Quotulatiousness

August 27, 2017

NDP leadership hopeful says no government can tell a woman what to wear … except in Quebec

Filed under: Cancon, Politics, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The federal NDP have gotten themselves knotted up over Quebec-specific conflicts between their rhetoric and political reality in La Belle Province:

One wonders what Jack Layton would make of his party nowadays — of the trajectory it has taken since his untimely passing and of the battle to replace his successor, who seemed like such a good idea at the time. The party’s new support in Quebec had been by design: the 2005 Sherbrooke Declaration essentially argued Quebecers should be free to secede from Canada with a simple 50 per cent-plus-one-vote, and in the meantime offered them a seat at the table in a social-democratic government in Ottawa.

Alas, hitching your wagon to Quebec nationalists only works so long as the horse doesn’t spook. In recent years, Quebec’s politics has become more and more seized with “religious accommodations” in general, with Islam specifically, and with niqabs very specifically indeed. Such is the state of play that the Liberal government’s Bill 62 is considered moderate: it would ban providing and receiving public services with one’s face covered. Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée won’t even say whether women in niqabs would be allowed to ride the bus.

This is something you might expect the left-most candidate to lead the left-most party in the House of Commons to oppose unambiguously. Niki Ashton’s campaign promises to end “the oppression of racialized communities,” tackle “Islamophobia, anti-black racism, and violence towards Indigenous peoples” and address “intersecting oppressions” as well.

But no. In a statement to Huffington Post this week, Ashton said “there is no justification where (sic) a government should tell a woman, or anyone, what they should wear and what they shouldn’t wear.”

“That being said…”

Those three words lit a match, and the tire fire is still burning. (Ashton was not available for an interview on Friday, according to her campaign.)

“There is a consensus in (sic) Quebec’s political leaders emerging on secularism,” the statement continued, “and the Canadian government should respect the will of Quebecers on this matter.” It must also “respect” the “widely different … place” religion has “held in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution.”

July 23, 2017

Canada won’t give up on supply management, for fear of Quebec backlash

Pierre-Guy Veer provides a guided tour of Canada’s supply management system, with appropriate emphasis on the role Quebec dairy producers play in keeping the anti-competitive system in place:

Spared by the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the Canadian milk supply restrictions are “in danger” again. Because of trade negotiations with the US and Europe, foreign farmers want better access to the Canadian market.

However, hearing complaints from the US about unfree dairy markets comes as paradoxical. Indeed, since the Great Depression, the dairy industry has been anything but free. It profits from various subsidies programs including “the Dairy Price Support Program, which bought up surplus production at guaranteed prices; the Milk Income Loss Contracts (MILC), which subsidized farmers when prices fall below certain thresholds, and many others.” It even came close to supply management in 2014, according to the Wilson Center.

But nevertheless, should US farmers ever have greater access to Canadian markets, it won’t be without a tough fight from Canadian farmers, especially those from the province of Quebec. Per provincial Agriculture Ministry (MAPAQ) figures, the dairy industry is the most lucrative farm activity, accounting for 28% of all farm revenues in the province, but also 37% of national milk revenues in 2013. “La Belle Province” also has 41% of all milk transformation manufacturers in Canada.

As is almost always the case with “protected” domestic markets, the overall costs to the Canadian economy are large, but the potential benefit to individual Canadian consumers for getting rid of supply management is relatively small (around $300 per year), but the benefits are tightly concentrated on the protected dairy producers and associated businesses.

But even though the near entirety of the population would profit from freer dairy markets, their liberalization will not happen anytime soon.

Basic Public Choice theory teaches that tiny organized minorities (here: milk producers) have so much to gain from making sure that the status quo remains. A region like Montérégie (Montreal’s South Shore) produced over 20% of all gross milk revenues in 2016. There are 23 out of 125 seats in that region, making it the most populous after Montreal (28 seats). So if a politician dares to question their way of living, milk producers will come together to make sure he or she doesn’t get elected. Libertarian-leaning Maxime Bernier learned it the hard way during the Canadian Conservative Party leadership race; producers banded together – some even joined the Conservative Party just for the race – and instead elected friendlier Andrew Scheer.

On the provincial level, all political parties in the National Assembly openly support milk quotas. From the Liberal Party to Coalition Avenir Québec and to Québec Solidaire, no one will openly talk against milk quotas. However, and maybe unwillingly, separatist leader Martine Ouellet gave the very reason why milk quotas are so important: they keep the dairy industry alive.

