Thursday, April 19, 2012

Perfect Storm: Nationalism, Corruption and Entitlement

Ah, spring in Montreal: the protests are blooming, the strikes are enduring, the corruption is blossoming, and the nationalism is need of some mowing..  I have really enjoyed Montreal, but living in this province has been a huge drag.  Why?  Let's take a quick tour of three very related stories over the past month: a poll about Anglophone assimilation, the tuition wars, and the corruption battle.
  • While I was in San Diego, a French magazine published a poll run by a noted separatist. The poll basically "found" that Anglophones may be willing to speak French but not are not assimilating as much as they should.  Anglophones were found to be less aware of key aspects of French culture and, worse, not big fans of the various laws that enshrine French and marginalize English.  
    • This has led to a big debate about the expectations placed upon the English folks.  While the poll itself was questionable with biased questions, the general finding is probably accurate--Anglophones and Francophones are not the same.  
    • But are Anglophones Quebeckers?  I think if the survey had asked about poutine consumption, about rooting for the Canadiens, and which beers they preferred, they would have found more commonalities than differences.   
    • Part of this new move to focus on assimilation is a product of the reality that Anglophones (with yours truly as an exception) have become quite bilingual and that most of the language battles were won a long time ago.
    • The "crisis" over English usage in Montreal is hardly a crisis, but it makes more sense to focus on this than on the corruption battle.
  • More revelations about how deep corruption is in the construction industry/political system.  We already knew the generalities, but the specifics are becoming more obvious.  With the centralization of this industry, serious penalties are hard because some of the companies are "too big to fail."  That is, heaps of projects would stop if the government seriously punished the big companies.
    • It took the Montreal Gazette seven years to get the information about Montreal hosting a swimming tournament that cost far more than it brought it.  Montreal and Quebec cover everything with secret sauce so that people do not have to be accountable.  
    • This is not entirely a Quebec thing to be fair, as the Harper government consistently overreacts and tries to control every message.  So much so that an effort by a journal to study a recent effort for joint research on improved technology to forecast snowfall met with much difficulty in Canada while in the US NASA was quite willing to talk to the media.
    • Anyhow, back to Quebec, because construction is only open to Quebec companies, there is really no pressure to lower costs and every incentive to collude.  The Parti Quebecois should be making much about the corruption, but given that they were complicit the last time they were in power and given their ties to unions that are deeply involved, the PQ is better off banging the drums of "oppressed majority" and "endangered French."
      • Only rarely has the PQ stood for good public policy--they find it more important to push for independence than to govern well.
  • And then there are the students on strike.  Which actually is a misnomer since they are boycotting classes, not striking since they are not employees.   The students are protesting a tuition increase that would keep Quebec at the cheapest place in North American for a university degree.
    • The movement is obviously a  mix of folks, but some of the folks involved have more radical aims--posing as anti-capitalists--and allegiances to ... the PQ.  The PQ has always been in bed with the student movements--good politics, bad public policy.
    • Recently, the conflict has escalated with universities seeking injunctions to get relief and some members of the moment engaging in vandalism and sabotage, closing down the metro system for short periods of time.  Way to win friends and influence people!  Time is getting critical as many schools have not had classes in weeks, and if they don't start soon, students will lose the entire semester. That means that they will end up facing problems getting/keeping jobs without degrees, that they will finish a semester or two latter, meaning more money spent, etc.
    • I am fairly convinced the iron law of oligarchy is at work here: the interests of the organizers and of the students in general are not identical.  Part of the problem is that when strike votes are held, not everyone shows up.  So, small numbers of voters determine outcomes.
    • I have realized that the best thing that happened to McGill was the event of November 10th last fall: the occupation/riot police encounter.  It led to a mobilization of moderates who turned out to vote against a boycott.  So, McGill's students will graduate on time.  Folks have argued because there are more foreigners at McGill or more people who don't have a stake in Quebec.  I think the real difference is that McGill simply had a relatively representative decision process, and the majority of McGill students felt that a strike was not in their interests.  All my posts about McGill students not understanding the math were wrong.  They get it--getting through and getting done is more important than fighting against a tuition increase that actually might be good for their long term interests.  Even in the short term, as many are realizing, the costs are pretty high--as in a semester that will be lost.  Time is money.
The fun part has been to watch the PQ line up with the students, but then perhaps suffer for it as the public has turned on the students due to the inconveniences of closed bridges and metros.  I know the grass always seems greener, and I know that Ontario is mismanaging its budget because it over-promised to its students, but I cannot help but think it will be better in my new destination.  Why do I think this?  Because the overpasses do not require netting to keep the concrete from falling onto the roads below.


Anonymous said...

Er, some of the overpasses do randomly release chunks of concrete in Toronto though. Just a note. :P

Anthony said...

Couldn't the apparent disconnect between the students' long-term self-interest and their behaviour at least partially be shaped by political ideas (and I'm not talking about "anti-capitalism", either) - therefore bringing the issue away from that catchy entitlement buzz-word?

