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Lazy, spoiled, entitled whiners

I think if I was ever really hard up for cash, I could make a pretty decent living as a conservative columnist. It would actually be pretty easy – all I’d have to do is learn to stop thinking things through and rely on ‘common sense’ to justify all of my boneheaded, reductive, stereotypical leaps to whatever conclusion was sure to resonate with those who hadn’t bothered to learn anything about an issue. I could have made a killing opining on the Montreal protests – it was the first time most Canadians (myself included) were paying any attention to Quebec’s provincial political scene. All I’d have to do is denigrate this group or that group (maybe blame it on immigrants to boot), and collect my cheque.

Unfortunately, I am a liberal, and a skeptic liberal at that. I just don’t have it in me to pass off simplistic pseudo-explanations as statements of fact – not for money, anyway. Since announcing my intention to travel to Montreal (and a number of times since returning – and once while I was still there), I’ve had many conversations about the protests, and managed to get my counterpoints down to pretty concise talking points.

“They just want a government handout. I flipped burgers/shoveled coal/wrestled dinosaurs to pay for my degree. If I did it, so can they!”

The cost of university education has been steadily increasing over the years, while the value of a university degree has been dropping. Students are graduating with an average of $27,000 of debt*. If you go back for a graduate or professional degree (often necessary if you want to earn an income that will allow you to pay that sum off), that number grows even larger. Most people I knew in undergraduate worked in addition to going to school. Many worked full-time hours over the summer (as did I) to pay for living expenses, tuition and books. Most of those did not earn enough to graduate without still having massive debt.

This view of school as something that you can afford on a dishwasher’s salary is absolute nonsense that bears little resemblance to reality. Especially now, with youth unemployment hovering around 15%, the prospect of earning enough to pay for school while you’re in school (or even working for a few years after high school to save up) is a relic of a past in which education was heavily subsidized. Under those circumstances, and facing a work world that won’t even look twice at them without a degree (and even then, just barely if you only have the one), it is not at all unreasonable to expect help.

“Quebeckers have nothing to complain about! Their tuition is the lowest in the country!”

Well gee, genius, let’s maybe take a look at why Quebec’s tuition rates are so low – it’s because they fought for it. It didn’t happen because governments are benevolent – it’s because they were forced to do it by passionate people who made it an issue. That is exactly what the students are doing. The high tuitions you see in other provinces are not the result of this latest financial crisis – in nearly every other province they have been increasing steadily, both in times of lean and in times of plenty. Students in Quebec should not be subjected to contempt simply because students in other provinces haven’t figured out that they have a say in the matter of their education.

“Banging pots and pans is for two year-olds! No wonder everyone thinks they’re a bunch of brats!”

Well there are a number of reasons why people like to demonize popular protest, but it almost never has anything to do with the method of demonstration. In this case, the ‘manifs casseroles’ are part of a tradition that extends back a surprisingly long way:

With their use of pots and pans, the Quebec demonstrators are taking part in the tradition of charivari, which in earlier times would see noisy demonstrations calling attention to a breach of community standards in the village or neighbourhood. The English called it “rough music,” and there were versions of it all over Europe and its colonies. Disguising themselves, young men would bang on pots and pans and ring cow bells in front of the house of, say, a widow or widower who was remarrying someone much too young. The youths were the voice of the community, given licence by their elders to restore order. The charivari was an alternative to violent exclusion, instead shaming its target into compensation or reparation. This was often a payment of money that allowed everyone to go down to the local inn for a festive drink or meal.

The charivari evolved into a form of political protest, and from the 16th century on, there are many such examples. Older working men and sometimes women might join with the youth, clanging pots and pans against unjust officials and their policies. In 1576 in Dijon, the noise was directed against the king’s master of forests, not just for beating his wife but for cutting down the trees he was supposed to preserve for the people’s use. In 17th-century France, charivaris targeted royal tax collectors oppressing the families of peasants and artisans.