June 26, 2017

“Ah, the Comeau case. Schwisberg says it could change everything – knock down all the barriers”

Filed under: Cancon, Economics, Liberty — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

It’s ridiculous that 150 years into Confederation, and we still don’t have free trade within Canada:

If you’re on vacation abroad somewhere this summer and find yourself explaining to people over dinner what makes Canada so unique and special, use the story about Gerard Comeau and his beer run back in 2012. There is no more Canadian story than that.

Comeau is a Canadian who, looking for the best bargain he could, drove to a Canadian town a few miles from his home in Canada, bought 14 cases of beer and three bottles of liquor from Canadian beer and liquor stores, then returned to his home. In Canada.

A squad of plainclothes Mounties with binoculars, it turned out, had him under surveillance, according to his lawyer. On his way home from the Canadian town to his Canadian home, he was intercepted and handed a ticket for $292.50 by uniformed Canadian officers who then seized all the alcohol he’d purchased.

His Canadian crime: his beer run had crossed one of Canada’s internal borders. He’d driven from New Brunswick into Quebec. As far as New Brunswick was concerned, that made him a smuggler.

Sixteen other people were charged that day in the same sting operation, but Comeau had more spine than most and fought the ticket. Some smart lawyers from Ontario and Western Canada got involved, and – my god, I love it when things like this happen – he won.

A New Brunswick judge ruled that the province’s law against importing alcohol from other provinces violated the Constitution Act, Sec. 121, which states: All Articles of the Growth, Produce, or Manufacture of any one of the Provinces shall, from and after the Union, be admitted free into each of the other Provinces.

The ruling shocked New Brunswick and most of the other provinces, which consider Sec. 121 to be one of the most horrible and un-Canadian sentences in the Canadian Constitution, something that should be ignored at all costs.

June 14, 2017

Canada’s Next Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Ship – Episode 3

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 06:00

Published on Jun 9, 2017

The third episode in a series about the construction and operation of the Royal Canadian Navy’s next naval support ship.

April 20, 2017

Without our sacred supply management, it’d be “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats living together! Mass hysteria!”

Filed under: Business, Cancon, Economics, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Colby Cosh saddles up old Rocinante and has a tilt at the ludicrous supply management regime in milk:

You remember how Chobani, a hipster yogurt business based in New York state, got a temporary permit to sell the product in Ontario and won over customers. You know how it tried to meet our supply-managed dairy system halfway by making plans for a factory in Kingston. You know how milk processors waged berserker war in court to prevent the permit from being renewed, and closed ranks to deny the company a supply of Canadian milk.

And, most of all, you know how the product disappeared from our shelves, how Canadians still seek it out on cross-border trips, and how slow and confused the dairy cartel was about meeting the new demand for extra-heavy yogurt. None of this is going to be too easy to explain to a four-year-old.

I hasten to add that I am not seriously playing the “Won’t someone think of the children” card so beloved of politicians, newspaper columnists, and other shameless scum. The four-year-old will get over it. She’ll grow up in a free-trade Canada in which she does not have to accept a world of consumer second-bests, simulacra, and make-dos, except possibly in the dairy section. She can have no personal memory of Seventies Canada — never know what it is like to switch from Eaton’s to The Bay just to buy slightly different versions of the same low-quality, unfashionable crap. The question I grew up with was “Why does Canada have seemingly permanent poorer living standards than the U.S.?”; now it is just “Why are the cheese sections in our grocery stores so pathetic?”

So, Mad Max to the rescue? Not if champion protectionist Steven Blaney can stop him:

… supply management froze the world of Canadian dairying at a perfect moment for Quebec, and so the system has become a sacred cow made of other, literal cows. Because economists and intellectuals know that supply management is a transfer of wealth from consumers of all classes to a few thousand affluent farmers, the beneficiaries reinvest a great deal of the profit in hapless, defensive public-relations efforts that only tend to make us loathe them more.

They have even found a political champion in Steven Blaney, the cadaverous oddball from the Eastern Townships who is in the Conservative leadership race to play milk spoiler to fellow Quebecer Maxime Bernier. Bernier wants to retire supply management by buying farmers out of their quotas with a national tax on dairy, lasting for a fixed period.

This is a generous approach to free trade in dairy: it is a buyout of unearned entitlements. Producers who want to leave the industry would do so with an enormous grubstake — the kind of which workers laid off from regular jobs can only dream. Those who hang in there would get to keep something like the present value of their annulled production quotas as they face new careers in an honest-to-God marketplace (which is what some of them very much wish to do).

