Saturday, November 29, 2008


Canada may be on the verge of a constitutional and political showdown, and the secessionist Bloc Quebecois is the kingmaker.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leading a conservative minority government, proposed to abolish government funding for political parties-- a move that would hurt his own part much less than the opposition parties, as the government subsidy makes up most of their budgets.

I've joked several times in this space about the apparent inability of Canadian parties to learn the word "coalition," but mortal threats concentrate the mind wonderfully, and the Liberal and NDP parties finally seemed to reach a willingness to join forces.

Problem: even combined, they have fewer MPs than the Tories. The balance of power is held by the Bloc, which has never entered into coalition or federal government since, after all, its raison d'etre is to free Quebec from the Canadian yoke.

Second problem: if the Tories lose a vote of confidence, the normal response is for the PM to ask the Governor General to dissolve Parliament and hold a new election-- but the last election was a matter of weeks ago.

So one question is: what does the GG do, if the PM is asking for a new election while Stephan Dion asks for the right to form a new government in the existing Parliament? And another question is: to grant Dion's request, what kind of participation would the GG demand from the Bloc? Passive support seems insufficient; active participation would be anathema both to the Bloc and to huge swaths of Liberal Anglophone Canada.

And it's worth noting just how topsy-turvy the world is in which the Bloc makes Stephane Dion Prime Minister. Dion has for two decades been one of the champions of Canadian unity and federalism within the Quebec debate, and has been a hate-figure for nationalists; Bernard Landry called him "le politicien le plus détesté de l'histoire du Québec." It would come as a serious surprise to me if either Bloc voters were happy that the Bloc installed Dion, or if Liberal voters were happy about any collaboration with the Bloc.

Harper has now backed down from the political party subsidy proposal. But the thing about political learning is that newly-learned lessons aren't quickly unlearned. The Liberals and NDP have finally learned, under mortal threat, that a coalition is thinkable-- and then they learned that they could terrify Harper, which they've proven unable to do for years. So they could still decide to vote no-confidence next week and bring the government down-- apparently throwing Canada's immediate political future into the hands of the GG, which is constitutionally unsettling in one way (Governors General, like the British monarch for whom they stand in, aren't really supposed to have political choices to make in our modern constitutional monarchies)-- and into the hands of the Bloc, which is constitutionally unsettling in another way.

A big week ahead. Fruits and votes is my recommendation for a blog on which to follow the action.
Elsewhere: Kirsch on Zizek

"The Deadly Jester," at TNR.

health care.
Despite a shortage of doctors across the province, the Quebec government is planning to issue fewer permits than the actual number of graduates in family medicine next year, The Gazette has learned.

A total of 238 doctors are expected to complete their residencies in family medicine and pass their board exams in 2009. However, the government is counting on issuing 220 permits, according to the Quebec Federation of General Practitioners.

The gap stems from a 5-year-old permits policy aimed at making sure young doctors start their careers in short-staffed regions across the province. In the past, the government had issued more permits than there were students in the graduating class. This gave doctors more choice about where to practice, and some regions had a hard time recruiting new doctors.

This year, however, the government has decided to keep a tight lid on permits - in particular, limiting those available in Montreal - to make sure that all regions are able to hire new doctors.

But the policy - known as Plans régionaux d'effectifs médicaux or PREMs - has actually backfired and led to an exodus of mostly anglophone, Quebec-trained doctors quitting the province for Ontario and elsewhere, critics say.

"It's absurd," said Mark Roper, a Westmount family physician and chairman of the medical manpower committee of the Regional Department of General Medicine of Montreal.

"It's almost like they're pushing young doctors out of the province."

Most new doctors prefer to practise in Montreal rather than in small rural communities. Quebec has offered doctors financial carrots to work in the Far North, but it has used the stick to get them to practise in the Mauricie, the Outaouais and other regions.

Before the PREMs, new doctors who decided to stay in Montreal were docked 30 per cent of their billings for the first three years of their careers. Most doctors toughed it out, so the government switched to the more restrictive PREM system.

Each year, the Health Department - in co-operation with the federation of GPs - decides on a certain number of positions for the 15 regions of Quebec.

Newly-graduated doctors must then apply for positions in a number of regions. Most apply to work in Montreal as their first choice, and if they don't get accepted, they are more likely to be hired by another region.

