Casual Québec-bashing yet again: how bizarre can it really get?

April 14, 2008 (09:44) | Canada, Politics, Quebec | 2 Comments | french

Earlier this month, Conservative MP Jean-Pierre Blackburn mused publicly about eventually re-opening the constitution to accomodate Québec. Whatever strategic motivations were being played out, it sure provoked a slew of reactions in the english language media, including the Liberal blogosphere, where comments ranged from the prudently constructive to the openly hostile. I was rather troubled, to say the least, by some of the extreme language that was used in some cases, revealing – no doubt – the depth of frustration at Québec haunting yet again the political agenda. In particular, I don’t know how come a word like “appeasement” could have become even remotely acceptable in our national unity debate – remember that this word is supposed to recall images of Nazi death camps and also, at least since 9/11, deadly international terrorist attacks – but I did encounter it here and here last week. Is it just me, or is there something terribly wrong here?

In one case, David Graham is apparently frustrated enough with those he calls soft-nationalists in Québec to support these stark implications by bluntly comparing ex-PM Mulroney to Lord Chamberlain himself, and yet another blogger (Lord Kitchener’s Own is his pseudo), commenting further in this other discussion, not only agrees with Mr Graham’s main point – that there is no place in this country for Québec nationalists – but he also suggests that this view is representative of the general state of mind outside Québec. How saddening, and the more so if there should be any truth to it. Yet again, in one reply during another discussion here, Big City Lib commented similarly that the Belleville flag-stompers and Reform war-mongers of not so long ago were merely expressing in a more extreme way certain feelings about Québec that were “not at all uncommon in an otherwise fairly moderate population”, as if this was to be at all re-assuring as to the sanity of such feelings.

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One more vote

April 1, 2008 (11:08) | Canada, Politics, Quebec | No Comments | french

A bit of federal politics now. Well, believe it or not, I finally decided I would vote for my own party in the next federal election, whenever it happens, although I’m hoping that our usual Québec-bashing factions – here’s a typical example but nothing personal here; everybody’s entitled to their view, and mine isn’t any less harsh – that they won’t get too much more clout that is, in the meantime, than they already got, if that is possible. In fact, if I have been quite disappointed with the quality of our self-examination in this respect since the leadership convention, at least I can credit Mr Dion for not having increased the level of mutual insensitivity between both sides of the linguistic divide, something that has deeply damaged both party and country (at least what was left of it), since the Trudeau-Lévesque era. At any rate, our currently mis-appreciated leader can certainly not be held responsible for Canadians not wanting to go back to the debates of yesteryear. Still, funny to think that I actually signed a Manifesto in defence of liberalism and federalism a few months ago, yet that it’s been not much more than a week since I was mostly wondering whether I would vote Bloc Québécois or Conservative, come election time.

My decision will change strictly nothing to the outcome in my riding, but for many people, this talk still smacks of blatant disloyalty, and understandably so. I may have a somewhat different view of loyalty however, at least in that it cannot be consistent with the dishonesty that my a priori agreement with everything the leader says would imply. But let me clear up my intentions here: I am actually quite happy with our current leadership, and not because I would hope it won’t last and that I will have appeared loyal in the meantime. Were we to fail forming the next government, I strongly believe that overthrowing our current leader would be, in my very inexperienced and somewhat reluctantly partisan view, a damning mistake in the longer run. If I may say so, reconciling Stéphane Dion’s Canada with Québec is a job that we Liberals should all take a lot more seriously than we are currently doing, a re-uniting that will take some time though, more time that is than what way too many anglos still seem to hope for.

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Three crises

December 28, 2007 (10:10) | Philosophy, Politics, Quebec | No Comments | french

There is much chattering in Québec these days around the idea of a cultural crisis, an idea put forward in particular in a recent book by reasonable accommodation co-commissioner Gérard Bouchard and colleague. My take on it isn’t that clear, as usual I guess, but I’m mostly under the impression that much of this talk is pretty pointless. Or maybe am I just living on some other planet. Yet there certainly is, as suggested this time in the latest issue of La Revue Argument, a crisis of the sovereigntist movement, but a crisis resulting only partly from specific circumstances, closely linked as it is at the same time with two other crises, at once more significant and reaching way beyond the Québec question. These two crises affect the practice of social sciences on the one hand and traditional intelligentsiae on the other. However, while these are real crises, that is phenomena which are challenging some stable trajectories, I do not see them at all as aspects of a cultural crisis in a more general sense. Culture is hardly moved at all by that sort of small ripples at its surface.

