People can be awfully cute sometimes. Like they were most of last week when pondering, commenting on and arguing over what former Parti Québécois premier Lucien Bouchard had said à propos of Quebecers' work habits. As though what he'd said mattered one iota.
Of course he's right to think the Quebec model is in big trouble because there's not enough money to pay for all the social programs. But it's not because Quebecers are lazy - which is not even what he said, although it's what many criticized him for saying.
Yes, Quebecers are poorer than Ontarians or Americans. And yes, they work less. They are also - or so I'm told by people who make a living calculating these things - significantly less productive, meaning each hour worked by a Quebecer yields less wealth than each hour worked by an Ontarian or American.
So are they poorer because they work less, or do they work less because they are poorer even if they work hard? See, I'm much more inclined to blame the unhealthy grip labour unions still have on major chunks of the economy for a generally lower productivity rate, and the stupidly high rates of taxes on everything from income to sales to profits to payroll, for Quebecers' relative poverty. Not much point trying to get ahead if it's only to get walloped at the collective bargaining table or by the taxman or both.
No really. You are considered “rich” in Quebec once you earn the exorbitant sum of approximately $56,000 a year. So if you're a qualified professional earning, say, $120,000 a year, roughly half your income will be taxed at the highest rate. What's the point of working harder or trying to land that promotion?
Instead, many educated and talented Quebecers rationally make the calculation that something in the $50,000-$65,000 range will be enough because honestly, who enjoys working for the government and being called names because somehow, in that bizarre province, hustling and bustling trying to make money is considered dirtier than cheating on social assistance? Better take a fourth week of vacation instead.
I have nothing against folks who freely choose to live a simpler, cheaper life because they don't really enjoy working hard or they're poets or some such. Some people, given the choice, would rather work part-time, live in a small apartment and commute by bus instead of having a stressful job that barely pays enough to cover a big house with two SUVs in some fashionable suburb. Fine, I say, as long as it truly is a choice. But when you “choose” a simple life because marginal tax rates mean your extra income gets swallowed by the welfare state, things aren't so simple.
Here is where the entertaining catfights over who insulted whom stop being cute and the serious problems begin. As I wrote last year when Mr. Bouchard and company released their famous “clear-eyed” manifesto, Pour un Québec lucide, “When you're entitled to state benefits (subsidies, welfare payments, ‘free' health care or low electricity rates), you have every incentive to keep them and, because you have very little idea how much these programs cost you, no incentive to stop them. The more elaborate your welfare state, the more difficult it is to give it up. So Quebecers are pretty much stuck with theirs.”
Now if Mr. Bouchard truly wanted to help his beloved province, he might start by examining why, when he was premier, he systematically and aggressively attacked anybody who dared suggest that maybe, perchance, the Quebec model wasn't working all that well then and wouldn't work at all later. “Any battle waged against the Quebec model is a battle against Quebec's identity,” is how he put it in 1999. He was especially critical of the opposition leader, a certain Jean Charest, who then wanted thoroughly to overhaul the famous model so as to ensure its sustainability.
While he's at it, Mr. Bouchard might also want to ponder why, since Mr. Charest won the 2003 election promising to “re-engineer” the state to ensure the, a-hem, sustainability of social programs, he then did a lot of talking but no re-engineering and, for the last year or so, has stopped talking about it and now dismisses Mr. Bouchard's concerns.
The mini-storm over whether or not Quebecers are lazy has unfortunately distracted most people from the only question that really matters. Namely: Why, given that the Quebec model is blatantly unsustainable, has no sitting government ever dared get close to anything resembling a first step towards fixing the mess?
When Mr. Bouchard starts discussing that question, in the first person, I'll start taking him seriously.