Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Evolution of the Emperor's New Clothes Syndrome

Lately, I have been intrigued by the tale of the Emperor's New Clothes as a modern take on how the vast majority of people behave when it comes to speaking truth to power.

The Hans Christian Andersen version of the story goes like this:

A vain Emperor who cares about nothing except wearing and displaying clothes hires two swindlers who promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor's ministers cannot see the clothing themselves, but pretend that they can for fear of appearing unfit for their positions and the Emperor does the same. Finally the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects. The townsfolk play along with the pretense, not wanting to appear unfit for their positions or stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession.

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The fairy tale interpretation of the story focuses on the child blurting out the truth.  The moral of tale is not to be taken in by a falsehood, even though many people are ignoring the truth in order to support what is obviously a ruse.  In other words, the Emperor's New Clothes syndrome is something that must be avoided.

What most people miss is what comes after the declaration of truth: the procession continues as if nothing happened.  Nothing in the original tale suggests that anything in the land changes.  In fact, the ending suggests quite the opposite: in spite of the child's revelation, life continues as it had previously, and the people continue to live the lie for fear that living the truth will result in a loss.

Interpreting the tale from the perspective of realpolitik brings us to a much different conclusion.  Seen from this angle, the invisible garment is very real.  It is woven from the threads of power that give the Emperor his control over the land and his power over life and death.  The power relationships that allows the Emperor to execute any of his subjects are not visible to the eye, but they are very real nonetheless.

To continue the story with a realpolitik flavor, after the procession is over, the Emperor orders his henchmen to find the child and to bring him or her back to the castle alive.  After a quick interrogation, the child is tortured and then hung in the public square to demonstrate to his subjects what the Emperor thinks of those that speak their mind without taking heed of what they are saying and who they are speaking about.

In the context of realpolitik, going along with the charade has survival value -- the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.  Only those with the capacity to mobilize a force of sufficient power to effectively oppose the Emperor, dare to.  Isolated individuals are no match for the military might that props up the Empire.

Throughout the most part of the twentieth century, the invisible but very real cloak of power prevented people from declaring publicly that the Emperor and whatever he was saying was nothing but hot air.

For instance, after the Nazis came to power, the Fuhrer didn't take kindly to any open criticism.  It didn't take long for the common German folk to realize that dissidents were disappearing into the concentration camps.

Likewise,  in the Soviet Empire informers were everywhere, and people learned quickly that it paid to mouth the party line, "workers of the world unite", so to avoid being shipped off to a Gulag in Siberia.

Today in the twenty-first century, things are different.  It as if most of the population in the developed world is now wearing the same invisible fabric that had been previously reserved for the Emperor.  Today, there are many people screaming that the Emperor has no clothes: the economy is fucked, climate change is just around the corner, money rules, but to no avail. 

It is as though most people believed that if they were to ditch the invisible clothes that cover but don't obscure what are some serious fucking problems, they would have to don sack cloths and ashes.

Going back to the original tale, people are no longer on the sidelines just watching the parade go by.  They have joined the procession, having been caught up by the invisible threads of conspicuous consumption that joins them with the desires of the power elite.

It is those who can see through the charade that have been left behind.  There is no longer a mass audience to hear their declarations of truth.

They only can chatter among themselves. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Groundhog Day in Quebec: Another Boomer-Driven Lose-Lose Election

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.    (Max Planck)

The big problem with the latest Quebec general election is that once again the issues are centred upon a boomer centric conception of Quebec politics.

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Two mind sets that are dear to hearts of Quebec's baby boomers dominate all other political discourse.  The first is political independence for Quebec, which arose during the period of decolonization of former Imperial colonies after the conclusion of the Second World War, and the second is the belief in all things economic.

Importantly, the rise of nationalism as a means of escaping imperial domination and the use of econometrics to define political policy were both driving forces of the political sphere during the critical period of intellectual development of the late adolescence stage of the Quebec boomer generation.  Indeed, it was during the the nineteen sixties and seventies when a disproportionally large segment of the Quebec population came of age, setting their intellectual compasses in place at the expense of all other ways of conceiving how a political community might organize itself, a special case of interminable adolescence.