March 25, 2017

How to become public enemy number 1 in Quebec

Filed under: Cancon, Media — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Andrew Potter, writing for Maclean’s did much more than just ruffle a few feathers in his March 20th article titled “How a snowstorm exposed Quebec’s real problem: social malaise“:

Major public crises tend to have one of two effects on a society. In the best cases, they serve to reveal the strength of the latent bonds of trust and social solidarity that lie dormant as we hurry about the city in our private bubbles — a reminder of the strength of our institutions and our selves, in the face of infrastructure. Such was the case in New York after 9/11, and across much of the northeast during the great blackout of 2003.

But sometimes the opposite occurs. The slightest bit of stress works its way into the underlying cracks of the body politic, a crisis turns those cracks to fractures, and the very idea of civil society starts to look like a cheapo paint job from a chiseling body shop. Exhibit A: The mass breakdown in the social order that saw 300 cars stranded overnight in the middle of a major Montreal highway during a snowstorm last week.

The fiasco is being portrayed as a political scandal, marked by administrative laziness, weak leadership, and a failure of communication. And while the episode certainly contains plenty of that, what is far more worrisome is the way it reveals the essential malaise eating away at the foundations of Quebec society.

Compared to the rest of the country, Quebec is an almost pathologically alienated and low-trust society, deficient in many of the most basic forms of social capital that other Canadians take for granted. This is at odds with the standard narrative; a big part of Quebec’s self-image — and one of the frequently-cited excuses for why the province ought to separate — is that it is a more communitarian place than the rest of Canada, more committed to the common good and the pursuit of collectivist goals.

But you don’t have to live in a place like Montreal very long to experience the tension between that self-image and the facts on the ground. The absence of solidarity manifests itself in so many different ways that it becomes part of the background hiss of the city.

To start with one glaring example, the police here don’t wear proper uniforms. Since 2014, municipal police across the province have worn pink, yellow, and red clownish camo pants as a protest against provincial pension reforms. They have also plastered their cruisers with stickers demanding “libre nego” — ”free negotiations” — and in many cases the stickers actually cover up the police service logo. The EMS workers have now joined in; nothing says you’re in good hands like being driven to the hospital in an ambulance covered in stickers that read “On Strike.” While this might speak to the limited virtues of collective bargaining, the broader impact on social cohesion and trust in institutions remains corrosive.

We’re talking here about a place where some restaurants offer you two bills: one for if you’re paying cash, and another if you’re paying by a more traceable mechanism. And it’s not just restaurants and the various housing contractors or garage owners who insist on cash — it’s also the family doctor, or the ultrasound clinic.

The backlash to Potter’s article hasn’t yet diminished … he’s had to resign from his position with McGill University as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (although he still holds a professorship there), and Maclean’s has made some modifications to the original text of the article in response to the outcry. In the Montreal Gazette, Don Macpherson says the anger isn’t at what Potter wrote, exactly:

Potter’s piece, though not entirely unfounded, is poorly informed and argued, and betrays the authoritative ignorance of an overconfident observer who only recently moved to this place. It is so indefensible that not even he would try to defend any of it less than 24 hours later. (May I never write anything for which I apologize the next day.)

But the vehemence of the reaction to it, and the indifference to Martineau’s similar column, show that Potter’s real crime is not what he wrote; it’s who wrote it, the language in which he wrote it, and for whom he wrote it.

That is, Potter is an anglophone, who wrote in English, for a publication from outside Quebec (whose editors were therefore unable to do their duty to protect their writer from himself by questioning such assertions as the one that restaurants here routinely offer their clients second bills for payment in cash, tax-free).

[…]

Potter is not family, even though he speaks French well enough to have taught at the Université de Montréal. And he would not be, even if he had been born and raised and educated here, and had spent his entire life here.

For to belong to the English-speaking community in Quebec is to be excluded, or to choose to exclude oneself, from the French-speaking one, the true Québécois nation.

And every now and then, it’s useful for everybody to be reminded of that.

February 5, 2017

Being critical of Quebec can be a career-threatening move…

Filed under: Cancon, Media, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

…which is why this Washington Post piece by J.J. McCullough is so unexpected:

As Canadian politicians and journalists scramble for tidy, ideologically pleasing narratives in the wake of this week’s senseless slaughter at a Quebec City mosque, one disturbing fact has gone conspicuously unmentioned: A disproportionate share of the country’s massacres occur in the province of Quebec.

