Failure of NAFTA could be good for our creativity

It’s a toss-up on whether the North America Free Trade Agreement will survive. The fifth round of discussions has concluded in Mexico and Foreign Affairs Minister Christie Freeland is not optimistic. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst and Canada is prepared for every eventuality,” she said.

     image: AgWeb.com

Failure of NAFTA will have only a slight negative economic impact. If the U.S. terminates NAFTA, as the unpredictable President Trump has threatened to do, trade would revert back to rules of the World Trade Organization. Under those rules, the added tariffs would only add 1.5 per cent of the cost of goods exported to the U.S. according to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

With “trade” in the title, you could think that’s what NAFTA about. And since Canada is a trading nation, you could conclude that NAFTA is vital to our economy. While NAFTA offers some advantages, it has a number of disadvantages such as the investor-state dispute settlement provisions that allows foreign firms to sue governments. And exports of Canadian softwood aren’t even covered.

However, trade deals like NAFTA are not primarily about trade. Trade takes place without them. These trade deals are actually about protection of corporate interests such as “intellectual property” which is not property in the usual sense. It’s a means of commodifying artistic and technological creations such as brands, music, movies, patents, and software.

America normally supports trade deals because they benefit most. The deals enforce corporate interests, and in the U.S. corporate interests = government interests. The reason that the U.S. is so interested in intellectual property is because it’s one of their biggest exports. Culture, what the U.S. calls entertainment, makes up one-third of American exports. American movies are seen in theatres around the world. U.S. pop songs are heard in the streets. Kids play American-made video games. American inventions such as the iPhone are ubiquitous.

An indication of how poorly President Trump understands the American economy is his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was a license for U.S. corporate giants to impose protection of intellectual property. I celebrated its demise after Trump cancelled the TPP but I had to wonder what (if) the president was thinking.

The demise of NAFTA would lift a weight off of Canadian creativity and allow it to flourish.

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, was asked to advise a Senate Open Caucus meeting on modernizing NAFTA.

“To my surprise, the shift in focus to a post-NAFTA world was liberating, opening the door to considering Canadian policies that have previously been viewed as unattainable given intense U.S. pressure on intellectual property policy that favours ‘Americanization’ of global rules,” he said (Globe and Mail, October 20, 2017).

By loosening the grip of the U.S. on creativity, Canadians can market their innovations globally; innovations such as software developed by Blackberry for self-driving cars and recently sold to the Chinese firm Baidu.

Of course, our intellectual property needs protection. With the U.S. out of the way, international agreements can be struck that encourage innovation while protecting creators without one player holding a big stick.

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Stop treating B.C.’s interior like a colony

Premier Clark’s plan for job growth in B.C.’s interior is a failure. Her plan to extract Liquefied Natural Gas from the interior evaporated. She is sending more raw logs out of the interior than any other government according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Clark treats B.C.’s interior like a colony of Victoria: drill for natural gas and sell it overseas with no regard to the contamination of water or earthquakes that fracking causes; send raw logs, and the jobs that go with them, elsewhere instead of restoring those jobs in the interior.

The interior-as-colony mentality didn’t always exist. Before 2003, the government made sure that jobs stayed in the communities where trees were logged. That meant that sawmill workers could earn good wages where they lived. Once logging companies were free of that obligation, they shut down mills. Since 1997, 100 mills have closed and 22,400 jobs were lost.

That loss of jobs means a transfer of wealth out of the interior. By my calculation, the loss of the above jobs amounts to $1.5 billion.

Since 2013, when Premier Clark was elected, nearly 26 million cubic metres of raw logs worth more than $3 billion were shipped out of BC. No previous BC government has sanctioned such a high level of raw log exports. Last year, about 6.3 million cubic metres of raw logs left the province. Had those logs been turned into forest products in the interior, 3,600 workers could have been employed.

We can do better. B.C. does a poor job of extracting value from our publicly-owned forests compared to other provinces. Ontario’s value-added wood industry was almost three times that of B.C.

B.C. should be a leader in extracting value from our forests, not a laggard. Waste wood can be used for more than paper mills and as fuel to generate electricity. That’s a good start says The Forest Products Association of Canada. They suggest other uses for waste wood -make wood pellets to heat homes, manufacture alcohol for vehicles, and make solvents for industry.

In addition to these bio-products, engineered wood products add more value. Such building systems include wall panels and roof trusses that are made from lumber in factory settings. The completed pieces are then moved to construction sites where they are secured into place, forming the walls, floors and roofs of finished houses or multiple-dwelling buildings.

In one demonstration, two identical triplexes were constructed in Edmonton.  The pre-fabricated building went up faster, with less on-site waste than the building next door.

