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.

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