For Montreal, the government has decided to issue only 54 permits even though the city has a shortage of about 300 family doctors. If new doctors decide to stay in Montreal without a PREM position, going into solo practice, their billings will be docked by 25 per cent, not for the first three years but their entire careers.

Figures obtained by The Gazette show that recruitment was actually higher before the PREMs system went into effect in every region except Mauricie. So where have all those young doctors gone?

Quebec has been a net exporter of doctors to other provinces in the past five years, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.

Friday, November 28, 2008


I'm one of the last of the oldline blogluddists who thinks that the decline of civility and decency the blogosphere can be traced to two events, one of which I won't tell you but one of which was the creation of comments sections. In particular, I remember thinking that the opening of comments at Kevin Drum's then-site, CalPundit, changed things rather a lot. Almost every high-traffic site I've been reading since before the introduction of comments seems to me to have suffered on net from the development, except for Crooked Timber.

1) This is a very low-traffic site, compared with my former digs chez Volokh or chez TNR. I'ts far below the traffic of sites with comments sections I really enjoy-- i.e. John and Belle, or PTN.

2) I'm going to be hosting a blogevent in the near future that will require comments, and I figured that I ought to start figuring out how to accommodate a comments section before rather than during that event.

So I'll be opening comments around here, at least temporarily. I hereby incorporate by reference Brad DeLong's comments policy, pending the evolution of relevant local norms. I don't intend to moderate in advance a la Leiter.

So, all twenty of my loyal readers: talk away!


So much for low traffic! Welcome to Kevin Drum's reader's. I invite you to stick around and read a post that's actually about something (e.g.).

And, NB: People generally don't, or shouldn't refer to themselves as luddites about some modern technology without making fun of themselves, and I was certainly trying to do that. It's a silly view that says technology c. 2002-2003 was just right, and that the years since have been a fall from grace. It is true that my experience of blogging and reading blogs came to feel different after comments sections opened, and obviously I've made a deliberate decision to leave comments off until now-- but I'd still ask you not to take my opening paragraph above too seriously. (By the way, saying "one of which I won't tell you" was meant to be more honest than just attributing the whole change to comments sections. I know it looks like I'm trying to be coy or cute but that wasn't the idea.)

Kevin quite reasonably says, "This deserves explication. Does Jacob think that opening a comment section changed my actual blogging? Or did the blogging remain the same but the mere existence of raucous commenters changed things? If the latter, why not just ignore the comments? If the former, how?"

Unfortunately I can't quite disentangle the two. This is a matter of impressionistic memory of events 5-6 years past, and many things change at the same time. With or without comments Kevin's one of the blogosphere's best on a number of dimensions, and I certainly don't mean that he became uncivil-- he continues to stand out for his civility and graciousness. So maybe it's just that I found one of my favorite blogs marred by the raucousness below the posts, that I couldn't quite discipline myself to look away from. And CalPundit probably stands out in my memory partly because the contrast between Kevin's posts and the raucousness below them was so dramatic; if I didn't look away, it meant that my experience of reading the blog changed very suddenly. I think that's mostly where this impression in my memory comes from.

But I also think that comments sections have encouraged intra-blog rather than inter-blog conversations.

As a lecturer, I'm at least somewhat responsive to my audience and their reactions. I do notice when the students' eyes are glazing over, when they seem alert, what makes them ask questions, what puts them to sleep. I don't respond to that in a Pavlovian way-- that way lies the professor-as-standup-comic, and I'm pretty sure that my vocation doesn't lie in that direction even if I wanted to try it. But I do respond, consciously and unconsciously-- speaking to a live audience is interactive in a way that writing an article for future publication is not. I'm sure that makes me a better teacher than if I ignored my audience-- but it also makes my lectures a little bit more homogenous, and a little bit more geared to what I think my students already find interesting or congenial.

Blogging's interactive, too. If nothing else, I suspect that choice of blogging topics gets influenced by the enthusiasm for some topics shown by one's commentators, when comments sections are on. That by itself makes the medium a little bit less idiosyncratically personal; it encourages blogging about hot topics over blogging about one's cat (to take an old CalPundit example)-- whereas as a reader I enjoy the idiosyncratically personal voices.