I was born in 1984. Since then, Quebec has experienced at least six high-profile episodes of attempted public mass murder.

[…]

Criticism of Quebec, meanwhile, is deeply taboo. In a 2006 essay, Globe and Mail columnist Jan Wong posited a theory that Quebec’s various lone nuts, many of whom were not of pure French-Canadian stock, were predictably alienated from a province that places such a high premium on cultural conformity. She was denounced by a unanimous vote in the Canadian Parliament and sank into a career-ruining depression. The current events magazine Maclean’s ran a cover story in 2010 arguing that Quebec, where old-fashioned mafia collusion between government contractors, unions and politicians is still common, was easily “the most corrupt province in Canada.” That, too, was denounced by a unanimous vote of Parliament.

Privately, English Canadians are far less defensive. They grumble about Quebec’s dark history of anti-Semitism, religious bigotry and pro-fascist sentiment, facts which are rarely included in otherwise self-flagellating official narratives of Canadian history. They complain about the exaggerated deference the province gets from Ottawa as a “distinct society” and “nation-within-a-nation,” and its various French-supremacist language and assimilation laws, which they blame for creating a place that’s inhospitable, arrogant and, yes, noticeably more racist than the Canadian norm. And now, they have good reason to observe that the province seems to produce an awful lot of lunatics prone to public massacres, who often explicitly justify their violence with arguments of dissatisfaction towards Quebec’s unique culture.

The mosque shooting has been quickly politicized by the Canadian left who have seized upon its useful victims to say the sort of things they were going to say anyway: Canada is both a wicked Islamophobic place that must check its various privileges and a multicultural utopia whose pride and empathy for its Muslim community knows no bounds. Rather than drag the entire country along for this tendentious ride, it might be more useful to narrow the focus.

H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link.

January 18, 2017

The bilingual “rule” for prospective Canadian Prime Ministers

Filed under: Cancon, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh explains why unilingual Conservative party leadership hopefuls should just plunge right into those French lessons already:

There is clamour in the press right now about the “rule” that a federal Conservative party leader ought to be able to speak in both official languages. I could probably stop this column after the following statement: It’s not a rule. It’s just a very strong precondition for electoral success. Calling it a rule implies that there is some sense in arguing about the ethicality or the practicality of the principle — that it is an idea someone has the power to revoke after discussion of its philosophical merits. It invites verbal volleying over whether Canada is essentially a bilingual country, whether it is proper to exclude qualified unilingual leaders from the Prime Minister’s Office, etc., etc.

You get the normative questions mixed up with the factual ones awfully quickly. You start discussing whether a bilingualism requirement is right or wrong, just or unjust; and political reality stands off to the side, remaining intractable, utterly insensitive to the feelings of ambitious monoglots and their media advocates.

The various Conservative parties have proven that they can, very occasionally, win elections without Quebec. But francophone Canada is just a little bigger than Quebec, and a unilingual leader would now be compromised in campaigning and sidelined in television debate. If he had promised to learn French, which seems to be the hope of Conservative leadership candidates who don’t speak it well, he would be challenged on his skills every week for the remainder of his career. Every speech would be a tiny test, its contents overlooked.

And he would be excruciatingly vulnerable to the good faith and sense of his francophone MPs. When you take all the added challenges for a unilingual party leader into account, it might be easier to go ahead and just learn the damned language already. (One thing worth remembering is that Quebec’s representation in this Conservative leadership race, and probably in future ones, is proportional to its House of Commons delegation. It may be strategically possible to win a general election as a leader without Quebec, but you do have to win the leadership first.)

It was still feasible for unilingual candidates to win the Conservative leadership (back when they were the “Progressive Conservative” party) into the 1970s, but in practical terms it was nearly impossible to win a general election without substantial support from Quebec (which would not be given to a monolingual leader). At this late stage, I read any Conservative leadership hopeful who does not speak both official languages to be angling for a “Kingmaker” or power broker role rather than expecting to actually win.

January 8, 2017

Spy Networks – Public Opinion – Conscription I OUT OF THE TRENCHES

Filed under: Cancon, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 7 Jan 2017

Chair of Wisdom Time! Indy answers your questions about World War 1 and this week we talk about espionage, opinion polls and conscription.