So yes, while ignorance is a lot easier than research, it’s also far less interesting, and makes for pretty poor argument.

“You should have to pay for your education. Expecting it to be free is ridiculous.”

Ignoring for the moment that there are lots of places that offer free university, this argument fails to understand how subsidized tuition works. The money comes from taxation. The students, once they graduate, will be in the working world and earning salaries of some kind. Unless they decide to vacate the province en masse once they have the certificate in their hands (which is particularly difficult for those who are not fluent English speakers), they will be working (and paying taxes) in Quebec. All the student organizations are saying is “let us pay later rather than going into debt now”.

Think about it this way – what is better for growing an economy: a work force who is paying higher taxation rates to pay down 100% of the cost of their education, or a work force paying 100+prime+5% in student loans? People paying back debt cannot use that money to purchase consumer goods, which is what drives small business growth. It’s not complicated economics – it’s just a matter of breaking out of this “hurr durr handouts” mentality that seems to dominate the political discourse.

“Lower tuition is not a panacaea. It benefits the wealthy far more than the poor.”

This is more or less true – you get better return for your investment if you spend money on bursaries and scholarships rather than free tuition. Expecting those who can afford to pay to chip in more so that those who deserve to be there but can’t afford it is far more progressive than free tuition. If it were an either/or prospect, this would be a valid argument. But it isn’t. All budgets are lists of priorities, and to suggest that Quebec simply cannot afford to subsidize tuition and provide bursaries is silly; it’s that they have other things they’d rather subsidize. Well, the students disagree, and they finally have the government’s attention.

Besides, this movement isn’t necessarily about helping the poor – it’s about the direction in which people want to see their country move. Do we want to simply yield to what we are told is a necessary condition – education becoming ever more expensive until the situation is as bad in Quebec as it is in other places? Or do we believe that we can force the political system to change – to use our collective political power to demand changes in an unsatisfactory system? This issue, I believe, goes far deeper than simply the question of tuition rates – it is an existential question about the nature of government and the role of the people in public life. We don’t have to adjust our expectations to fit this party platform or that one – we can agitate and force the platforms to fit our needs.

There is no end to the number of arguments deployed against the protesters, and the fact that the refutations are this easy to produce tells you pretty much all you need to know about how sound they are.

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*Jean rightly points out that the national average is misleading when we are talking about Quebec specifically. More accurate figures are available here.

Comments

  1. MichaelD says

    Hmm… Good points some of which I hadn’t considered (particularly number 3).

  2. Jean says

    I’m sorry but your post is a little misleading on a couple of points.

    You mention the student debt but the number you quote is not for Quebec. This site shows the difference between the debt for the Quebec students and the students in the rest of Canada.

    Also, your last point doesn’t reflect correctly what was discussed between the student groups and the government at the last failed negotiations. The government offered to raise financial help for students of lower income families significantly. And there were other offers to lower the total cost besides tuition. However the students absolutely wanted a tuition rate freezing.

    Having said that, I’m not saying that I approve how the government handled this crisis. They have made terribly bad decisions and have let this go way too long. But the students have also made bad tactical decisions especially since there is going to be an election before too long.

    So there is a need to have more debates about this issue and the students will have to convince people about the validity of freezing or even lowering tuition rates because, even though they got a lot of support against the way the government handled the crisis (especially the special law), a majority of the people in the province seem to be for increasing tuition rates.

    Jean (from Montreal)

  3. slc1 says

    The high tuitions you see in other provinces are not the result of this latest financial crisis – in nearly every other province they have been increasing steadily, both in times of lean and in times of plenty

    The same thing has been happening in the United States. For instance, it is getting hard to tell the difference in the costs of attending college between U. C. Berkeley, and Stanford.

  4. says

    But universities are liberal indoctrination machines!111 And they’re all just eliteists!!11 Someone has to flip burgers!!11!

