Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On the Ontario NDP's 2011 platform.

Okay. The Ontario NDP's platform. The Plan for Affordable Change (warning: PDF). Jeez, focus-group that name much? I'm splitting this into the four areas that the ONDP did in the platform, for ease of reference.

1. Making life affordable

You mean it's not? I kid, I kid. Seriously, though: the focus groups are all over this thing.

HST off home heating, gas, electricity

One worry I've heard here is that this will encourage over-consumption of gasoline, in particular, but energy as well. I don't think that worry is particularly well-founded, though. Suppose that the combined cost of these items is $250 a month for a single-family home with one car, driven to and from work every weekday. HST is 13%, so, over the tax year, this promise amounts to $390 back in this family's pocket. It's such a tiddly amount that I can't see it altering people's buying/spending habits in any significant way.

So, why do it? I can see this as accomplishing two things. One, making people feel good about the NDP because they're cutting taxes, and everyone loves tax cuts. (Well, everyone stupid loves tax cuts; and many people are stupid, unfortunately.) Two, depriving the government of revenues -- 13 million people in Ontario, assume 3 persons per family, works out to ~44,000 familes, so about $17 million in revenue.

In other words, it's just like cutting the vehicle registration tax in Toronto. Andrea Horwath has taken a page from Rob Ford's book!

Okay, not really, but it's just pandering, not significant one way or the other.

A gas price ceiling

Urg. Price ceilings are often dangerous. While the desire to produce some stability in the gas price market is admirable, a binding price ceiling is probably bad policy. Price ceilings set below the market price produce shortages, by some combination of two mechanisms -- some suppliers drop out, and consumer demand increases. Unlike the HST thing, then, this is something to worry about, environmentally, in terms of its impact on gasoline consumption. Since the price ceiling is going to float -- the platform says the price will be reviewed every week -- it's possible that these consequences will be avoided, and the goal of stability will be achieved. But I'm really not sure about it.

Freeze transit fares (for four years), in exchange for share cost of operating transit equally with the municipalities

This I like. It might serve to mitigate the above worries about the environmental impacts of a gas price ceiling. A fare freeze should serve to get people using transit -- in this case, a price ceiling will only increase customer demand, as the supplier (being a public monopoly) isn't going anywhere. Sharing the cost of operation should help municipalities to invest in improved customer service initiatives (a long-standing problem in Toronto, for example)as well as improved service generally. Thumbs up.

Vague promise to invest in new transit projects

This is meaningless without details. It sounds nice, but the last time there was an NDP government in Ontario, we in Torontowere supposed to get three subway lines. We got Downsview station and the Sheppard stubway. (Yes, I know, the mean ol' Harris government tossed them out, and McGuinty hasn't built squat. I'm not defending the other two parties here, folks.)

We're now, about 15 years on, finally getting the extension past Downsview to York U.

Look, we know Rob Ford and his cronies want all-subway, all the time. We also know that's pie-in-the-sky. The cost of subway is insane; unless you've got a pretty hefty rider base, it's just not feasible. This is where the Transit City project actually made a lot of sense, until McGuinty caved and let Ford have his way. We'll at least get light rail east on Eglinton, but it's not really needed there -- what we need, desperately, is another downtown subway line (the ridership is there, I believe), and some sort of rapid transit to the west of the city, preferably in the north end.

As said, without details, this is meaningless. It's easy to promise transit expansion, but very difficult to execute it -- ask Rob Ford about his Sheppard subway extension, funded by rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust, and built by private-sector pixies.

Improving pensions

This is also impossible to evaluate without any details, but the idea of a provincial retirement plan may have some merit. Particularly if it encourages people to come live and work in Ontario. (Hey, I like the other provinces fine, but we're talking Ontario politics here!)

Consolidate electricity bureaucracies to eliminate duplication

I'm a big fan of public power. I don't agree with the idea of a public monopoly on power generation, transmission or distribution, but the platform seems to leave the door open for private ownership of generation, at least. (Protip: transmission and distribution are not the same. "Transmission" refers to sending power from power plants to substations; "distribution" refers to sending power from substations to (eventually) customers.) But there's an obvious public interest in reliable, safe, clean power.