Let me still focus on these real crises though, if only to start a bit of thinking through them. After much reading already, in the hope always of perfecting somewhat my very partial views, one article, one book, one thesis and counter-thesis at a time, I am consistently wondering what has happened to our intellectual elites, and what has happened also to a social science that seems unable to think contemporary liberalism without caricaturing it, whether that is, in fact, in promoting or criticizing it. And when I say “our” intellectual elites, again, I’m not thinking about Québec or even Canada in particular, but about the very global difficulty that those who purport to do it have in diagnosing the ailments of the human condition with proper judgement and intelligence. Consider economist and philosopher Amartya Sen writing, a few years ago, that anti-globalization advocacy was raising important questions, even if its proponents poorly understood the very object of their discontent. For sure the intent of his analysis was to support a movement which was throwing real political weight towards correcting unacceptable inequalities, but the counterpart was a clear recognition of a crucial kind of ignorance, an ignorance that is particularly troubling because of the fact that such advocates do count as major figures of today’s intellectual elite.

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Reasonable accommodations, Quebec style (for now)

October 28, 2007 (14:27) | Politics, Quebec | 2 Comments | french

Strange times. I must admit I don’t understand the reversal of meaning that has happened to the idea that voting is to be done openly – in french we now say “à visage découvert”. As far as I know, no one has asked to go back to having shows of hands in the court of the Prince, so I assume as a given that voting openly implies that individuals may fear no repraisals after voting as they desire, rather than as expected by the majority or any other powerful group. How could this become a way then for the majority to impose its preferences for religious wardrobe? No clue. I even heard Julius Grey, who actually defended wearing the kirpan in school, rationalize this cryptic islamophobia in a surreal way, as if exercising the most fundamental political right in liberal democracies was in fact an occasion to test citizens’ conformability towards social “integration”. Not sure he would convince the Supreme Court with his new argument. After all, if a knife cautiously sown in some jacket was really a big problem in schools, what were we going to do with forks in the cafeterias? Put little plastic balls on their teeth? But then, how does a piece of cloth become a public hazard in a voting booth? Like that soccer thing: hidjabs are so much more dangerous for one’s health than braids or running shoes. For sure, Madame Tartampion.

Now, how can one explain the current collective identity crisis that Quebec seems to be undergoing, and this sudden desire to play the part of the tyrannical majority, for whatever panic over its cultural future, or maybe because it just doesn’t know what to do anymore, with the sovereignty project on the ice for now? Note that the tyranny it flirts with is relatively benign: nobody is being stripped of the habeas corpus here. At worst, the humiliation that is being cast on some appears just as justified to others as that which the latter feel they have been subjected to, and actually believe they got stronger for it. This is no gaz chamber, right? I’d still like to understand our little game a bit better. We can’t make those 19 dodo birds who crashed Boeings in skyscrapers responsible for everything weird in western cultures post-9/11, can we? So I read this book on accommodations by sociologist Yolande Geadah a few months ago, in the hope that some valid reasoning had just escaped me in all this paranoïa. But there was nothing there, nothing but the usual slippery slope sophistry applied to religious symbols, as well as some very plain categorical mistakes, such as confusing religion with irrationality. Yet surely we all know reasonable people committed to all sorts of religious beliefs, and a few atheist nutcases just as well. That we may have gotten oblivious all of a sudden to such a common-sensical truth is a bit troubling on its own, isn’t it?

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Private healthcare for Canadians? Bring it on.

October 12, 2007 (16:59) | Canada, Economics, Politics, Quebec | No Comments | french

Although it was particularly concerning for us in Quebec and urgent to do away with, our now slightly relaxed post-secondary tuition freeze has not been the sole taboo resulting in good part from the defensive collectivism that is so prevalent in this country, on both sides of the language divide by the way. And we are only starting to understand the dire consequences of this on our economic as well as social and cultural development, more so in this province actually than in a large part of a Canada still obsessed with a need to feel fundamentally different from its southern neighbour. Another such taboo from coast to coast this time, which will probably be put to the test here quicker just because its consequences hurt us more, is the surreal and persistent defense of wall-to-wall state-funded medicare, a taboo which is just one more knee-jerk rejection of modern economic liberalism, against all logic since it is the only way our complex societies are at all sustainable. Now, it is not my intention here to discuss recent controversies about the viability of the present system, which is not really my current concern. I also fully recognize that the monopsonic character of a one-payer system as well as the administrative cost-saving and returns to scale that it affords are major advantages of public medicine over any private or even mixed alternative, as far as providing efficiently a given set of healthcare goods and services is concerned.