Victoria can afford to be blasé. Vancouver Island gained 9,000 jobs last year; two-thirds of them went to Victoria. The Lower Mainland did OK as well, gaining 94 per cent of all B.C. jobs.

All other regions outside of Victoria and the Lower Mainland lost jobs last year compared to 2008 before the Great Recession (CCPA Monitor, March 2017).

Rather than treating the interior as a colony the government should create jobs and wealth where people live. The forestry sector is an obvious place to start since forestry has been a proven record as a job creator.

 

Tax loopholes –the good, bad and ugly

What’s the difference between a tax break and a tax loophole? Tax breaks are legitimate deductions that I make and loopholes are shady tax dodges that others use. Seriously, they’re all what economists call tax expenditures. The only difference between them is whether they progressive or regressive, and how much they improve equality.

Some tax expenditures benefit low and middle-income families such as deductions for union dues and post-secondary education. Others benefit wealthy Canadians such the mineral exploration deduction and the capital gains allowance.

Regardless, they are all uncollected taxes. And it’s a lot says David MacDonald, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (Monitor, Jan/Feb, 2017). The government of Canada gives up almost as much in tax expenditures as it collects in taxes. In 2011, tax expenditures were $103 billion while collected taxes were $121 billion.

Tax expenditures serve a useful purpose if they improve equality. Equality is an indicator of how happy citizens are, be they rich or poor, as I argued in an earlier column (Conservatives can increase chances by decreasing happiness, Dec. 14, 2016).

The question is whether tax expenditures increase equality or reduce it. Are they progressive or regressive? MacDonald has analysed tax revenues and found that of 64 tax expenditures, only five are progressive and go to the lower half of income earners. The remaining 59 tax expenditures go to the top half. The tax benefit for low-income earners is a paltry $130 while for the richest it’s $15,000. Is it any wonder that “tax loopholes” seem shady? Low income earners see it for what it is –a benefit that only the rich receive.

With the feds in the fiscal hole, and with almost as many taxes uncollected as collected, I would have thought that Finance Minister Morneau would have use the last budget to reform taxes. But he didn’t according to Kevin Milligan, professor of economics at UBC.

“In the budget, the government did make some good moves with the tax measures it tackled, but it did not tackle enough. That is, Mr. Morneu may have grabbed some of the low-hanging fruit, but he left a lot of fruit further up the tree untouched, (Why Morneau got cold feet over eliminating Canada’s bloated tax-credit system, Globe and Mail, Mar. 24, 2016.)”

On the plus side, the feds are still committed to reviewing corporate tax shelters that allow income to be split with partners and lower taxes. And they simplified the Canada Caregiver Credit for those caring for an elderly or infirm family member.

It’s OK to eliminate tax breaks but not my tax break. Milligan elaborates:

“For every tax expenditure, there is a particular constituency that benefits, while costs are dispersed across all taxpayers. Firefighters like their volunteer-fighter tax credit; teachers like their teacher-school-supply credit and first-time home buyers like their home-buyer tax credit.”

The solution, adds Milligan, is to eliminate entire bundles of tax breaks. That way no particular group feels targeted by tax reform.

Tax reforms may be painful but they’re necessary to improve equality. We’ll all be happier for it.

Is spending on B.C. education really at “record levels?”

The BC Liberals claim in a fact sheet that spending on education is at record levels. A reality-check shows otherwise. Sure, spending is up if you consider only dollar amounts. When inflation is factored in, a different outcome emerges: there is no increase at all.

CCPA on Twitter

CCPA on Twitter

For example, from 2009 to 2013 B.C. education spending increased by 5.6 per cent which is almost exactly the rate of inflation. Across Canada, spending is actually increasing. It’s up by 12.3 per cent according to the Canadian Centre for  Policy Alternatives. Their assessment of the BC Liberals’ claim is blunt:

“As much as government may like to brag about the dollar amounts of funding, ignoring the basic inflation rate and other cost pressures obscures the meaning of those numbers.”

Spending is not at record levels and spending per student is dismal. Compared to the rest of Canada. B.C. is second last with PEI at the bottom. Alberta is second highest with Manitoba at the top.

However, Premier Clark can truthfully boast about record spending in one area. Funding for private schools has increased at more three times the rate of public schools over the past ten years, and is now projected to reach $358 million in the 2016/17 school year.

Premier Clark clearly likes private schools: she sends her son to St. George’s School in Vancouver at a cost of about $20,000 per year. In welcoming a new parliamentary secretary to the minister of education for private schools, she said: “I’m pleased to have him joining our excellent team of parliamentary secretaries, advocating for independent schools throughout B.C.”