  5. says

    Thanks for the insight, Jean. That is useful counterpoint. Thank you for that reference as well.

    I disagree, however, that my final statement is misleading. The point I was trying to make is that tuition can be frozen or lowered AND bursaries can be increased. That comes at the cost of something else the government wants to do, which is an entirely fair point that should have been debated before the announcement was made (and then the subsequent stupidity from the provincial Liberals was put on display).

    There is absolutely a need for more debate, and it is not helped by the bad arguments I hear from a depressingly large number of sources.

  6. slc1 says

    Another thing that is happening, especially in Virginia, is that in-state students are being turned away from the prestige campuses, UVA and VPU, in favor of out of state students who pay a much higher tuition. This is because of cutbacks in state support of those two institutions.

  7. says

    Expecting those who can afford to pay to chip in more so that those who deserve to be there but can’t afford it is far more progressive than free tuition.

    There’s a problem with that:
    Usually the students themselves don’t have that money, it’s the parents who have and it gives them a shitload of power over their child who’s technically already an adult. To protect those young people from unfair pressure (like a willingness to pay for, say, a law degree but not for architecture), education should be free for all and completly financed via taxes.
    I had a few friends who were forced to sue their own parents into supporting them, that’s not a nice thing to happen

  8. says

    Absolutely, and I am totally in support of tuition-free schooling. My point is that if you had to pick a single program to help poor kids afford school, free tuition isn’t nearly as useful as a shit-ton of needs-based bursaries. I think there should be both things.

  9. 'Tis Himself says

    Lazy, spoiled, entitled whiners

    I saw this title and thought: Finally, a post about me! Man, was I disappointed when I saw you were writing about other lazy, spoiled, entitled whiners.

    During and after the Great Depression, there was serious discussion throughout the First World about how to prevent another depression. One thing that pretty well everyone of any political stripe agreed upon was the creation and maintenance of a large middle class would tend to bring economic stability. This middle class would consist primarily of educated professionals and small business owners. As a result, during World War II, the US, Canada, Britain, and other countries established veterans’ education assistance programs (called the GI Bill in the US).

    These programs paid for tuition, books, fees and a living stipend for discharged veterans. They were extremely successful. In the US veterans accounted for over 70% of male enrollment in the immediate postwar years. There was an over 50% graduation rate from American colleges and universities during the period 1946-1954.¹ Most economists agree that the highest per capita earnings in Western society were during the twenty years centered on 1960.

    Unfortunately, since that time many people have forgotten the lessons of the Great Depression. Nowadays, wealth is more and more being retained by the upper class and the American middle class is shrinking (and don’t kid yourselves Canadians, it’s happening to you folks as well). Education is no longer seen as a benefit for society but rather as a privilege for the elite.

    Western society, particularly in North America, came close to an economic meltdown in the past ten years. Considering how the politicians are playing fast and loose with the economy, particularly with financial regulation, don’t be surprised if in the near future we have a series of sharp recessions interspersed with slow, weak recoveries. It’s not going to get much better, folks, until people start realizing that trickle-down economics doesn’t fucking work.

    ¹Michael Bennett: When Dreams Come True: The G.I. Bill and the Making of Modern America . Dulles, VA, Brassey’s, 1996. Pp 12-13.

  10. Etienne says

    (For better effect, feel free to read this in a thick French Canadian accent.)

    The protests right now in Quebec have little to do anymore with the tuition rates. The liberal government is staggeringly unpopular and people are protesting against all sorts of things. And contrary to what many people believe, a majority of cégep and university students aren’t on strike and have completed their semester…

    One thing that contributes to fuel the anger is that there is no “viable” choice for the upcoming election. There are three main parties at this time in the Quebec political scene: the Liberals (who have been in power for about 8 years and have been setting unpopularity records for the past two or three years), the Parti Québécois (the separatist party, who has spent the better part of those past 8 years tearing itself apart in petty internal power struggles and who is turning into a purely reactionary party) and the Coalition Avenir Québec (a new party that was created “by committee” over the course of a year and that strikes most people as particularly vapid). People want change, but see no way how to make that wish into a reality. The tuition crisis was like a lit match thrown into a stack of dry wood.