The real problem however is exactly there: providing a given set of goods and services one way or another is not a particularly meaningful health policy goal per se. What is tremendously more important is to provide access to better health for each dollar that society invests in it. And equity just as well must certainly mean a concern with providing people with more equal access to health rather than to healthcare. Once the question is put in proper context, answers just can’t be as simple as advocates of the status quo suggest. Let me consider three key elements which still lack proper emphasis in the current debate: (1) without a responsive private healthcare sector, the political pressures for more curative as opposed to preventive interventions will likely further crowd out crucial public health dollars, with heavier consequences on the less fortunate among us, who need enough life expectancy before they can benefit at all from multiple bypasses; (2) technological change and spreading innovation are more rapid and extensive in a system of private gain, and the public sector generally benefits from positive spillover effects – I know of nobody refusing modern treatments because of their having been developed and tested originally in for-profit environments; and (3) better standards of living are also powerful determinants of health, yet there exists a major difference between a healthcare dollar forced out of a taxpayer’s pocket and one freely expended with similar intent: all else being equal, the former is a disincentive for the very economic activities needed to have such better standards, while the latter simply has the opposite effect. And there is no more or less “ideology” here than in the very foundation of economic science: resources are just too scarce to have all human desires satisfied at once.

Obviously, none of these arguments can nudge at perfectly valid justifications for global public control and universal basic coverage. If our southern neighbours’ system does need substantial reform, it is clearly because the lack of such coverage makes public programs suffer from the worst inefficiencies of a private sector which is the rule rather than the exception. Completely different points must be made however, if one wants to argue seriously against a complementary private sector and duplicative private insurance. For sure, there is a need for mitigating a number of potentially perverse effects and a thoughtful transition process will have to minimize predictible shortages. We must also expect significant resistance in powerful federal quarters with all the usual slippery slope rhetorics, but all this is still insufficient to remain in a state of denial. The current situation is not unsustainable because it can’t last, far from it actually, but because making it last amounts in fact to little more than a form of collective masochism. Or maybe it is just one more example of our fear to confront a world that changes too fast for our tastes. Come on. We’re stronger than that, aren’t we?

My dissidence on Afghanistan

October 7, 2007 (16:03) | Canada, Politics | No Comments | french

Here is a Liberal who respectfully disagree with his party leader – and much of the party obviously – on this question, and who remains in the minority of Quebecers supporting the current implication of Canada in Afghanistan. I am not saying that my position is definitive, nor that it is rooted in either principles or convictions that would make it in my view the only morally admissible one. I am quite sensitive to the human cost of this mission, and every injury, every death, every bit of suffering that this thing does produce could make me change my mind at any time. In the final analysis, this is just a hunch that if we don’t go on, this year, next year, and as long as I will have that hunch, that then, the results of pulling out will be much worse than if we stay. One will ask, is a hunch enough to lose life over? But then I must reply: is it not worse to risk more life by going against it?

The more engaging question, it seems to me, is how one can justify that hunch: how can it be so that pursuing this mission could actually be producing more good than quitting? A necessary condition, obviously, is to disagree with the radically pacifist concept that violence can only be increased, never diminished, through violence in whatever way. I do disagree with this idea, as I don’t believe it is at all rigorous, when taken to its ultimate consequences. Then the crux of the argument must lie in the proper calculations of gains and losses, including consideration of the uncertainty which comes with the complexities of world politics. Remember that it is always this uncertainty that makes these decisions so difficult, relying in effect on precisely just that, hunches. If we were sure of the outcome of this mission, and knew its total costs in advance, we could just hold a vote reflecting our subjective evaluation of their relative importance, and be done with it one way or the other. But things are not that simple: we disagree just as much, if not more, on the probabilities of different scenarios, and on what affects these probabilities and how much, than we do on the relative weights of most costs and benefits.