And right now, we do have a lot of duplication -- which is natural enough, given that there is some sort of a market for all three aspects of electricity in Ontario. It's not clear that this competition has been beneficial; it's also not clear that it could be beneficial, given how few people are going to turn their noses up at electricity, and how you don't really have much competition in terms of selecting your service provider.

So, probably best to do as the NDP is suggesting, and provide a public power system as a backstop, while allowing private enterprise to get involved within that context, if it so chooses. (Blind guess: it won't so choose.)

Cap CEO compensation in those bureaucracies

I love salary caps on high-level bureaucrats, in the private and public sector. I'm also a big maximum wage fan, so this is right up my alley.

The usual counterargument against this sort of policy that these folks won't want to work in the public sector if their salaries are sufficiently below the private sector. For one, if the private sector wants people who are primarily motivated by greed, good luck to 'em. I don't buy the line that you have to be a saint to go into public service, but if you're really all about the money, the public service is clearly not for you. For two, the private sector isn't exactly brimming over with talent these days. These are the same bright sparks who drove the US banking and housing markets over a cliff. Do we necessarily want to be encouraging those folks to go messing around with our infrastructure? And should we really care if they don't want to?

No more nuclear power stations; study other environmentally sound options, as well as provide tax credits for retrofits

I don't like the "no more nukes" line, in that it's partially based on some really weird quasi-environmental concerns. ("Quasi" because nuclear, when done right, is not very polluting.) However, it's also based on costs, which is a fair cop, particularly with the feds washing their hands of AECL.

I've defended, a few years back, the idea that other non-fossil fuel-based power options should be provided with some government investment to see if they can make a good run at succeeding. I still stand by that, and the NDP seems to have a similar idea.

As for tax support for retrofits, that's a "WTF" from me. I know tax credits are the latest incentivizing craze, but wouldn't it make more sense to internalize the costs of non-environmentally-sound construction methods, through tax increases, rather than reduce the cost of the environmentally sound ones?

The difference? Instead of everyone subsidizing environmentally-sound construction, individuals who build in a non-environmentally-sound fashion will have to subsidize themselves. Which seems fairer.

2. Creating and protecting jobs

Because the other parties want to destroy jobs, like an economic Mothra.

Corporate tax rates will stay below US levels -- but not as far below as they are

I like it. How could you not? The only possible objection is that our corporate tax rates might be higher than those in other provinces; but what evidence is there of an exodus of Ontario businesses to other parts of Canada?

10% tax credit for companies that invest in budilings, machinery, equipment in Ontario
A credit for training staff

Combining these two because I'm going to make the same point.

Again with the tax credits. I see the logic here, on both points, which is that the party wants to incentivize spending money on things -- infrastructure, manufactured goods, skills -- which will tend to benefit Ontario economically. I'm not sure why we're giving tax credits rather than, say, taxing monies that are held at a higher level than those that are spent.

Again, it's a matter of how you're incentivizing the behaviour. The proposed policy is to reduce public revenues in order to subsidize companies doing things they should already be doing as good business practices. (Business has no independent reason to exist; its justification is purely instrumental. One of the things it's supposed to produce is economic benefit to the surrounding society.) My alternative is to increase public revenues when companies don't do things they should already be doing. Again: this seems fairer to me.

Ontario's money will be spent in Ontario for jobs
Foreign takeovers will be limited, e.g., the (now failed) takeover of the TSX
Resources mined in Ontario must be processed in Ontario

Combined because they are variants on a (Red Ensign) flag-waving theme. And they're all equally bad policy.

Sorry, Dippers, but it's true. These are very appealing ideas, in a semi-patriotic sort of way ("Go Ontario Go!"), but it hamstrings the government's ability to spend public money wisely, while simultaneously protecting Ontario industries against external competition. If Ontario has industries that can't survive against foreign -- and, for that matter, elsewhere in Canada -- competition, then those industries probably shouldn't survive. If the idea is to ensure Ontario's economic stability and growth long-term, then we need to develop industries that can thrive on their own, without government creating an artificial barrier around them.

I would much rather see a set of policies aimed at encouraging the development of new indsutries, as well as improving current ones, in order to ensure Ontario's economic future.

Minimum wage will be $11, indexed to the cost of living

Also bad policy, but probably the best policy that's politically viable.

