Showing posts with label Enlightenment Now. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Enlightenment Now. Show all posts

Monday 18 May 2020

The "We" Vote in Quebec

Les Patriots 

Today is la Journée nationale des patriotes in Québec.   (Prior to 2003 it was Dollard des Ormeaux Day in celebration of the garrison commander who died fighting the Iroquois [Haudenosaunee]  at the Battle of Long Sault in 1660. Times change.)  In the ROC (the Rest of Canada) today is Victoria Day (in honour of Queen Victoria).

In popular lore, les patriots are remembered as French peasants battling their English overloads.  This version of history is at least partially true; however, some leaders of the rebellion in Lower Canada (today Quebec) were English (notably Wolfred Nelson and his brother, Dr. Robert Nelson), some members of the upper class--opposing les patriots-- were French Canadian seigneurs, and, at the same time (1839), a similar rebellion of English-speaking farmers was taking place against the ruling-elite Family Compact in Upper Canada for the same reasons--demanding representational government.

In Quebec, history is often retold as a battle between English and French

In this age of polarizing algorithms, viral conspiracy theories, fake news and internet trolls, it might seem like small potatoes that Canadian history tends to get rewritten from a linguistic perspective (not to mention the obvious, that it is written in two languages).  In Quebec, at a popular level and sometimes beyond, the stories of Canada tend to be told (or performed) as a conflict between an oppressive English elite and an oppressed, minoritized French-Quebec majority.

"Mon non est québécois"

During the 1995 referendum campaign on Quebec independence, a whisper campaign emerged suggesting that advocates for the "non" side ("no" to separation from Canada)  didn't have French-sounding names.  In response, the "non" campaign led by Claude Ryan, came up with a slogan punning on "non" [no] and "nomme" [name], which are homophones in French.  (See Quebec and the ROC.)

Since those days, I've thought someone needs to write an article entitled "The 'We' Vote in Quebec."  (Much as I hate to kill the pun with an explanation; to be safe, I should explain that "we" and "oui" [yes] are homophones.)

"We" yes; "ethnic nationalism" no

From a sovereigntist perspective, there are certain words that cannot be used to describe the movement for Quebec independence.  In 2013, Bloc Québécois member of parliament, Maria Mourani was expelled from the party for stating publically that many of her constituents viewed the Parti Québécois “Charte des valeurs" [Charter of Values] as ethnic nationalism.  "Ethnic nationalism" is verboten, but I think we can safely describe the sovereigntist position as being in favour of "we." "We" (in its various cases--us, our, ours) is a consistent presence in independentist slogans:  "Nous sommes un peuple" [We are a nation], "Maîtres chez nous" [Masters of our house], and the PQ slogan for the “Charte des valeurs":  “Parce que nos valeurs, on y croit” [Because our values, we believe in them].

"Nous et les autres"

Although it might be viewed as politically incorrect in recent times, the dichotomy of "nous" and "les autres" [the others] has always been a part of life in Quebec.  I grew up in a small town on the Quebec side of the Ontario/Quebec border.  From birth to retirement I spent virtually the entirety of my life and career in Quebec; as a bilingual anglophone, perennially perched on the divide between "nous" and "les autres."  Contrary to what you might imagine, most of the time, it wasn't a bad place to be.

Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America 

As the newly-installed Governor General of British North America, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, was tasked with writing the (in)famous Report in which he claimed:
There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature.
[ . . . .]
In these circumstances. I should be indeed surprised if the more reflecting part of the French Canadians entertained at present any hope of continuing to preserve their nationality. Much as they struggle against it, it is obvious that the process of assimilation to English habits is already commencing. 
Despite (or perhaps, in some small part, because of) Durham's predictions, the language and culture of the people of Quebec are still with us 180 years later.

How has Québécois culture survived?

Asking how French Quebec has lasted so well for so long, you might credit the enlightenment of the British Quebec Act of 1774  allowing French inhabitants to maintain their language, social structure (the seigneurial system) and religion (Catholicism), or modern Canadian federal policies of bilingualism and multi-culturalism.  However, within Quebec, the long-term objectives from The Conquest onward--including the Durham plan as well as multi-culturalism and bilingualism--are understood to be the reduction of the French of Quebec to one of many minorities, the tokenization of their language, and ultimately their assimilation within an English federalist system.

The real answer to the question of French Quebec's survival is the willingness of individual Québécois to privilege the collective over individual ambition, to think in terms of "we" rather than "I."   Quebec's language law (Bill 101) is a constant target of attack as it restricts the use of English on signs and requires immigrants to educate their children in French. What is truly striking, and rarely discussed, in the context of English being the lingua franca of North America and global business, is the willingness of the French-speaking majority of Quebecers to accept that their children may never learn to speak English (See "Yes, no, toaster").