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Three paragraphs (well… four at the most)

October 6, 2007 (00:35) | This and other blogs | No Comments | french

OK. It’s been a while, I’ve taken a few steps back, and I’m now returning to the program. I must give myself a realistic goal if I want to make something worthwile out of this experiment with blogging: so three paragraphs it will be, four if I really need it. I’ll take a chance at writing more often by delving less into detail, being less intent at answering criticism ex ante, and by limiting myself as much as possible to three paragraphs: background, argument (ok, this part could take two), and consequences. 1 – 2 – 3. At the cost, I’m sure, of some undesirable simplifications, the idea is to be direct and mostly to be concise. Some ambitious program, as far as I’m concerned, but so many others do it – I can’t be that much more incompetent, can I?

By the way, I have also renewed my blogroll and updated my little bio. In fact, it’s been a few months already that I had to quit my grad studies in philosophy – I was done with my course load, but there was no way my PhD thesis could have been finished in due time, especially under some peculiar circumstances that I will certainly not dwell over in here. I’m even done with my “sour grapes” type of rationalizing, and I may even give it another try whenever my life will give my a better chance at it. Back to my main point, now. The trouble with this blog is that there is just too much stuff to comment on for the few weekly minutes that I can manage to devote to this activity. Hence the need to radically alter my style in the direction of simplicity and, well, short-ness. For now, I will challenge myself to briefly state my position, in the next three posts, on the top issues of the season here: Canada in Afghanistan, private healthcare and reasonable accommodations – no, no, not cheap motels, the other, politically sensitive kind of accommodation. There’s a good start, right? And then there’ll be my dear liberal parties and leaders to comment on… yikes.

As to the blogroll, I added a few links, but I mainly tried to give it some loose enough – or fuzzy enough – structure, so as to classify somewhat objectively those blogs that I do read from time to time, but without falling into the usual ideological traps. Thus, I will be setting apart sites that focus on economic science per se (and I hope to do the same with philosophy at some point), but commentary on current affairs will now be divided between what appears to me as the left- and right-brain dominance of their authors rather than left and right wings of political thought. I do find it more enlightening, and actually less arbitrary, to distinguish people’s positions and attitudes by their being rooted in a significant measure of analytical distance, or else in a more emotionally engaged attitude. However, while being a left-brainer myself and certainly paying more attention, for better or for worse, to logical structures than to the merits of intentions, this neurological distinction implies no negative judgement on the intuitive, passionate, holistic type of thinking that satisfies right-brainers on all sides of the political spectrum. It’s just a different type of division of labour, I suppose. Anyway, my third paragraph is over now. Back real soon. Promise.

Conspicuous ideology and left-wing politics

July 1, 2007 (16:58) | Economics, Philosophy, Politics | No Comments | french

Thorstein Veblen, who pioneered the institutionalist school in economics, published a short but classic book more than a century ago, entitled “The theory of the leisure class” (1899). That’s where he coined the expression “conspicuous consumption”, linking sociology and economics through the study of a type of behaviour, motivated not by direct hedonistic pleasure, which was the standard economic assumption at the time, but by the social status “conspicuously” signalled in this way. Hence, I let myself muse recently at how this idea could be usefully applied to another typical activity of modern life, which is the production of ideologically loaded discourse, in particular when it boasts of its disinterested impartiality. I actually went back to Veblen’s writing to test my intuition and the last chapter of the book gave me all I needed, when discussing the mastery of ancient languages as well as the conservative humanities of the time. Quite current, if you ask me, apart from some superficial differences with today. Maybe I’m breaking down doors that are already open, mind you, but then it’s not such a bad way to get one’s stone up the hill.

