Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some politicians, and apparently some citizens, need reminding that money in government coffers doesn't belong to the government - its a common pool of public wealth.

The primary philosophers of western thought saw government arising from the common interests of society - the social contract. Said Jean-Jacques Rousseau:
"The Sovereign, having no force other than the legislative power, acts only by means of the laws; and the laws being solely the authentic acts of the general will, the Sovereign cannot act save when the people is assembled." (On the Social Contract, Book 3, Chapter 12)

So it was frustrating to read Paul Wells column on the Quebec tuition row. In one of those 'I'm joking. But seriously, what do you think?' intellectual balloon-floating moments, he proposes letting some universities raise their tuition freely, while others either freeze or further lower tuition, and suffer the supposed consequences of poor education quality.

He may as well have given the Quebec student protest movement the 'here is how things work in the real world' speech that's genetically coded into fathers across privileged North America. He cites the university funding deficit of $620 million Quebec schools face versus the rest of Canada, where tuition is much higher. He's correctly identified a tension. Educating students costs money. Keeping tuition low can starve schools and leave students with poor quality education. It's one reason why I've generally opposed tuition freezes.

But funding education is not a fight between students and government alone. Public university education is a benefit, directly or indirectly, to almost all actors and members of our society.

A study of the impact of university spending by the Minnesota government suggests it costs the state there $326 million in economic costs for a benefit of as much as $786 million per year.

Students and government benefit in terms of higher wages, fewer demands on public programs, lower crime and more. But what the study fails to measure, but mentions, is the benefit to businesses. Specifically, businesses who hire more university-educated workers see boosts in productivity in university educated and lower-educated workers alike. Not only does a university education increase the quality of workers available; for many jobs, uneducated workers simply could not fill needed positions without further training.

In essence, the costs of training demanded by employers has been downloaded to the public university system and subsidized by all taxpayers. Train conductors and engineers for Canada's railways used to be educated in-house, at the employer's expense. But recently, a program was struck at a college in Manitoba. Now students pay $10,000 for a months-long program to be able to be employed as a conductor.

Corporate taxes directed specifically toward public education would help level the balance of obligation amongst those who benefit from public education. Yet raising corporate taxes specifically to fund education has not been part of the discussion while students are being called on to pay more. Corporations receive direct benefits from publicly funded university just like students do.

This option would be on the table if we saw government for what it really is - a re-distributor of private, corporate and public wealth, not a source of money in and of itself. If we want to have the benefits of public education - as the Minnesota study suggests we should - then we need to as a society decide the contributions of every beneficiary - private, public and corporate - to fund the best public education system possible.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Throne speech - check against delivery

My fellow Albertans,

Since it has come to the government's attention that we allegedly don't like Alberta all that much, we're going to go out of our way to give Albertans outside of southern rural Alberta exactly what they want - a Liberal government, but without the name, the doctor, or the tax increases. Well, no new taxes for now at least. We'll have a chat about that later.

We're going to keep the promises to liberal-minded voters we made in our platform. Don't worry that our platform doesn't mention climate change or publicly delivered health care. Past PC governments have shown we can be trusted on those fronts.

• Follow a renewed fiscal policy and savings strategy to reduce dependence on non-renewable resource revenue and seek Albertans’ input on the future of the Alberta heritage savings trust fund.

• Identify strategies to expand the recruitment of post-secondary students in rural areas, including those within Métis and first nations communities.

• Serve as the catalyst for a pan-Canadian Energy Strategy that promotes inter-jurisdictional collaboration to develop a sustainable energy roadmap based on common goals and priorities.

• Implement Alberta’s International Strategy, including the negotiation of “externships” – competitive placements for talented Albertans in international organizations, foundations, multilateral institutions and the private sector.

• Implement increases to the monthly living allowance and the employment income exemptions for participants of the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, as outlined in budget 2012.

• We will build a network of up to 140 Family Care Clinics based on the pilots in calgary, edmonton and slave lake.

• Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

• A new PC government will increase the number of long-term care spaces by 1,000 per year over the next five years and meet the needs of Alberta’s aging population and changing demographic profile.

• A new PC government will implement a province-wide ‘After School Recreation Strategy’. the ‘After school recreation strategy’ is supported by evidence that unsupervised children, between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m., are more vulnerable to anti-social and other behaviours that lead them into trouble with the law. we would spend an estimated $1.5 million to develop the program, with an ongoing operational budget of between $3 and $5 million per year. funding for the program would come from the Alberta lottery fund.

• A new PC government will build an additional 50 new schools and renovate 70 more over the next 4 years in the communities that need them most

• The Canadian Energy Strategy will help provinces and territories understand how all of canada benefits from resources in Alberta. (along with our plan for Securing expanded pipeline capacity to Eastern Canada)

• This year, agencies contracted by Seniors and Human Services received an additional $62 million – the equivalent of a five per cent wage increase and a $1,500 lump sum payment for an estimated 17,000 agency workers.

• A new PC government is committed to strengthening supports for Albertans in their time of need. our Plan for Poverty reduction will focus on a 5-year plan to eliminate child poverty and a 10-year plan to reduce overall poverty.

• To help keep traffic moving, our water clean and expand transit we will renew our ongoing commitment to fund cities through the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI). A new Progressive Conservative government will commit an additional $600 million a year to Msi in 2014/15 and guarantee yearly funding of $1.6 billion a year through 2023.

So, Albertans outside of southern rural Alberta, take us at our word - we've got the change you want. Go ahead, hold us to it.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Trudeau's shadow

Hat tip to the National Film Board - can't believe Harper hasn't slashed it yet - and their excellent website, It's packed with awesome documentaries from years back. What an asset to Canadian culture. The question of who will be Canada's next great leader seems decidedly undecided right now. Though he's achieved his political objectives, Stephen Harper is not a great leader - a man who inspires us to greater highs - nor a nation builder - sensible for a politician who sees little role for government in nation building. Thomas Mulcair is showing a divisive, calculating streak by hanging his economic credentials on Canada's "dutch disease". But he has years to prove himself. This weekend's free TV - Hat tip to the Internet, wag of the finger to the cable companies - included this series on the simultaneous rises, falls and interplays of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque. The first of three: Trudeau's removed intellectual style seems wildly out of place in today's Riddelin-starved retail politics - see Michael Ignatieff. Yet he was the last to reshape our nation. Significantly, he was the last prime minister a significant number of people seemed to love. But a review of his governing record, as the documentary suggests, returns many periods of listlessness and managerial dysfunction. On environmental sustainability, indigenous living, urban challenges, health care sustainability, competitiveness and more, Canada needs fundamental change - realignments of responsibility, bold but careful intrusions into the market, a reconsideration of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Yet we have elected, since Mulroney, incremental managers in the style of your supervisor at work. Chretien and Martin succeeded in slaying the deficit in the 90s, yes - but those are trophies from award dinners, not the stuff of grade-school textbooks or tearful flag-raisings. Despite his style, the meaningfulness of Trudeau's big accomplishments are with us still exactly because they impacted both our emotional and material lives. In retrospect, it's possible to draw the connections between a strong stance on rights and the impact the Charter of Rights and Freedoms has had on the lives of all Canadians. Trudeau's intellectual rigour on rights - the succinctness of his thinking - eventually and almost accidentally came around to unite the heady and the daily. I've yet to see a leader emerge who has thought through all those fundamental challenges and can explain why the work must be done. No leader has stepped forth to present with ruthless honesty and unending patience a plan that rises above easy criticism. Is there a leader who could do both and get elected in Canada today? Would we listen? The search goes on.