The best policy is a guaranteed minimum income. A minimum wage punishes marginal employers, mostly in service industries, and encourages off-the-books employment, mostly in agriculture and construction. They can't pay the wage, so they either get by with fewer workers, or they underpay them -- or both. Large employers will probably have no difficulty paying the higher wage -- Wal-Mart can pay people more; it just doesn't want to -- and thus they have leverage to force smaller employers out of the market.

A minimum income, by contrast, pools the cost across the population, so larger employers don't get to throw their weight against smaller (any more than they do, of course). Couple it with a progressive tax system and you have something which provides everyone with enough money to live on, subsidized most heavily by those most able to do so. The minimum wage can then be eliminated, allowing those who work to earn above their minimum income, and allowing those who employ them to pay something they can afford. That might also serve to do some serious damage to the Wal-Marts of the world: if you don't have to work for them full-time in order to pay your bills, would you bother?

As said, though, you probably can't get a minimum income off the ground, politically, in this province right now. So, this is bad, but better than the status quo.

Improve Employment Standards enforcement

Vague, but necessary. I'm not sure most people know what the Employment Standards Act (ESA) says, let alone whether it's being violated in their workplace. It would be nice to have some strengthened language in the ESA itself, but, baby steps.

And there's some stuff on disability issues and the workplace which is too vague to be evaluated.

3. Building healthcare that works for you

But not really. See below; but this section of the platform is really disappointing. It's bad, folks. It's really bad. If this is what the consultants and the focus groups came up with, maybe the ONDP should've spent some time talking to the membership. One wonders if this sort of thing was what set Michael Laxer off on this this quixotic mission.

Cut ER wait times in half

I have no idea how the NDP plans to do this. It's not in the platform. That's dangerous. Half is a pretty strong target to meet, and without some idea of how to get there, this could easily blow up.

Cap hospital CEO compensation at twice the Premier's salary

Of course, I like this, as with the previous point about the electricity bureaucracy.

Limit use of and cost of consultants

This is arbitrary finagling. Why limit this? Are consultants necessary, unnecessary, overpaid? What's the measure in play? What's the point this is supposed to serve, except finding an expedient way to cut the costs of the healthcare system?

Give the Ombudsman oversight over hospital expenditures

This is reasonable -- I'm honestly surprised this doesn't already exist. But it points to a bigger problem: why is there nothing in here about publicizing Ontario hospitals? I mean in the sense of making them publicly-owned and -operated. That'd certainly make it easier to do things like cap CEO compensation and limit consultants.

I wouldn't support a public monopoly, but surely part of the problem here is like the problem in the electricity market -- we've got a public good that we're trying to distribute through a competitive market, and the market is failing badly because a lot of the resources are getting spent on duplicating administrative functions rather than providing that very public good.

Scrap the LHIN system and improve local oversight

Vague, thus meaningless.

Eliminate ambulance fees

Sounds reasonable; but how are the ambulances going to be paid for? OHIP? Should we hope that paramedics will work for free?

Okay, that's unfair; I'm sure that there'll be some mechanism for paying the fee. But it's more than a little frustrating to see the ONDP engaging in what is basically an accounting shell game. Instead of the patient being handed a bill for the ambulance, the ambulance will hand a bill to the hospital, who hands it to the government, who takes it out of general revenues.

If you really want to reduce overuse of the healthcare system, it might make sense to give people some sense of exactly how much money is being spent on their care. (It might make more sense to not rely on an insurance system for everything, but that's an issue I've covered previously.)

Eliminate other costs as possible

Vague, thus meaningless.

Prioritize costs in upcoming negotiations on national healthcare accord

Vague, thus meaningless.

Eliminate waiting lists for long-term care

Vague, thus meaningless.

Help fund healthcare services at home

Vague, thus meaningless.

Create a publicly owned and accountable home care system to reduce mgt and admin costs by 20%

Ah, a silver lining to this very dark cloud of weirdly vague and half-formed healthcare policy suggestions. this is reasonable, although I have no idea where the 20% figure comes from.

Again, though: if we've going to have a publicly-owned and -operated home care system, why not something analogous to the British NHS, with hospitals run by the government, and physicians publicly employed? Why not go all the way and just own the whole damn system, rather than little pieces here and there?

Daily support for seniors at home

Vague, thus meaningless.