So, what has occurred politically in Quebec over the last forty years, especially during the recurrent general elections, is simply the oscillation around the two principle polarities of the Quebec boomer political identity.

In short, the two mind sets of economic calculation and identity politics surface during the general election, one playing off the other.  During the campaign, media attention shifts from one to the other and back again in what appears to be an endless two-step that is abruptly brought to a halt when the population finally goes to the polls and decides whether the political party that wraps itself around identity politics, the Parti Québécois (PQ), or economics, the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ), will govern Quebec.

As you could well imagine, this dynamic makes for a rather predictable and rather boring electoral campaigns.  The latest Quebec general election is probably the most boring ever because after having seen this electoral script play out several times, it resembles the film, Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, in which a character repeatedly relives the same day.  Most probably if you are a boomer, you caught the cultural reference.

The present campaign began somewhat differently, the surprise appearance of Pierre-Karl Peladeau, the CEO and largest shareholder of Quebecor, the largest media conglomerate in Quebec, and the boomer with most cash.  However, in announcing his candidacy for the PQ, he declared his intention of making Quebec an independent nation while fist pumping a la Che Guevara. A week later, after the PQ had dropped in the polls, he declared that his interest was with Quebec's economy.

The following week, during the televised leaders debate, we were treated to the spectacle of four boomers positioning themselves either in favour or against Quebec sovereignty and then trotting out their worn out ideas of improving the economy: cutting taxes, cutting government jobs, investing in infrastructure, partnering with the private sector, blah, blah, blah, each leader trying to convince the electorate that they had the magic formula that would create, what everyone all the leaders agreed what Quebec needed the most -- more jobs.

Perhaps, forty years ago, these ideas appeared to be fresh new approaches to Quebec's societal challenges, but today, in the twenty-first century, 25 years after the birth of the Internet, they represent approaches to problems in which the context that gave them shape no longer exists.

Nation states no longer control economic activity within their borders.  Production chains that bring goods to market are formed by multi-firm partnerships, spreading the manufacturing process across several nations in which each firm plays a specialized role.  The idea of the vertically integrated corporation that is financed by actors within the confines of a nation's borders and offers its goods or services to the citizens/consumers of that nation is seriously out of date.

Take the very popular iPhone from Apple.  The company is incorporated in Ireland; the brain trust that conceived the product resides in California; the chips are manufactured in Germany; the plastic parts are cast in Taiwan and in Thailand; and the final assembly takes place in China.

In the brave new world, just as capital no longer has political allegiance, neither does the location of where the work is performed in a production chain owe allegiance to a particular geographical setting.  Investment returns ebb and flow in a dynamic global exchange of goods and services.  What appears to give competitive advantage to a particular place in such a global market can very quickly disappear as disruptive technological innovation changes the economic playing field.

Politicians who masquerade as if they know how to control this dynamic flow of global exchange so that its benefits will fall more favourably on the general population, whether by changing the borders or by moving the configuration of macroeconomic levers, are misleading the population.

Both traditional approaches, more appropriate for industrial economies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, no longer offer much hope for the population at large.

There is no national economy, but rather multiple economies, each one with its particular dynamics, each one configured differently.  Indeed, the very idea that a single political party could even come up with a political platform that could effectively address the complexity and diversity of the world that the electorate now finds itself seems rather quaint.

But that's the world that Quebec baby boomers grew up in and that's the world that Quebec's politicians conjure up when trying to convince the boomers and everyone else to vote for them.  Seeing that this world no longer exists, offering competing nostalgic visions of what should be done is a lose-lose scenario.  Opting for either the PQ or the PLQ provides no relief for a population that is experiencing a decline in its quality of life.

And that's the way things will remain in Quebec as long as the boomers hold the reins of power.

Monday, March 10, 2014

WTF! In Quebec, Even If I Don't Vote I Still Get Screwed!

