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Safe places

 Victoria Street Newz (Canada) 14 May 2019

(Originally published: 04/2010) “We all, from time to time, need a Place of Refuge. Newly constructed buildings include this feature, a relatively safe and accessible location where people, especially the disabled, can gather during a fire, earthquake or other emergency to wait for assistance. By the same token, it’s time to consider economic safe places for us all." In a essay for Victoria Street Newz in Canada, Brian Mason offers his view on globalisation and its impact on the economy. (989 words) - By Brian Mason

We all, from time to time, need a Place of Refuge. Newly constructed buildings include this feature, a relatively safe and accessible location where people, especially the disabled, can gather during a fire, earthquake or other emergency to wait for assistance. By the same token, it's time to consider economic safe places for us all.

Canada and other advanced capitalist countries have spent the past few decades creating a global free-trade zone, reducing trade barriers and deregulating the financial sector. An elite transnational corporate class has overseen the process. All the while, the rich countries weren't completely swallowing their own medicine: they continued to subsidize home-grown corporate favourites like the agribusiness and fossil-fuel energy sectors. During a manic run that began with the Reagan-Thatcher (and Mulroney) era, the tough market-fundamentalist policies of the International Monetary Fund (IMF)/World Bank crowd were forced down the throats of poor nations while the rich world protected its own. Or so the stories goes. In truth, everyone and every place has been hurt to varying degrees by the unchecked bravado of neo-liberalism. The rich world may turn out to be the most damaged of all.

Transnational trade has been a common feature of human civilizations. It's natural to covet goods and materials from other lands, never more so than in earlier ages when the array of products available at home was severely limited. Quests for goods and resources from exotic places drove the age of mercantilism and imperialism. Predictably, the benefits of trade accrued mostly to the wealthier classes. What changed in the last quarter of the twentieth century was the intensity and scale of globalization: it became both an ideology (or secular religion) and a tool of mass exploitation. There was to be no hiding place for any nation anywhere on the planet. The pressure to conform grew enormous, with the consequences for not doing so disastrous. Neo-liberal marauders were nothing if not thorough, persistent - and vengeful.

Not even the financial crisis of 2008 was a wake-up call for our economic and political elites. On the contrary. Almost without exception, their remedies for the meltdown have been palliatives intended to restore the system to its previous condition. They still believe completely in the inviolability of global free-market capitalism - as long as it can receive a booster shot from the government treasury now and again.

Part of the belief in the merits of international trade has depended on a simple economic model: Trade creates wealth. If all a country were to do is shuffle goods and services around within its own boundaries, no net increase in wealth could result. Something has to come in from the outside (through trade) in order to expand the economic pie. Or so the argument goes. But such a model has innate limits: The world is only so big. What happens when the size of the economic entity, as in the case of modern globalization, is coterminous with the planet? Where then does the outside partner (with whom to trade) come from? At that point, the system becomes closed, no frontiers remain, all countries have been ensnared. Eventually, as we see happening today, the system begins to exhaust itself, becoming disabled.

Past strategies to deal with economic downturn have usually involved a form of protectionism, such as imposing or raising tariffs. Countries, including Canada, would retrench by instinctively trying to shelter national industries in times of international financial turmoil. In a sense, they were seeking a place of refuge. At the same time, governments would be called upon to increase the level of social services to protect their citizens as the economy sputtered. Today, the mere mention of any kind of protectionism or government intervention causes our economic elites literally to see red, as if the banner of socialism was unfurling before their eyes.

Here's a thought experiment for you. Imagine that our planet comprises Canada alone; that Canada, in other words, is all there is. If that were the case, globalization would be coterminous with our borders: all wealth would have to be created from the labour, land and raw materials within Canada. There would be no one else to trade with. Creating wealth in the absence of international commerce is refuge economics, Canada relying mostly on itself. Which would mean, in turn, if we wanted to eat pineapples in January, then really big greenhouses in Saskatchewan would become the order of the day. Or, we lowered our expectations. The goal of refuge economics is self-sufficiency in everything other than the sharing or transfer of knowledge and of aid.

One way of looking at globalization is to think of it as trying to turn the world into a single, seamless free-market zone - just as I am asking you to imagine in the above thought experiment; one economic entity, albeit a much larger one. Yet, if globalization is seen as the optimum way to achieve wealth, there is no reason the same approach cannot work within a single, well-endowed nation or community - and Canada is well-provisioned. Canadians, like the citizens of the modern-day Kingdom of Bhutan, could begin to create a national happiness index, instead of cleaving to a consumer price-driven version. By taking a time out from the neo-liberal agenda, we could focus on community values and look at ways to care for one another, other peoples and the earth. Possibly, even, the case in support of a guaranteed livable income for everyone would gain ascendancy as a common sense way of providing the good life.

If my visioning exercise appears hopelessly naive, it's actually little different from the post-cheap-oil world described starkly in books like William Kunstler's The Long Emergency or, more recently, Jeff Rubin's Why Your World Is About To Get A Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization. Whereas their predicted journey to the same destination would be a rough, unhappy one, my transition could unfold more gently. We all need safe places.

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