Forgive student loans for MDs in underserved communities

A reasonable point, although I would like a definition of "underserved community". Depending on how you divide the province into "communities", this would be easy to game.

Fund 50 new 24hr healthcare centres with physicians and/or nurse practitioners

A good idea, but doesn't go nearly far enough. Why do we still rely on physicians to provide so much of our healthcare? There is reference to nurse practitioners here, which is a start, but really. The legal profession has a battalion of supporting professions who do the day-to-day and routine stuff -- secretaries, paralegals, and so on. What about garden-variety nurses? And others in the allied healthcare fields (pharmacists, for example)? Baby steps, maybe, but including more than just physicians in the system would be an easy way to (a) improve access to healthcare services while (b) reducing costs significantly.

Mandatory physed in high school

I'd need to see the proposed curriculum here. But if it ends up forcing bookish shy kids into team sports, this is a recipe for disaster. You think bullying in schools is bad now? On the other hand, if it's simply that some sort of regular physical activity is required -- school-provided or not -- it seems reasonable. If I could've gotten away with weekly visits to the pool, that would've worked out for me, for example.

Banning junk food advertising at children

Because children can't see all the junk food advertising targeted at adults? This reminds me of the whole Joe Camel thing -- you might get junk food companies to stop ads with characters that are specifically child-centred, but the notion that this will do anything to improve child health is nuts.

If you want to do that, you need to make it as easy for parents -- if not easier -- to provide healthy meals for their children rather than unhealthy ones. As long as it remains quicker and cheaper to grab something from McDonald's rather than provide a homecooked meal, parents will do it -- welcome to the world of single parents and two working parents -- and children will continue to develop a taste for junk food.

Calorie labelling on menus at large chain restaurants

Why stop at large chains? And why just calories? Seriously.

One of the things that I've never gotten about food labelling laws is how arbitrary it all is. (I'm sure industry lobbying is the culprit.) Restaurant food doesn't have to have any nutritional information attached, although the information must be available, upon request -- although I recall that scene in Super Size Me where Morgan Spurlock tested that (and it didn't often work out). Food from a grocery store must bear labels, except fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh meats and store-prepared bakery products, and probably some other things I'm forgetting.

Worse, when you do have the information, it's a huge mishmash of stuff that is either misleadingly phrased -- where a "single serving" from a bag of chips is equivalent to four chips -- or simply confusing -- does anyone really know what thiamin is and how much you should have in a day? Not to mention the issues involved in figuring out how to derive individual nutritional recommendations from statistical generalizations.

Informed choice is indeedkey here, and the policy is good insofar as it recognizes that, but choice can't be informed if the information we're given is compiled in a way to obscure its meaning.

A better idea is to compel everyone who sells food to provide information on that food to the customer at point of purchase (with some exceptions for cases where that would be crazily onerous, e.g., hot dog carts), as well as have a central web database which could be searched for that same information. That information should be provided in a way that communicates effectively and clearly what the nutritional pluses and minuses of the food are. As well, in addition to the physed component, all children should be educated in the basics necessary to understand the information provided on food lables.

Then if you're eating crap, you can't excuse it by saying you "didn't know" it was bad for you.

4. Living within our means

God, I hate titles like that. This promulgates the "government = family" myth, where principles that could sensibly guide financial decisions at the family level are erroneously applied to the government level.

Basically, it's chart porn. If you like to pore over charts and get giddy over numbers, knock yourself out. I suspect it's probably optimistic as hell, but all the platforms will have that problem.

Overall

The transit policy is good. The electricity policy is good. The tax and wage policy is not great, but mostly harmless. The "buy Ontario" and protectionist stuff is bad. The health policy is quite bad -- I dislike that section the more I read it. There is nothing about education, the environment, housing, culture, agriculture, or research.

Not good, NDP. Not good.

Of course, we'll see if anyone else does any better.

3 comments:

Ontario NDP said...

If you want to be part of what the NDP used to be join
http://www.socialistpartyofontario.ca and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mv_FeO45HmA

ADHR said...

There's bits of your platform that I like. On the whole, though, it's a bit too statist for my liking -- I suspect it would become unwieldy in practice, thus likely to fail.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you. The platform is weak.

Signed,

An ONDP 2011 Campaign Manager