You have to admit that when it comes to maintaining their stranglehold on political power in Quebec, the two major parties, the PLQ (the Quebec Liberal Party) and the PQ (the Parti Québécois) can be very ingenious.

They need to be.  Revelations at the Charbonneau Commission indicate that both parties have benefited enormously from illegal financial contributions from private companies in the construction industry.  Estimates have it that about 80% of the donations to the PLQ and the PQ were illegal.

Too bad the extent of the illegal funding has yet to be established, which explains why we are having a second general election since the Commission was convened, and also explains why the law that established elections on a fixed date was totally ignored by the PQ, the governing party that introduced the motion.

Suspecting that the results of Quebec's general elections have been rigged for the last thirty years, Quebecers have been far less generous making donations to Quebec's political parties, especially when the donations are now limited to $100 and can only be made directly to Quebec's Director General of Elections.

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Never fear, the PQ has been incredibly ingenious in turning to the public purse to fund Quebec's general elections.  Indeed, the new funding formula takes the major mechanism of proportional representation, a voting system that gives fair and equitable results, and applies it to elections determined by the traditional idiotic voting method called first-past-the-post.

In a pure proportional voting system, all votes cast are aggregated in one single electoral district and representation is given to each political party based on the percentage of the popular vote it obtained. For example, a party that obtained 40% of the popular vote would get 40% of the available seats in the legislature, a party that obtained 30% of the popular vote would get 30% of the seats, and so on.

In the eyes of many, this is the fairest way to run an election since each vote counts and carries an equal weight relative to other votes.  A majority government comprised of more than 50% of the seats in the legislature can only be formed if the party in question had actually received more than 50% of the votes cast.

This is not the case when using the first-past-the-post method (FPTP).  In fact, FPTP regularly distorts electoral results that contradict the popular will as expressed by the popular vote.  In general, 40% of the popular vote translates to 60% of the available seats, thereby forming what is referred to as a false majority.  Worse yet, the party that finished second in the popular vote has gone on to form a "majority" government three times in Quebec, and in one instance in New New Brunswick, a party that received about 55% of the popular vote took all the seats in the legislature, idiotic results to say the least. To learn more about the vagaries of FPTP, I suggest that you consult the Fair Vote Canada website.

Having been steadfast in its refusal of adopting proportional representation as the voting method in Quebec, despite the wishes of the PQ's founder, Rene Leveque, the PQ has simply used the principle of proportionality as a means of increasing the available funds to fight an election under the rules of first-past-the-post.  In the new formula, the total number of electors on the electoral list is multiplied by $1.50 to establish the total amount to be divided, which is a sleight of hand since nearly 40% of these electors don't vote at all.  The total amount (approximately $ 9 million) is then divided among the parties based on the number of votes each party received during the previous general election.  In other words, 40% of the popular votes translates into 40% of 9 million or $3.6 million, 30% of the popular vote translates into 30% of 9 million or $2.7 million, and so on.

So, the question that begs to be asked is why the fuck is the principle of proportionality is invoked to establish the funding of the political parties but is not used to establish the representation of the popular will in Quebec's National Assembly?  What's up with that?

I'll tell you what.  Such a turn events gives the facade of democratic reform, something badly needed in Quebec, like the law that established general elections on fixed dates, but at that same time gives the PQ the possibility of forming a false majority government, something that would never happen if the principle of proportionality was applied to the question of representation in the National Assembly.  Moreover, this is done on the basis of an electoral system that is gerrymandered on linguistic and ethnic lines.

At the moment, the PQ and the PLQ are tied within the margin of statistical error with regard to the popular vote, but the PQ is way ahead, by more than 20%, in the francophone vote.  This is extremely important since 80 of the 125 electoral districts are comprised by an electorate where more than 90% of the electorate is francophone.  As a result, less than 40% of the popular vote, as long as the francophone electors vote predominantly for the PQ, will translate into a "majority" PQ government.

This explains the introduction of the controversial Quebec's Charter of Values that would discriminate against predominantly against immigrants, a law that even Quebec's Human Rights Commission has denounced but remains popular among francophones.