She is mistaken in the belief that private schools are better. Student performance is affected by their parents’ socioeconomic status. In a study by Statistics Canada and reported by the CBC, the success of students is a result of resources at home.

“For example, compared with public school students, higher percentages of private school students lived in two-parent families with both biological parents; their total parental income was higher; and they tended to live in homes with more books and computers,” the report says.

Premier Clark makes it evident that she no intention in catching up with the rest of Canada on spending. In her mandate letter to Mike Bernier, Minister of Education, she instructs him not to increase spending:

“1. Balance your ministerial budget in order to control spending and ensure an overall balanced budget for the province of British Columbia.”

At first glance, the plan to close underutilized schools seems perfectly rational until you consider the details. They count computer labs, art and music rooms, as “empty” because they are shared by all students. By this warped calculation, a school with seventeen full classrooms and three “empty” rooms would be only 85 per cent full.

Despite all the perky talk about how great Clark’s government is doing, the real agenda of the BC Liberals is clear: keep spending on public schools low and ensure that private schools are available to the deserving rich.

Fracking is a threat to B.C. dams

There are environmental reasons to stop fracking in B.C. There are political reasons to continue.

In addition to the environmental reasons to stop fracking, there is a risk to B.C. dams. The list continues to grow: the contamination of groundwater, the disturbance of natural environments with roads and drilling rigs, the disposal of toxic water, and now the danger of earthquakes. Especially around dams, reservoirs, and tailings ponds.

earthquake

Freedom of information documents obtained by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives reveals the concerns of BC Hydro officials.

BC Hydro became alarmed in 2009 when drilling started on lands near Peace Canyon Dam, downstream from the W.A.C. Bennett Dam; a dam which holds the world’s seventh-largest hydro reservoir by water volume.

Ray Stewart wrote, “BC Hydro believes there are immediate and future potential risks to BC Hydro’s reservoir, dam and power-generation infrastructure as a result of this coal-bed methane project.” He warned that earthquakes caused by fracking “may be greater than the original design criteria for the dam.”

His concerns are well-founded. Fracking is taking place in the Montney Basin which underlies much of the Peace River region, an area rich in shale gas. And fracking is proven to cause earthquakes.

Stewart also warned that fracking could “reactivate” ancient faults in the region, which could potentially set the stage for earthquakes. He also warned of “hydrogeologic impacts” on hydro reservoirs from fracking. He worried that the land might sink or that dried-out coal seams might ignite.

The land could sink and the coal dry out because the cavities that result from the extraction of gas. It occurs after water under pressure fractures the shale and is pumped out. The gas follows the pumped out water. The cavities are one thing, the toxic water is another.

To get rid of the toxic water, it’s pumped back into the earth below the area that’s been fracked. The pressure created triggers earthquakes.

Regulators have been slow to react. BC Hydro would like to stop the drilling within five kilometres of dam sites but regulators have not ruled it out, citing only “understandings” with drillers.

Even BC Hydro’s deputy CEO, Chris O’Riley, seems to be in denial. “Fracking by itself cannot generate large magnitude earthquakes.” That’s not what the U.S. Geological Survey found. While B.C.’s fracking is in its infancy, the USGS has been studying the alarming rise of fracking-induced earthquakes in Texas and Oklahoma for decades.

The USGS says that magnitude 6 fracking-induced earthquakes could occur which can damage even well-built structures. “But we can’t rule out quakes of magnitude 7 and above,” says Mark Petersen, chief of the National Seismic Hazard Mapping Project (Scientific American, July, 2016).

The political reason for fracking is that it’s the only plan we have. Premier Clark campaigned on her plan to liquefy natural gas plan and won — a plan to drill and export LNG and to power it with the Site C dam.

She’s likely to campaign on the same strategy again in the upcoming B.C. election. Even though LNG markets have dried up and the power from Site C won’t be needed for decades, it’s the only game in town.

It will be interesting to see what job-creation strategies other parties have as the campaign heats up.

B.C.’s Carbon Tax not as advertised

B.C.’s carbon tax is praised nationally and internationally as achieving the best of both worlds: reducing CO2 emissions (GHG) without weakening our economy. I wish that it were true because I take pride in B.C.’s  leadership.

carbon tax

B.C.’s economy has not been hurt, but that’s because our carbon tax is small compared to other taxes.  The carbon tax is only 7 cents per litre compared to 30 cents per litre for fuel tax, excise tax, and GST.

