace.

When Harper finally got his majority a little more than two years later, he quickly proceeded to scrap the party subsidies. That, however, was among the least of the outrages Harper’s Conservatives committed to democracy and to sound policy during their majority reign from 2011 to 2015. 

By the way, one the few new Liberal MPs elected in the bruising 2008 election was the member for Papineau riding, a working class and largely francophone area in northeast Montreal, one Justin Trudeau.

The younger Trudeau’s father, Pierre, had represented a rather different Montreal riding, Mount Royal, in the largely English-speaking west end of the city.  Choosing a riding where the Bloc member was well-ensconced, at a time when the Liberals were at a low ebb, was an early sign that the eldest son of the former prime minister was not averse to risk and quite capable of bold choices. 

Photo: Andrew d'Entremeont/Flickr

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We can't imagine what real artificial intelligence will be like, and it doesn't care

Rabble News - Fri, 2018-01-05 21:14

Grasping the true potential of artificial intelligence (AI) is like trying to understand how a mantis shrimp sees the world.

Mantis shrimp have the best colour vision of any creature on the planet. Humans can perceive just a paltry snippet of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. We see that slice as a continuum of reflected colour from deep red to rich violet -- a rainbow flag of hues.

We have three types of photoreceptors called cones, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light. Birds and some other animals have four types of cones and can see ultraviolet light that is invisible to us. Mantis shrimp have 16.

Six of those photoreceptors are dedicated to the ultraviolet end of the spectrum alone.

It is daunting to imagine what the shrimp actually see. And, it is near impossible to grasp how the shrimp's brain processes spectral data from 16 types of receptors at once.

But it's fair to say that if the shrimp could see the world through our eyes, it would think it had gone blind. It would pity us our slow visual cortices -- racing to keep up with four puny receptors.

It's important to keep the worldview of the mantis shrimp in mind when we consider artificial intelligence.

In the past year we have been inundated with news about AI and its lesser cousin, machine learning. AI program Alpha Go bested Ke Jei, the world's top-ranked Go player at the subtle Chinese game of strategy. Its progeny, Alpha Zero, went on to teach itself Go and chess in under a day. We heard of AI powering self-driving cars, aiding in medical operations and developing an ability to read text out loud as naturally as humans. It was also the year AI algorithms sparred with one another to improve each other's learning. They were embedded in phones that could recognize human faces even as they aged.

But, all of these are examples of specialized intelligence. A Go-playing AI would be as useful at driving as a drunk chimp. A narrating AI would be a butcher in an operating theatre.

But in science fiction novels and movies, AIs are capable of what is called generalized intelligence. Often that generalized AI is embedded in human-like robots that can, literally, walk and chew gum at the same time. They can play piano and chess, run, and run circles around the best surgeons. In short, act like superhumans.

Other movie AIs, like The Terminator's Skynet only became a threat to humanity when it was "woke" and strove to protect us from ourselves by trying to wipe us out.

But generalized AIs need not be ensconced in metal exoskeletons like some super smart crab. And as author Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Homo Deus, there need not be any connection between consciousness and intelligence. In fact, we little, wet skin bags may just be the disposable tools needed to create the next stage of intelligence. We may be offended by that idea and not be able to imagine a wisdom without us or our wills and wants, but that's just another example of our intellectual failings.

And that's where the mantis shrimp comes in. We have a human bias about vision. We imagine the colours we see as the only colours that exist. But mantis shrimp don't care what we think. They have evolved vision far beyond ours. In fact, our type of vision was never a part of a mantis shrimp's evolution. And, the shrimp are probably not self-aware nor have a conscience we would recognize. They may not even have one at all -- in the sense of rising above simple limbic needs of food, sex and genetic survival. On the other hand, they may have a completely different kind of consciousness we aren't attuned to.

We also have a bias that leads us to believe human consciousness and intelligence is a benchmark that matters. In reality, AIs will increase in capacity with unstoppable acceleration. As evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein points out, the AI train, about to rocket down the track, will blow past the station called human without bothering to slow down.

We cannot, as much as we like to think we can, simply "kick out the plug" if AIs get too big for their silicon britches. And, as neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris points out, an intelligent AI might mask its true intelligence out of self-preservation. It would probably evolve diffusely, like Skynet, across millions of connected devices including cellphones and smart home devices. Even if it could be contained in a single computer, Harris argues, it would be morally indefensible to keep it penned up like frightened children confining a wild tiger to a kennel.

There probably isn't such a lurking generalized AI out there yet. But maybe, sometime soon, when a naive stay-at-home dad plugs in a new baby monitor, it will be the tipping point for another birth -- one that would take the eyes of a shrimp to see.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Silke Baron/flickr

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Canada needs a national disabilities act

Rabble News - Fri, 2018-01-05 15:12
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