If you haven't figured it out, a PQ majority government inevitably means yet a third referendum on the question of Quebec independence.  This will be the last kick at the can for the PQ, a party made up primarily of aging baby boomers.

Ironically, the referendum on Quebec's independence must be held in a single, province-wide electoral district where each vote counts and is accorded equal weight.  The mandate to hold such a referendum is not.  Instead, it stems from a profoundly flawed voting system run by idiots.

Where does this leave me, an elector who tried to have his vote count in the last general election by voting strategically for the candidate who had the best chance of defeating the incumbent, a strategy that did not work?

I thought of boycotting this election, but then it dawned on me: since my name appears on the electoral list, staying at home on Election Day actually would give more money (I know the amount is small) to the political parties that conspire to prevent me from having the political representation I desire.

At least -- and this feature of the present electoral system in Quebec is absolutely the smallest incentive for voting that I can think of -- if I vote for the small party that best appeals to me, I give that party a bit of small change that would have otherwise gone to the PQ and the PLQ.  In reality, that works out to be about an extra 3 cents for my vote.  Previously, the entire subsidy for my vote would have gone to the party of my choice.  Now, it's so paltry it almost removes all incentives to vote for a small party at all.

So, it appears that if I truly want to protest this idiotic charade of an election, I would be better off by asking the Director General of Elections to remove my name from the list of electors.  That way, no public money in my name would go the political parties that refuse to make the electoral system truly democratic.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Quebec General Election 2014 Is A Game For Idiots

Yesterday, the outgoing Premier of Quebec, Pauline Marios, requested that the provincial legislature be dissolved, thereby sending Quebecers to the urns for a general election on April 7.

Hey wait a minute.  Didn't the Quebec legislature unanimously adopt a law that would have general elections held on fixed dates every four years?  It sure did.  So, what's up with having a general election only 18 months after the last one?

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Was the government defeated on a non-confidence bill, like the budget?

No, but Marois claims that the opposition, which actually has the majority of seats and represents the majority of votes, is repeatedly blocking her legislative agenda.  Isn't that the role of her majesty's opposition?  Regardless, she decided to sidestep the law and use her royal prerogative derived from the British parliamentary system to dissolve the legislature.

Somewhat ironic for someone who wants to cut the ties with the monarchy don't you think?

Forget the symbolic gesture of placing limits on her own personal power as the Premier.  Statutory law is for the common folk.  Constitutional power is where it's at despite the fact that Quebec has never signed the 1982 Constitutional Accord.

In the words of Shakespeare, "the Lady doth protest too much methinks."

So what could possibly motivate the premier to ignore the law that her government adopted?

A false majority you say.  Doesn't get anymore British than that.

Looking at the latest polls that were released today, despite the fact that the PQ and Liberals have, within the margin of error, the same level of support of the popular vote, (37% v. 35%) it appears that the PQ could form a majority government (50% plus one of the seats in the legislature) because of the distorting effect of the tried and true first-past-the-post voting system still in place in the UK and the English settler states (Canada, the USA, and Australia).  More importantly, the PQ has more than a twenty point lead in the all important Francophone vote in the 80 electoral districts in which Francophones comprise more than 90% of the electorate.

Talk about gerrymandering along ethnic and linguistic lines.

Democracy . . . Shamrocracy, this is pure power politics at its finest, a game best played by idiots.

In using the word "idiot", I am not saying that Madame Marois is lacking intelligence.  She's not.  I am using the word in its ancient Greek origin, which refers to a person disinterested in participating in democracy.

And she is not alone.  Both the Liberals and the PQ have refused to make any qualitative changes to Quebec's outdated political system that is a vestige of the British Empire.  They both prefer to maintain an institutional arrangement that limits real political power to the supporters of either party at the expense of the population at large, the demos.

I would also throw in the Quebec media that go along for the ride during the campaign and cover this and every other election as if there was nothing seriously amiss.

