Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Nationalist Tax: Where Does It Go?

I changed the subtitle to this blog, suggesting that I would occasionally discuss ethnic politics, which has been the focus of most of my research. Given that my work has mostly focused on separatism, it was ironic that I ended up in Quebec (although Texas, with the recent mutterings by Governor Perry, would have been appropriate as of late). My usual line is that Quebec is a great place as a scholar of secession, but a lousy place to be a taxpayer. I would suggest that the two are related.

I have begun to semi-seriously consider the following puzzle: taxes/fees are higher in Quebec than in the rest of Canada [ROC is a standard acronym up here] or than any state in the US, yet, objectively, the various functions of the Quebec government seem to be, well, dysfunctional, and perhaps far worse than most of the other provinces. For example, one can immediately tell when one's car is leaving the province by the sudden smoothness of the roads. The excuse is that winter is bad for the roads, but I think that Vermont, New York, and Ontario have severe winters as well. The health care system is problematic, with hospitals that seem to be falling apart and significant waits. One friend had to have his finger re-broken as he was waiting in the ER so long it had set.

The obvious difference between Quebec and ROC is the nationalist cause. Why is nationalism in Quebec associated with higher taxes and lesser service/public performance?

1) Spending on nationalist projects: Perhaps the government spends lots of tax dollars on the language police (arms of government dedicated to enforcing the primacy of French); the delegations abroad (Quebec has pseudo-embassies to present the Quebec nation); and the like. The problem with this argument is that this really isn't that much money, compared to the revenues and expenditures. Plus plenty of federal units have some kind of foreign policy, involving representatives abroad even if Quebec flushes more money on this.

2) Nationalism + Unions = No Good: The unions in Quebec are much stronger than unions in the ROC (I think) and in the US (absolutement!). AND the unions have been tied to the Parti Quebecois, which has been the party of Quebec separatism. So, when the PQ is in power in Quebec, perhaps unions get sweetheart deals. It is clear that when the Liberals (a federalist party) are in power, the unions tend to do their best to undermine them. I do think, but have no facts at hand, that Quebec employs far more people than it should, perhaps due to the power of the unions, but these government employees, except at the top, are not overpaid. Indeed, wages are lower in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. So, this may be a factor, but not a big one, I think.

3) Elections Are NOT About Public Service: I think the key is that the nationalistic politics have caused elections to lose their essential accountability function. That is, instead of competing with each other based on who is providing the public goods, each election with a notable exception has turned on whether the public is more or less alienated by Canada or Quebec at that moment. It was quite amazing in a recent provincial election (2007) when there was a three party race between the Liberals, the PQ and the ADQ (a slightly right-center party with an anti-immigration platform) and suddenly, with the thrashing the PQ received, attention was briefly on public service. Indeed, one of PQ leaders said, "I guess we are going to have to focus on public service now."!!!!! In the aftermath of this election, the Liberals seemed responsive, but now that the ADQ has collapsed, the status quo ante has returned, I think.

A fourth explanation is that there is a fetish here for big projects and one-size-fits-all solutions that lead to tremendous waste with the 1976 Olympics as the exemplar. I need to work on this one some more.

Finally, yes, I have used words separatism and secession rather than sovereignty. I will work on the semantics of Quebec separatism in a future post.


Marie-Eve said...

My take on higher taxes in Quebec is that in the identity construction of Quebecois following the Revolution tranquille a key component became creating/being a left leaning society. Indeed, still to this day the political elites in Quebec promote the idea that the left leaning 'modele quebecois' is one of the core elements that differentiates Quebec from the rest of Canada. A left leaning (higher taxes) model has become tied in to this notion of Quebec exceptionalism (not only embraced by sovereignists, but also by nationalists are heart).

Steve Saideman said...

That might explain the higher taxes but not the lesser services. I understand that the people here would like an idealized version of the European social welfare state (complete with tuition-free educations), but why does Quebec (and Montreal) seem to screw up everything it touches and yet the politicians do not seem to pay for it?

Fairfax said...

Steve - your point 3 is what has always frustrated me the most about Quebec politics. I believe we are badly governed for the most part because, for the last 30 years, politics has revovled around the single issue of separation. Nothing else has mattered. Everything else has been neglected. I think a lot of people here are desperate to get beyond that somehow so that the focus can return to where it should be. Indeed, despite how sad I would be if Quebec separated, I often think maybe it would be the best thing, both for Quebec and the ROC, so that we could just stop worrying about it and move on.

Francois Caron said...

No way to mix higher taxes and nationalism.

If nothing else had matter than separation over the last 40 years, we would not have progress so much. See also the relative progression despite the lost of work force and capital going away.

So much good workers and leader went away; that sure weaken good governance. When is emigration from US to Quebec may cross over 1000 individuals per year so you could make it better and different as you wish?

I think more research needs to be done Steve!
Hope you can read French too. There must be certainly great analysis in other Qu├ębec universities.


Theo said...

Point 4 can definitely be expanded. In particular what's striking isn't just large wasteful projects but a particular kind of waste: bad initial planning and cost overruns eventually lead to cuts in follow-through. So we wind up with 90% of a good project--90% of what you'd need in order to deliver actual public goods--at anywhere from 90% to 150% of the cost. And we don't seem to be willing to nudge the project that last 10%.

A great example is Mirabel: an enormous airport by surface area, able to handle far more traffic than Dorval; crappy initial planning, with a fool's notion that it could serve both Montreal and Ottawa, and a requirement to spend huge political capital appropriating tons of farmland to build the thing...but even these problems could have been overcome, but for a failure to spend about 1% of the total cost on a rail line that would let humans avoid a sixty-dollar cab ride.

It now may be the only airport in the world with a marble cargo floor.

The Olympics and the Stadium are pretty good examples too, as is road work actually; hiring credible contractors and doing the job right once seems like too much money in the first place, so we get this absurd patch job. I mean none of these is actually counterproductive in principle. But the design sucks and the follow-through is worse.