Individual rights versus collective rights

The conundrum of parsing perceptions of and from Quebec boils down to the distinction between individual and collective rights. (Personally, I tend toward a libertarian, live-and-let-live view though I remain wary of radical individualism.)  As a minority in Canada and the Americas, francophone Quebecers are entitled to claim the collective rights of their language, culture and identity.  However, as the majority in Quebec, they are compelled to respect the individual rights of citizens and the collective rights of minorities within the province. When the collective rights of the Quebec majority collide with the individual rights of persons within Quebec, whose values should prevail?

Rights versus privileges

Quebec's privileging of the collective rights of the French-speaking majority--most often in the form of language laws (Bill 22 and Bill 101)--is typically met with incomprehension in the ROC and by minorities within Quebec. Conversely, what Anglo-Quebecers might claim as "rights"--the "right" to a public sign in English, the "right" to educate offspring in English--are viewed from a French perspective as "privileges." Actually, parents who were educated in English in Quebec themselves maintain the "privilege" of having their offspring educated in English in Quebec.

English common law versus Napoleonic civil code

A typical criticism of Quebec legislation (beyond the infringement of human rights) is that it tends to be a solution in search of a problem.  Certainly, this seems to be an apt critique of the recent Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State.

Is the wearing of religious symbols by persons in authority a threat to the collective rights of the people of Quebec?  The English common-law approach to solving this question would be to allow a number of cases to be brought to court; that is, a number of plaintiffs claiming that their rights had been prejudiced by someone wearing a religious symbol (a police officer, a judge or a teacher).  This jurisprudence, these precedent decisions of various judges, would eventually become the "common law."  The French tradition, in contrast, is more top-down.  A code of laws is enacted, and future judgments are based on that code.  This legal tradition, together with the privileging of collective rights, adds to incomprehension in the ROC.

The Bouchard/Taylor Commission on Religious Accommodation

In 2007, Professors Bouchard and Taylor were commissioned by the Liberal government in Quebec to review, analyze and make recommendations on  "Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in response to public discontent concerning reasonable accommodation."  In what might be taken as a "common law" approach (although, obviously, the Commission was not a legal body), Bouchard and Taylor did a substantial stock-taking of all the legal cases related to religious accommodation in Quebec--73 cases over 22 years prior to June 2007.  What emerged from their review was that an "accommodation crisis" was being provoked by a series of fairly minor, misconstrued incidents which escalated because of media attention:
40 cases out of 73, were brought to the public’s attention during the period March 2006 to June 2007 alone. The investigation of the cases that received the most widespread media attention during this period of turmoil reveals that, in 15 of 21 cases, there were striking distortions between general public perceptions and the actual facts as we were able to reconstitute them. In other words, the negative perception of reasonable accommodation that spread in the public often centred on an erroneous or partial perception of practices in the field.

Bouchard's and Taylor's repudiations of Bill 21 

As the authors of the report upon which Bill 21 is ostensibly based, it is telling that both Bouchard and Taylor have publicly stated their opposition to the legislation.  Taylor has flatly declared that he has changed his mind.  Bouchard argues that the timing was wrong, and the bill should not have been passed in the current climate of polarization.

The Separation of church and state is a French idea

The concept of laïcité (or, more commonly, "secularism" in English) is rooted in the French Revolution and the political desire to undo the domination of the Catholic Church. When Durham claimed that the French of Lower Canada were a people "without a history," he was no doubt considering that between the settlement of New France and the publication of his report in 1839, there had been a revolution in France, cutting the Québécois off--practically, ideologically and culturally--from the motherland.

Catholic church domination prevailed in Quebec until the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s.  Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State, which prevents persons in authority from wearing religious symbols, is less broad than the law in France banning religious symbols which applies to all civil servants and to students in public schools and has been in force since 2011.  Bill 21 is less strident and overarching than the charter of values proposed by the Parti Québécois in 2013.

Individual liberty:  the ultimate shared value in Western democracies

In Western democracies, there is a presumption that individual liberty is our ultimate shared value--which paradoxically makes it a collective value.  Part of our belief in individual rights is respect for the collective rights of minority groups.  To further confuse the paradox, all individual rights, upon reflection,  end up being collective.

Rights versus freedoms

Nour Farhat, a young lawyer with aspirations of becoming a crown attorney in Quebec,  has become the poster person in the conflict between individual religious rights and the collective aspirations of Quebec's becoming a secular society.  The question being asked in Quebec is: "Should Nour Farhat have the right to display her religious convictions while she is prosecuting someone who might be Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or Sunni or Shiite or Christian or an atheist?"  But the underlying question which Quebec has raised, since the opening discussion of a charter of values, is:  Are religious rights individual rights?   Interestingly, both the Quebec and Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms identify religious expression as a "freedom" not a "right."  I have not, however, been able to find a succinct legal or constitutional distinction between a right and a freedom.