From a purely self-interested standpoint, I think you're right: if I'm currently an undergrad I can imagine saving at most a few hundred dollars over the duration of my studies - yet the cost to me of lost working time (through boycotting) and the additional taxes I'll have to pay for the rest of the policy's duration will likely be considerably more.

But, if it's not all about me - if I believe that tuition fee levels are among the host of factors that shape a society, and that increasing those fees will bring us further away from the type of society in which I hope to live (in this instance typically framed in terms of equality of opportunity, social investment, accessibility, etc.) - then it may make perfect sense to oppose an increase. To that end, since the amount of money to be spent in a given policy area is not static, I may argue that less money should be spent on certain other policy areas, or even that some type of tax should be increased. And while other provinces or American states may have systems that are even worse, none of that tells us anything about the reasonableness of the position (just as pointing out that some countries have lower tuition levels tells us nothing).

Given the privileged position of students on this issue (with their current ability to act on that political position by joining up with a large group of individuals with the same desired policy outcome - even if there's disagreement among individuals regarding reasons for taking part), it may then be perfectly rational to choose to join some part of that movement. Once having joined that movement, of course, the disagreeable actions of individuals who purport to represent the viewpoint may then affect the way the general movement is perceived by others, but that too would seem to tell us little about those who did not take part in those acts (unless it can be shown that the viewpoint they hold necessarily entails those actions).

It's in light of these kinds of considerations that I find the language of entitlement in politics to be so often problematic. Am I acting entitled if I say that public healthcare is a good thing, or that primary education should be provided free of charge? In those examples, is it only entitlement if I'm currently sick or have a child in elementary school (suggesting that those who are most immediately affected by a policy change cannot hold legitimate positions on that change - kind of like an anti-principle of affected interest)? Provided that one is not at the same time arguing that tax levels should be reduced to zero and funding for all other programmes cut, I have a hard time understanding how these sorts of debates involve entitlement rather than competing visions of society.

Of course that doesn't mean that these competing visions shouldn't be rigorously debated. It does suggest, however, that such arguments should be assessed for their ability to achieve their purported ends, the necessarily implicated negative corollaries of the proposed means to those ends, and the validity and relative importance of the ends more broadly, rather than written off using labels such as entitled, communist, or fascist (pick the buzz-word of choice, depending on the topic). In this particular case there's obviously a lot to be debated, as many people have done on both sides, but calling the whole thing "entitled" seems to me a difficult position to defend, and is only possible in your formulation by reducing political positions to personal chequebook calculations.

Steve Saideman said...

You raise a lot of good points. I guess I call this stuff entitlement when much of the rhetoric focuses on the "right to a free education" which seems kind of entitle-ish to me.

I also find the movement problematic when it ignores the basic reality that low tuition is regressive--it imposes the same costs on the poor and on the wealthy when the latter can afford it. The strange think I have observed about Canadian public policy is an aversion to means testing--that richer folks should pay more for education, for (dare I say it) health care, etc.

I do tend to reduce things to personal checkbook calculations as I do think that the students (those that show up at the meetings) tend to vote against their economic interests. Maybe they are idealistic and pushing for a greater cause, but not as many people buy into "anti-capitalism."

Anthony said...

Hmm... I guess it's the rights-based language then that makes it seem entitle-ish to you? I'm not sure how one would get around this on public policy issues - maybe by talking about "education for everyone" or "healthcare for all"?

I do agree on the regressivity point, which is where I think discussions about the ability of certain policies to achieve a given end really come in handy. But getting around that regressivity is not exactly an easy issue.

Means-testing may solve the problem right now, but the obvious rejoinder is that such reforms come at the cost of undermining long-term political support for programmes by diminishing the number of beneficiaries (potential or actual) and setting up the politically-driven pitting of programme recipients against everyone else. Try to raise everyone's tuition by $300 a year and evidently students in Quebec takes to the streets; cut the means-tested bursary for the bottom 10th percentile to only the bottom 5th, while lopping off an additional 5% of students at the top of the income distribution from any kind of state subsidy, and my intuition is that most people would yawn with boredom as you explain the details. Protesting about a "right to a free/super-subsidised education" when you're in the bottom 10th percentile while people in the 11th have to pay will certainly strike many as entitled-sounding and arbitrary.

By itself this wouldn't be especially problematic, except that there are of course real life equity issues that arise as the logic of these types of reforms progress and play themselves out, with healthcare actually providing a good example. As benefits become increasingly targeted, the accidental alignment of personal chequebook interests (real or misperceived) increasingly turns against those aiming for less regressivity in the system, and before you know it Ayn Rand is the most popular author in the country.

So insofar as we're concerned with regressivity, I do think there's a legitimate conversation to be had. One can: a) accept the regressive characteristics of current universalist approaches and maintain that logic (while perhaps trying to enact small tax code changes along the way); or b) switch to means-testing, eliminating much of the current regressivity with the knowledge that the equilibrium is unstable and quite likely to actually lead to greater regressivity in the long wrong. Neither of these positions strikes me as obviously correct or silly.