December 4, 2016

Canada’s Next Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Ship – Episode 2

Filed under: Cancon, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on Nov 28, 2016

The second installment of the documentary following the build of Canada’s new Auxiliary Oiler Replenishment Ship. Episode 2 follows the journey of Davie, its workers and partners from May to November 2016 as they build the largest ship that will operate in the Royal Canadian Navy fleet.

March 9, 2016

QotD: The role of luck

Filed under: Cancon, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I try to avoid saying nice things about an NDPer as a matter of principle. I’ll make an exception in the case of Ms [Ruth Ellen] Brosseau. Having been handed a very lucky break she made the most of it. The story is a fascinating example of how many talented and intelligent people live in obscurity until a twist of fate pushes them onto another path. Brousseau was in her mid-twenties at the time of her election, working as a bar manager and struggling to survive as a single mother. There are many educated and accomplished people who spend the whole of their adults lives striving for political office, only to fail miserably upon attaining their goal. They have been bested by a woman who had none of their advantages. Luck plays a greater role in success than many people care to imagine.

Richard Anderson, “A Twist of Fate”, Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2016-02-22.

February 6, 2016

Alberta and federal equalization payments

Filed under: Cancon, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Colby Cosh on the wrenching psychological damage the collapse of oil prices is inflicting on Alberta:

Alberta is not in any real danger of becoming a “have-not” province under the equalization program. Its fiscal capacity did not dip below the required standard even under the intentional cudgelling of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s National Energy Program in the 1980s. As it happens, it has been a half-century since Alberta received any equalization at all: the last payment was a paltry $1.2 million, received in fiscal 1964-65.

You can’t mention Alberta and equalization in the same sentence without attracting a gnat-like cloud of failed accountants who are eager to remind you that equalization doesn’t technically “take” from particular provinces. The money comes out of the general revenue; Alberta as a province, the lecture goes, has not been “paying in” so that others can “take out.”

But since equalization was introduced in 1957, Ottawa has transferred, if my figures are right, about $374 billion to the provinces. Almost exactly half of that has gone to Quebec. Alberta got a grand total of $92 million in the early years, zero since and zero for the foreseeable future.

It is thought paranoid to dwell on this. When the flow of funds is acknowledged at all, Albertans are told to buck up, for it is merely the price of living in a decent, well-ordered Confederation. Like brethren, we lift one another out of economic turmoil!

Yet, mysteriously, the identities of the equalization recipients do not change much from decade to decade. Little if any lifting occurs. Quebec has not only never threatened to join the “haves”; it becomes more disadvantaged, relatively, as the haves give it more.

How much easier would it be for Alberta to bear this long-term proposition — which I dare not call a swindle — if it had, just once, been pulled out of the mire by its fellow provinces at a timely moment? Imagine there were a Trudeau who, instead of deliberately designing economic shocks for Alberta, actually displayed some enterprise in assisting it at a time of perceived crisis? It might not even have to cost all that much: follow up a lot of fine talk and concern with a few hundred million, and perhaps you buy yourself another half-century of calm. The moral high ground is fine real estate. A bargain, surely, at the price.

December 4, 2015

Don’t bet on Quebec recapturing all that gambling money

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Michael Geist on the Quebec government’s latest attempt to limit the freedom of Quebec internet users:

If there is a first rule of the Internet in Canada, it is “thou shall not block.” Canadian Internet service providers face a wide range of policies that have implications for accessing content including net neutrality rules and the copyright notice-and-notice system. Yet in virtually all cases, blocking or removing content is simply not done (the lone exception is a limited, private sector led initiative to block child pornography images).

My weekly technology law column […] notes that unlike other countries which have dabbled in mandated takedowns or Internet filtering, Canada has largely defended an “open Internet”. Canadian law does not mandate that Internet providers take down content due to unproven allegations of copyright infringement or allow them to alter or change content. In fact, the Telecommunications Act stipulates that “a Canadian carrier shall not control the content or influence the meaning or purpose of telecommunications carried by it for the public.”

Despite the clear legal mandate to avoid blocking, earlier this month the Quebec government introduced unprecedented legislation that would require Internet providers to engage in content blocking. The new bill targets unlicensed online gambling websites as part of the government’s efforts to increase revenues from its own online gambling service, which has thus far failed to meet expectations.