Freedom from Religion

The broader Freedom from Religion movement puts Quebec secularism in a slightly different perspective.  You might have seen Steven Pinker's endorsement of the Freedom from Religion Foundation television ads.  Pinker, himself an Anglo-Quebecer who studied at Dawson College and McGill University before moving on to California then Harvard, established his position as an avid atheist in his monograph Enlightenment Now.

While I have generally accepted the idea that Quebec has little to fear from the growth of Islam; not only is Islam the fastest-growing religion in the world but, as Pinker points out, its adherents have proven more faithful and tenacious in their religious beliefs than followers of any other religion.  In terms of (non)religious trends, the growth of Islam and of atheism have outstripped all other movements in Quebec in recent years.

It's about equality, stupid!

The purpose of a Charter of Rights and Freedoms is to create equality.  The problem with "being equal" is that it often seems to imply "being the same."  The challenge of our time is to honour equality and celebrate difference at the same time.  In Quebec, the interpolation to "join the family" and "become one of us" is frequently and reasonably met with wariness and skepticism.  As George Orwell pointed out in his allegorical novella, Animal Farm, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Thursday 27 June 2019

Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality? Not in the USA.

Education can't solve economic inequality

When my guru forwarded Nick Hanauer's article in The Atlantic, "Better Schools Won't Fix America," I devoured it enthusiastically.  Hanauer, a wealthy American philanthropist, with considerable credentials as a patron of education in the USA, was disavowing the dogma that education can erase the income gap--a dogma he calls "educationalism."  Hanauer's criticism of his  cohorts in the 1% is scalding.  "Educationalism," Hanauer writes, "appeals to the wealthy and powerful because it tells us what we want to hear: that we can help restore shared prosperity without sharing our wealth or power."

Global education versus American education

The article does not devalue education, but debunks a generalized notion that education alone can solve economic inequality.  His argument, in a nutshell, is that "great public schools are the product of a thriving middle class, not the other way around."  However, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which is arguably the Bible for crusaders against income inequality,  Thomas Piketty, argues that "the poor catch up with the rich to the extent that they achieve the same level of technological know-how, skill and education, [ . . .]."

The world's poor and the American lower middle class

How can we rectify this shared preoccupation with wealth inequality leading to such different conclusions?  The simple answer is that Hanauer is talking about the USA  (once known as the land of opportunity) and Piketty's perspective is global.  As Steve Pinker observes, in Enlightenment Now, "the world's poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class."

"The American lower middle class" (whom Pinker identifies as the Trump constituency) were exactly the people who were ill prepared to take advantage of globalization.  In contrast, highly educated individuals from emerging economies, whose expertise, skills and products easily crossed national boundaries or flourished in cyberspace, enriched not only themselves but their home countries as well.

Education and the classroom

The American vision of education (which tends to be shared by most Canadians) is that it begins and ends in the classroom.  The classroom, if you stop and think about it, is a very poor learning environment.  A lot has to happen outside the classroom if the education which is initiated there is going take hold and have any effect.

Money isn't usually the purpose of an education

Economic advantage is rarely the unique objective of education, but most people, quite rightly, expect  economic stability, if not affluence, to be a beneficial side effect of an education.  That expectation is frequently disappointed.  The problem is that cost effectiveness and capital gains (in every sense of these terms) have come to dominate the thinking of both educational institutions and some individual educators.  When everyone is asking "What's in it for me?" the average student is left out in the cold.

The simple solution

Hanuaer's got it right that putting more wealth into the hands of Americans in the bottom half of the socio-economic ladder is the obvious, Occam's-razor solution to wealth inequality.  He's also right that education in the USA would improve if more American families were empowered with the affluence, influence and the confidence to make themselves part of the educational process, rather than turning over the young of America to schools and universities in the vain hope that education will just happen, and the future will, magically, be richer and brighter than the past.

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Why Are the Poor Always with Us? "Moral Hazard."

The Poor Are Always with Us

“The poor are always with us.”  What a discouraging declaration!  More disturbing still, it is attributed to Jesus Christ.  Although the details vary from one gospel to another, Mary of Bethany (some say Mary Magdalene) was pouring expensive oil on Jesus’s feet (in some versions on his head) when his disciples complained  (some say Judas specifically) that the money could have been used to feed the poor.  (The Gospel of Matthew suggests that this incident is what caused Judas to betray Jesus.)

Moral Hazard

Why are the poor always with us?  Consider  “moral hazard.”  “Moral hazard,” according to Alan Blinder in After the Music Stopped:  The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead, “has nothing to do with morality.”  The concept originated in the 18th century in the insurance industry and suggests that having insurance might encourage risky (and therefore immoral?) behaviour.  