But there's probably something beyond even that. Comments crowds tend to be more aligned with the blog-author than do other blog-writers. And I think that conversations among blog authors across ideological lines started to fall off after comments sections came into being. Opportunity costs of time kick in-- most blog-authors do read their own comments sections, and that surely changes the overall ideological balance of who they're spending time online reading. The objections one starts to notice to one's own position come from one's loyal readers-- so a center-left blogger will start to encounter primarily objections from the left, and vice-versa. That has an effect of its own. At least for some bloggers, the effect is a predictable echo-chamber one, and the positions become more extreme.

One other thing about all this:

2002-03 of course had more going on in it than blogstuff. I do think that, as the war in Iraq became more likely, and then happened, politics in general became somewhat more polarized and nastier in the US, certainly than it had been for a while after 9/11.

One thing I worry about in my memory is... well, for comparison I think about Andrew Sullivan and Paul Krugman. Sullivan famously called Krugman as a "shrill" critic of Bush, back in the days when Sullivan was broadly supportive of Bush. Now that pretty much everything Krugman said about Bush has proven an understatement, and now that Sullivan is fully on board as a critic, I wonder how he remembers Krugman c. 2000-2003? My guess is that he still remembers them as shrill. Krugman was, from Sullivan's perspective, prematurely anti-Bush-- and like the premature anti-Fascists of 1939 and 1940, those who were prematurely anti-Bush tend not to get much love from the latecomers. (I think that Brad DeLong's long-running "order of the shrill" feature was actually a pretty important device-- it reminded the latecomers that they were coming around to views Krugman had long since put forward, and views that they had once found irritating in him.)

From my perspective as I lived it, some of the left blogosphere was prematurely anti-war. What that means is: they were right and I was wrong. They saw important things before I did. But it's very difficult to change the emotional valence of memory. It's likely that some of my memory is colored by that-- I found off-putting some commentary that was right, but that I didn't agree with then. I don't think that that directly plays very much into my wariness about comments sections, but that's the sort of thing it would be hard to know for sure about oneself. It probably does play into my overall memory of a change in blogspheric tone in that era.

For what it's worth, I don't think that I'm the only one who was struck by Kevin's comments section in the old days; in the post linked to above, Brad DeLong relies on "Kevin Drum's comments section" as a shorthand for something to be avoided: "trolls must be squashed quickly, or the space turns into... Kevin Drum's comment section." I see that Kevin's got moderators these days, and that it makes a difference, but, again, memories are hard to shake.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


The "Liberals and Libertarians: Common Ground or Separate Agendas?" panel at Princeton last month is now available in video at the WWS website (scroll down to October 23) or in free audio on iTunes (search for liberals libertarians, or for one or more of the participants-- Paul Starr, John Tomasi, Brink Lindsey, Will Wilkinson, Douglas Massey, Chris Hayes, me.) Yes, I now exist in iTunes-- very exciting, I know.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An introduction to referral logs

Dear students,

If you're going to run a google search on an assigned paper topic, which mentions a bunch of readings from your class, don't be shocked if the search at some point directs you toward the professor who thought up the topic in the first place. But following that link leaves a digital trail that your professor can see. Nothing wrong with following the links, of course; it's good to look for ideas! But I just thought you should know.


Sunday, November 23, 2008

When the right hand doesn't know what the headline-writer is doing

Poorly-phrased NYT article:
President-elect Barack Obama has signaled that he will pursue a far more ambitious plan of spending and tax cuts than anything he outlined on the campaign trail — a plan "big enough to deal with the huge problem we face,” a top adviser said Sunday — setting the tone for a recovery effort that could absorb and define much of his term.

Even-more-badly-phrased headline: "Obama Aides Signal Deeper Cuts in Taxes and Spending."

NB: The article's about the need for a larger stimulus package than anticipated-- that is, more tax cuts and more spending.

"more ambitious plan of spending and tax cuts" misleadingly suggests that spending will be cut; better to write "plan of spending increases and tax cuts" or "plan of tax cuts and spending."

"Deeper Cuts in Taxes and Spending" is even worse; it unambiguously means that spending will be cut, and cut more than had been anticipated, which is the reverse of what's going on.


Update: fixed now.