November 18, 2015

The Trudeau legacy

Filed under: Cancon, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson isn’t impressed with the PM, who he refers to as “our selfie Prime Minister”, and contrasts him with his father:

Canada is a bubble nation. We have so long been at peace, so long been rich and free, that much of the world beyond our borders is akin to another planet. The working assumption of the Canadian Left — Justin very much included — is that Islamist terrorism is the product of some grave misunderstanding. If only we were to constructively engage with those who oppose us peace would be at hand. All we need is a chance for dialogue and our graduate school acquired “conflict resolution skills” would restore humanity and decency. This is among the gravest misconceptions of our age.

Trudeau the Elder considered both the FLQ and the PQ threats to Canada’s survival. Yet his response to each was radically different. Terrorism was beyond the bounds of legitimate democratic discourse. Force must be met with force. He explained this with great care in his speech justifying the invocation of the War Measures Act. It shows a statesman — however deeply flawed in other areas of public policy — fighting to sustain a democratic government against violent usurpation. The speech is also a stark and sobering contrast to his son’s juvenile pronouncements.

Yet PET took a very different approach in dealing with democratic separatism. The PQ — however obnoxious and cynical — was a legitimate democratic force. When the Pequistes formed their first majority government in 1976 the response from Ottawa was to argue, cajole and bribe. The usual instruments of a democratic state. It would have been thought absurd and utterly unCanadian to have dispatched federal troops to arrest Rene Levesque and his cadre of petty ethnic nationalists.

Pierre Trudeau could only occasionally distinguish between bad and outright evil. He could crush the FLQ and then saunter off to Cuba to play sing-a-long with a mass murdering tyrant. Though at least at that point in history Fidel Castro was hardly a threat to world peace. Trudeau’s 1976 trip was a morally repugnant though not a dangerous act.

Islamist fanatics are very much a threat to the peace of France, Canada and the world. In his first test as an international leader Justin has shown a dangerous inability to differentiate between bad and evil. Since Canada is a smaller player in a big world that might not matter very much in the short-term. Yet sooner or later this evil will come to Canada and the man charged with our defence has shown himself to be pathetically inadequate to the challenge.

September 29, 2015

Bad preschool is worse than no preschool

Filed under: Education, Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Megan McArdle on the popular notion that preschool programs are a panacea for all that ails the public school system:

Universal preschool has become the ginseng of American politics, a sort of broad-spectrum nostrum that will cure almost anything that ails you. Inequality, male-female pay gaps, crime, poverty — just apply some early childhood programs, and watch those maladies fade. Expect to hear this a lot from Hillary Clinton in the coming presidential race.

And what kind of a crotchety, sour, greedy old columnist could be opposed to such a wonderful idea? I’m so glad you asked.

In truth, I am not opposed to early childhood education programs. I am opposed to blind boosterism of such programs, the kind that confidently predicts marvelous results from thin empirical evidence, and briskly proceeds to demand huge sums be spent accordingly. There are three big problems with this:

1. The empirical evidence is shakier than many boosters suggest. The possible benefits of these programs can be divided into two baskets: cognitive benefits (improvement in academic skills and performance), and non-cognitive benefits (improvement in such things as social skills, hyperactivity, gratification delay, and so forth). The evidence of cognitive benefits is underwhelming; they appear, and then tend to fade out as the children leave the program and proceed through our nation’s school systems.

A lot of hope has therefore been poured into non-cognitive benefits. Some early programs seem to show long-term improvements in things like graduation rates, employment and criminal activity. However, many of these programs were very small, which raises the possibility that we’re dealing with small samples plus publication bias, rather than something that actually works. In general, in social science, you tend to see that the larger the sample and the better designed the study, the less remarkable the effects. And this is definitely what you see with early childhood programs. Perry, Abecedarian, the Chicago Child-Parent Center: these are inspiring projects. They’re not nearly large enough to base a national program on.

[…]

And indeed, that’s what a new study out of Quebec seems to suggest. In the 1990s, the province instituted an inexpensive universal child-care program. The program doesn’t seem to have produced much in the way of cognitive benefits, and its non-cognitive benefits were actually negative — that is, kids exposed to the program (those who lived in Quebec) were more likely to have various problems than control groups in other provinces.

Now, this is, as I always caution, Just One Study. It’s a pretty convincing study, of a pretty large group. But it’s still a single study, which means that we should not rush to say that universal child care is a bad idea, or even that cheap, badly designed universal child care is a bad idea.

What we should rush to say, however, is that the background assumption about such programs — that at worst they’re a waste of money for zero results — cannot be safely held. We have to assume some possibility that our early childhood program will actually be worse for the kids than the status quo is.

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