The only way that B.C. meets its target for GHG reduction is by buying debatable carbon credits, not through the carbon tax. Marc Lee, senior economist for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, explains the mischief:

“The B.C. government makes the dubious claim that they met their interim GHG reduction target for 2012 of 6% below 2007 levels. Even then, B.C.’s numbers showed only a 4.4% drop, which, as noted, involves a one-time drop from 2008 to 2009. The claim of 6% reduction is based on the purchase of bogus carbon credits (offsets), making it more fiction than fact.”

The trouble with the purchase of offsets is that there is no detailed reporting on how offsets were used. The whole scheme suffers from “massive credibility problems” after a scathing report by the auditor general.

The 4.4 per cent drop in GHG wasn’t because of the carbon tax. It was because of the Great Recession of 2008 when the world saw a reduction because of slowing economies. Even the U.S. reduced GHG. Between 2007 and 2009, emissions fell by 10 per cent, half of it due to less coal burned, half due to the recession. The Smithsonian magazine says:

“In effect, more than half the carbon decline was due to a drastic drop in the volume of goods consumed by the U.S. population.”

Even the claim that B.C.’s economy was not hurt by the carbon tax is suspect; all of Canada’s economy grew. From 2008 to 2013, B.C.’s economy grew by 12.6 per cent while Canada was 15.1 per cent.

“If we go to constant dollars, there is a very slight edge to B.C. over Canada, but it works out to 0.07% per year in GDP growth rates.”

Our carbon tax could be something worth bragging about if it was significant. With relatively low fuel costs, now would be the time to increase them. If the tax was increased from the current $30/tonne to $200/tonne, fuel prices would only increase to what they were last year.

And since the carbon tax is revenue neutral, there would be no net increase in taxes. Even then, a better idea would be to invest the tax in renewable energy and public transit to lower GHG further. Meanwhile, let’s get real about our carbon tax.

“We need to stop telling fairy tales about the province’s climate action policies and its carbon tax (and I say this as a general supporter of carbon taxes).”

B.C.’s Premier Clark has a lot of explaining to do. Her proposed LNG project will result in the province exceeding targets. Clark’s new plan to be released by December will tell us whether our pride in the carbon tax is warranted.

Cuts to CRA encourage tax avoidance

It’s a familiar pattern: talk tough and do nothing. The Harper government says that they want to crack down on tax evaders; all the while they cut 3,000 positions from the very agency that could investigate. To top that, they fail to pass legislation that would plug loopholes.

tax

To enable tax avoidance, the Harper government signed a treaty in 2011 with Bermuda to allow Canadians to transfer money there and transfer tax-free dividends back, reports Paul Weinberg in the CCPA Monitor.

For appearances sake, the finance minister made a trip to Bermuda in 2013 to assure fellow G8 countries that Canada was on board in the effort to close tax loopholes.

It’s fine to talk tough but actions speak louder. Alain Deneault, professor at The University of Quebec discloses that Canada is complicit in sheltering tax avoiders in his soon to be released book Canada, A New Tax Haven: How the Country that Shaped Caribbean Tax Havens is Becoming One Itself.

While researching his book, Professor Deneault found inside sources that exposed the government’s hypocrisy.  “Officially, Canada shows solidarity with other western countries about tackling tax avoidance. I have informants in other countries, people whom I talk to when I travel, and they say that Canada, in the meeting rooms, is also always fighting against any kind of proposal that would make it difficult for corporations to use tax havens.”

It’s not just big Canadian corporations that are avoiding taxes. Court documents recently obtained by the CBC reveal that a wealthy Victoria family paid virtually no tax over a span of eight years in a sham cooked up by one of the most respected accounting firms, KPMG Canada.

The Canadian Revenue Agency found that that between 2002 and 2010, the Victoria family paid little or no tax, despite receiving nearly $6 million from an offshore company. KPMG lawyers claim any money the family received were “gifts” and therefore non-taxable.

KPMG must have felt emboldened by the inaction of the Harper government. The feds were essentially signaling to KPMG that despite the tough talk, this kind of dodge was OK.

Imagine the number of tax avoiders that Canada Revenue Agency could find if they were properly staffed?

While other G8 countries are tightening up laws to reduce tax avoidance, Canada’s net to catch cheaters has holes in it big enough for a whale to swim through.

NDP tax critic, Murray Rankin, tried to pass a private members bill that would tighten the net and bring Canada up to par with the tougher approach to tax cheats taken by the U.S.  It failed to receive government support.

“Murray Rankin’s bill is right on,” says Robert McMechan, a former general counsel in the tax litigation section of the Department of Justice. He’s seen too many “complicated corporate transactions where money goes around a circle and nothing of real economic substance occurs.”

I gladly pay my taxes, not just because the money is well spent in the services and infrastructure I receive in return, but as investment in the kind of Canada I believe in. It’s too bad the Harper government isn’t of the same mind.