Today the concept is very much with us as insurers worry aloud  that house insurance will encourage us to smoke in bed, car insurance will promote real-life Gand Theft Auto, and medical insurance will cause all of the above.   In fact, “moral hazard” is pervasive because it underpins all the “self reliance,” “free market” arguments of, in particular, American capitalism.

The concept arose in Blinder’s book because “moral hazard” also applies to making risky investments.  In 2008, super wealthy financiers and bankers, who were typically the defenders and upholders of “moral hazard,” found themselves in a situation where they needed hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts because they had made risky, losing investments.  To accept government money instead of facing the consequences of their behaviour was to repudiate “moral hazard”—which is what they ended up doing.  However, “moral hazard” when applied to the holders of underwater sub-prime mortgages was kept in tact when TARP (the bailout program) was implemented.

Social Spending and Moral Hazard

Though you may never before have heard of “moral hazard,” you have undoubtedly heard one or more of the “common sense” claims based on “moral hazard.”  “Moral hazard” is the idea behind arguments against the guaranteed income, free day care, tuition-free university education, family planning, and the decriminalization of drugs, to name but a few.  Despite arguing the case in favour of “enlightenment,” in  Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Steve Pinker claims that “Social spending, like everything, has downsides. As with all insurance, it can create a 'moral hazard' in which the insured slack off or take foolish risks, counting on the insurer to bail them out if they fail.”

Poverty Versus Wealth Inequality

If not through social spending how can poverty be addressed? Pinker argues, quite rightly I would say, that it is a  mistake to confuse poverty and wealth inequality.  Some Americans may be disgruntled, may even think of themselves as poor, not because they are poor in any real sense but because they are struggling to "keep up with the Joneses."

"The confusion of inequality with poverty comes straight out of the lump fallacy— the mindset in which wealth is a finite resource, like an antelope carcass, which has to be divvied up in zero-sum fashion, so that if some people end up with more, others must have less. As we just saw, wealth is not like that: since the Industrial Revolution, it has expanded exponentially."

True enough, but it takes a lot of poor people to create one billionaire.  Pinker's use of J.K. Rowling as his example of a billionaire is disingenuous.  Sure, it's hard to get a hate on for the welfare mom whose Harry Potter stories have made her the wealthiest writer on the planet, but even in her case if we consider the copy editors, bookstore clerks, theme-park employees and printers at the bottom of the pyramid we can begin to see signs of the poverty which supports her wealth.  Pinker's graph correlating wealth inequality with everyone getting richer is cutesy and confusing, but his conclusion that "the world’s poor have gotten richer in part at the expense of the American lower middle class" who would in turn elect Donald Trump President seems clear enough.

Does Wealth Inequality Make Us Richer or Poorer?

Much of the world may have been pulled out of dire poverty over the last 200 years, as Pinker claims, but extreme wealth inequality is a destabilizing force in any society.  Pinker's graph notwithstanding, wealth inequality also produces an inefficient and wasteful economy.  The purchasing power of the haves puts pressure on both the have-nots and those who have less. For example, London, England has some of the most expensive real estate in the world, but it is also known for the number of homes and mansions which are left empty by the super wealthy. Take note the next time you are watching a a premiere sports event on television:  how many of the best seats are left empty because someone is wealthy enough to buy them and then not bother to attend?  Is the economy really being served by one man owning a dozen houses or fifty cars or paying tens of millions of dollars for a painting?

The Financial System Depends on Moral Hazard ...

Money, as we have seen, is just a measuring system for debt (see What Is Money?) or what  Yuval Noah Harari, in Sapiens:  A Brief History of Humankind, calls "imaginary" and "a psychological construct." Money is created every time someone signs a mortgage, takes out a loan or uses a credit card.  It is therefore limitless and infinite--definitely not a a zero-sum game.  Since money is "imaginary," nothing real or tangible, why can't we put Santa Claus and Tinker Bell in charge and just give poor people the money they need?

And Moral Hazard Depends on Poverty

The answer is, of course, "moral hazard,"  . . . and I'l bet you're thinking "and the whole financial system would collapse."  Conclusion:  the whole financial system is based on moral hazard.  Why are the poor always with us?  Because without them "moral hazard" would disappear.

A billionaire asking for millions of dollars in subsidies, grants and tax breaks is so common that we hardly notice.  An indigent standing on a street corner asking for twenties would have to be out of his mind.  The richer you are the less moral hazard applies.  The burden of moral hazard falls most heavily on the poor; in fact, poverty and moral hazard are inseparable.  The threat of poverty is what keeps the rest of us from stepping out of line.

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...