    What I find the most unbearable in this situation is how adverse so many people are to the idea of walking and chewing gum at the same time. I am in favor of increasing the tuition rates; but I am also in favor of a significantly improved bursaries program, better oversight of cégep and university management (with actual consequences for those who squander public funds), increased taxation of companies (who now pay a third of the taxes they paid just a few decades ago) which could be funneled directly to education… The increased tuition rates shouldn’t be an isolated issue, but it is treated as such more often than not.

    tl;dr There is no short version, I already had to cut down significantly on what I wanted to say first. :P

  11. says

    My son is about to start a Ph.D. program at Concordia. I’m afraid he isn’t going to have much sympathy for the movement, as he (ie. either we, or scholarships/bursaries) have been paying out-of-state American rates for the past seven years of his education. He’s currently marvelling at how his entire four-year program will cost about as much than any previous single term did.

    We’ll try to educate him ;-).

  12. clamboy says

    Thank you!!! I live in Seattle, where the local National Public Radio affiliate, KUOW, has a weekly segment featuring a Vancouver-based columnist who opines on all things Canuckistanian. His perspective is pretty much what you have lampooned here, and it frustrates me no end that KUOW presents him as being the sole go-to guy to understand Canadian affairs. I am NOT making a direct comparison, just engaging in some hyperbole to make a point, but would it be proper to present Marine Le Pen as the go-to person for the goings-on in France, week after week?

  13. kraut says

    Why for fuck sakes are Universities in Canada not free for Canadian citizens.

    I studied in Germany for free from 1975 to 1979 without being settled with tuition fees, and afaik there still are no tuition fees to be paid by German citizens studying on any German university.
    Why can a resource poor country like Germany afford that, and a resource rich one like Canada has to charge its students for attending university? What the fuck is going on?

  14. says

    What is most telling comes from this article:

    And even media coverage is being questioned for accuracy. A group of bilingual Quebec anglophones got so frustrated that national media was providing such different coverage of the protests than in their province that they set up a translation service online to provide English Canada with access to Le Devoir, La Presse and other francophone media.

    Seems like these lazy, spoiled, entitled whiners are all most of this country has for news media =/

  15. BigRed says

    If I may correct you on a small point

    Considering how the politicians are playing fast and loose with the economy, particularly with financial regulation, don’t be surprised if in the near future we have a series of sharp recessions interspersed with slow, weak recoveries.

    We are currently in an on-going, rather sharp recession, and wherever recoveries happen at all, there are mainly slow and weak. So no need to look towards the near future.

  16. BigRed says

    Regarding the first “argument”

    “They just want a government handout. I flipped burgers/shoveled coal/wrestled dinosaurs to pay for my degree. If I did it, so can they!”

    Even if getting through college by working long hours would still work nowadays, I’ve never even understood why “my life was hard so this generation’s should be as hard” is considered as expressing anything but misanthropy and envy.

  17. EmbraceYourInnerCrone says

    Very, very true, my father was able to go to college on the GI bill in the 50′s after his stint in the Army. Unfortunately he has forgotten how much of his “good life” he owes to “entitlement programs and government handouts” like the GI Bill, and currently Social Security and Medicare. Some how he and my mother are entitled to all this but the current crop of kids trying to go to college,etc “just want things handed to them”.

    Why yes, they do watch FOX news 24/7! Trying to have political discussions with them gives me a migraine. My Dad’s mom was a cook and housekeeper, his dad was a chauffeur. My Mother’s parents were factory workers and then my grandmother did sewing and worked at home as my grandfather became disabled. The main reason my parents are middle class is the GI Bill. One of their sources of income is SS, the other is a pension from a company that had a good union. Oh the irony….

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