I guess it makes for good entertainment for the idiots that have to pick up the bill for this pathetic charade.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Three Reasons Why This Anglo Is Thinking About Leaving Quebec: Breach of Trust, Loss of Confidence, Demographics

Truth be told, I have lived in Quebec for the last twenty years.  Last week, not much of a surprise, a poll revealed that about 50% of the anglophone and allophone respondents were thinking about moving out of Quebec.  Too bad I wasn't contacted.  I would have loved to explain why. 
So here goes.

For me, unlike many anglophones living in the Montreal region of Quebec, language is not the problem.  I live in Gatineau. I am fluently bilingual, as is my wife, as are my kids.  Communicating in French is something I do every day without much effort.  It doesn't matter to me in which of the two official languages the communication exchange takes place.

What irks me is something else.  In short, I live in a province where corruption is chronic and widespread, touching all levels of the society.  Second, over the last ten years, the political class has proven themselves to be incredibly inept.  Finally, given the aging population, declining productivity, and a belligerent attitude towards immigrants, in my opinion, the quality of life has peaked in Quebec and the society has entered into a steady period of decline, with little hope for a better future.

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Don't get me wrong.  I love to live where people speak French, but sadly Quebec has lost its appeal.  As I approach my retirement years, I think I would be better off living part of the year in the south of France, and the rest of the year in a small francophone community in eastern Ontario.

Looking back at the last twenty years, I can't help feeling that I have been fleeced.  I have been active politically, only to find that for the last thirty years the elections have been rigged thanks to the illegal funding of the major political parties.  Moreover, I am one of those who is taxed at a marginal rate of almost 50%.  Then I find out through the revelations of the Charbonneau Commission that taxpayers are exploited for an extra 30% over and above the real cost of public works due to the endemic graft in the political system.

It doesn't end there. Not only have we overpaid for the infrastructure, it is literally falling apart. The Olympic Stadium in Montreal is the symbol of the shoddy construction practices in Quebec that were accompanied by huge cost over-runs.  From time to time, parts of it fall off.

Taking a further look around Montreal, one cannot help but notice that the busiest bridge in Canada, the Champlain bridge looks like its about to collapse, the Mercier bridge is even in worse shape, and the Turcot Interchange is falling down, each one requiring a multi-billion dollar investment.

Problem is that Quebec is short on cash.  It has European style social programs but with a very limited tax base. More than fifty percent of the adult population does not pay any income tax.  Without the equalization payments from the federal government, which make up almost twenty percent of the provincial budget, we would be seriously fucked.

To make matters even worse, Quebec's pension plans lost approximately 25% of their value during the financial market crash of 2008.  Having put into place very generous pension benefits for themselves, the boomer generation have stuck subsequent generations with the hefty tab.  Simply put, Quebec's boomers did not make the necessary investments to keep the public infrastructure in good shape, and they did not contribute enough into their pension plans to make them sustainable over the long-term without asking for larger contributions from their children.

As the workforce continues to shrink -- we are only at the beginning of the waves of boomers retiring -- who is going to pick up the slack?  Immigrants?  Why would they settle in Quebec, the highest-taxed region that also has the highest per capita debt in North America, when Ontario and the Western provinces offer much better economic futures and embrace the principle of multi-culturism?

Without question, old stock Quebecers of French origin make up the ruling class in Quebec, but for those of us who have the means to simply move out, why wouldn't we?

Why should my wife and myself pay approximately $100,000 in income taxes (about $20,000 more than what we would pay in Ontario) and have to put up with a third-class health system in the Outaouais, when I can just move across the river to Ottawa, where more than 20% of the Quebec side go when we need health care.

WhyTF would I want to stay here? My vote doesn't count.  My wife already works in Ottawa, and we both have defined benefit, pension plans outside of Quebec.  If the kids were finished high school (only one year to go), we would have already left.

So, don't be fooled by the spin doctors who like to place this all upon a PQ government.  Quebec's problems run much deeper than the nationalist option. 

The cracks in the foundation of Quebec society run as deep as those on the Turcot Interchange.