Back to now, then. We have heard the expression “gauche caviar” a lot in french-speaking politics recently, whether in Québec or in the old country, and it does have some english equivalents, whether “champagne socialists” in Britain or “lexus liberals” in conservative America, but the common thread is that it links within a provocative oxymoron a moral outlook which values social justice and a luxury good which symbolizes the lack thereof. As to the chattering sects it refers to, we certainly have a host of talking heads in Québec who fit the bill perfectly, and I guess people like Maude Barlow and her Council of Canadians do as well, and certainly many more that we don’t know much of in Québec, because a received idea here is still too often that english Canadians are a right-wing bunch of capitalist “moneymakers”. Sure. You wish. Anyway. Seems to me, on the contrary, that there is still a strong albeit fuzzy linkage between the “caviar” Canadian left-wing and an anti-Québec universalist brand of centralism, which is actually quite damaging on its own for this country, but that’s not what I’m interested in here. Nor will I concern myself with the fondamental problems of either the marxist or keynesian roots of current statist left-wing doctrines, generally based on the long outdated idea that economic value is an objective characteristic of things, or of the work put in their production, such that self-described public-serving altruists can plan and manipulate at will the distribution of this value for the good of mankind.

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Quebec tax cuts and the fiscal imbalance

June 7, 2007 (15:29) | Canada, Economics, Politics, Quebec | 3 Comments | french

Jean Charest’s electoral promise of using some of the funds recently transfered from Ottawa, in order to lower provincial income tax – which he finally did – has had way too many people losing their cool, both inside and outside Québec. The criticism has actually been flowing from at least three completely different directions.

First, independently from any impact outside Québec, there is the question of the appropriateness of the tax cut itself, especially in the context of an ageing population. For sure some people still believe that more money should be spent on social programs, but the truly relevant debate is between two concepts of sound economic management: either you take potentially productive risks with your money, or you play it safe and pay down debt. Jean Charest and I prefer the first choice, but others prefer the second and they have a right to defend their preference. But this is the key word: preference. High risks (or more fluctuations) for higher gains on average, or less variance and less expected gain. Financial advisers generally recommend to do a bit of each, but how big a bit will still depend on your… preferences. However, there are complex links between preferences and beliefs, including beliefs about how lucky one “can” be, or about how costly the less risky way really is – depending on the real impact of fiscal policy on the demographic flows themselves for example. And these links are quite problematic in Québec’s economic culture. Anybody who’s heard the expression “né pour un petit pain” (literally, “born for a small bread”) knows what I am alluding to. We should probably be interested in not letting this become a self-realizing prediction.

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A bit of spring cleaning

May 25, 2007 (17:20) | Canada, Europe, Politics, Quebec | 1 Comment | french

I know, I know. If I’m going to have a blog, I should be blogging. There is just so much thinking to be done these days. The writing can’t follow. And then there’s work, there’s the kids, there’s life. Anyway, I’ll go for a few thoughts, what the heck.

1. The Québec election: in the french version of this blog, I intervened a couple of times during the last election, to call for voting against the PQ in particular. In the end, I’m not sure I could have hoped for a better outcome. For sure, I’d have preferred a Liberal majority, but I’d rather have the current situation than to keep the PQ time-warped ultra-interventionist policies in second place. In particular, and this is actually what could bring a new election sooner than we thought, the rise of the ADQ has had the fascinating indirect effect of giving the PQ a new leader who has more leverage than ever to modernize her party – she actually came out for lifting the university tuition freeze, and nobody died – but I doubt she’ll have any more real success at it than Ségolène with the French Socialists. The downside I guess, apart from the prospect of another election, is the rise in simplistic populism: when a Liberal minister plays victim to the ever powerful big bad oil companies, I start wondering how far we’ll go to survive in the short term. At one point or another, we’ll have to recognize that market forces in this case are actually a good thing for the environment. But right now, apparently, everybody (well, not the conservatives, true enough) wants to go Kyoto, but nobody wants to pay his gas a buck and a half a litre.

2. Also apparently, the PLQ is having trouble these days. One francophone in five supports the provincial Liberals. Yet I happily renewed my card for two years: I still see modern north-american liberalism, including economic liberalism by the way, as the only consistent center-left way for the long term future. For now, hats off to Mario Dumont’s ADQ, and thanks for downplaying, in the end, the intolerance card that got you the pre-campaign attention. Cudos to Jean Charest as well for his gender-equal cabinet. Let’s see more of Line Beauchamp, by the way. She could be a strong contender against Mr Couillard soon enough. She’s got just the right brand of respectful pragmatism that go a long way with sophisticated voters. Because there are some, even in Québec. Not that I don’t like Dr Couillard, but there is a sort of technocratic aura around him that is starting to bug me a wee bit. Could change, for sure, and at any rate Mr Charest is certainly not dead in the water yet.

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