Friday, August 05, 2016

Mel Hurtig and Canadian nationalist history

Did "history" pass Mel Hurtig by?

That's the presumption today in the Toronto Star (the Toronto Star!) of Paul Wells, who dismisses the Canadian nationalist work of the bookseller, publisher, and politician who died the other day at 84. "History has chosen a different path for the country Hurtig so loved," Wells declares. Millennials are not interested and neither is Justin Trudeau, he reports, and that's conclusive.

Daily journalists who speak on behalf of "history" sounds like pompous idiots, of course, But it's true that free trade/free borders/free use ideologies are pretty strong among politicians, opinion makers, and probably a lot of young people in Canada these days.  Hurtig's nationalist views certainly seem in eclipse.

But I come back to that useful epigram, "Free trade is like a free lunch; somebody always pays." The question is always who pays.

Globally globalization has raised a lot of people out of poverty, as the Milanovic diagram shows. (Reading the diagram across from the left bottom, you get first the poorest people in the world, who have not improved their status at all since 1988, then the people in the next 50 or so percentiles, who have improved their situation a lot, then a group (broadly western workers and middle classes) who have suffered pretty serious relative losses, and finally at the right, the global rich and super-rich, who have prospered mightily.) 

Lately there has been quite a lot of attention to those who have paid for globalization: rustbucket Americans leaning to Trump, British Brexit voters, anti-Europe Europeans.  Right now, globalization does not look so great for migrants from Africa or poorer people in Brazil, either.  

And economists are taking note, though rarely endorsing the pseudo-solutions of Brexit or the Donald. Recall Thomas Piketty's success in identifying globalization as the source of rising inequality in developed countries. Or the renewed influence of Keynesians, who have pretty much proved since 2008 that free trade, tax cuts, and government austerity do not address the Great Recession but national public spending (and taxation) can. Or the work of rising star economist Dani Rodrik of Harvard, as recently profiled by Economic Principals
He argued that trade was creating deep divisions between those who possessed the skills to thrive in global markets and those who lacked them. Redistribution to the losers of the gains from trade were almost wholly lacking, and globalization seemed to have permanently altered the norms surrounding domestic production in nations all around the world. There was bound to be a backlash.
Rodrik raises the "globalization trilemma":
Democracy, national sovereignty, and global integration were mutually irreconcilable, Rodrik argued, because of the political strains that inevitably would emerge. Nations could have any two of the three possibilities, but could never have all three at once at least not in strong forms.
Hurtig, I think, was first and foremost a cultural naturalist.  He was a bookseller and publisher, and his publishing house was driven to bankruptcy by the globalizing bookseller Chapters, which loss-led his Canadian Encyclopedia effectively enough to destroy him, almost without noticing. (See the update/correction below)

Today in Hurtig's own industry, all the major Canadian publishers are branch plants. (I heard recently of a novelist who was told his/her story could not be set in Toronto.  It would have to be changed to Buffalo. True story!) You can hardly build a domestic career in popular music anymore, either, and  the domestic film industry was pretty much stillborn.

It could have been different. Culture was supposed to be "off the table" in Canadian free trade negotiations, but no one took those promises seriously. Clearly Canadian culture was one of the sectors that paid for globalization and went uncompensated. As Rodrik says, no redistribution.

Could we have globalization and compensation for its victims?  Even Rodrick seems to doubt it.  Will we?  I guess Mel Hurtig's place in history hangs on it.

Update, August 8:  Brian Busby gently corrects me:
I very much appreciated your obituary of Mel Hurtig. As you might imagine, I was a fan - so much so that I voted for my local National Party candidate back in '93.

One small quibble: 'twas not Chapters that drove Hurtig to bankruptcy, rather it was W.H. Smith. The second edition was published in 1988. Hurtig sold the company to M&S in 1991. Chapters was formed in 1994.

In The Perilous Trade, Roy MacSkimming has it that the Second Edition actually made money. I'd argue that it was poor sales of the 1990 Junior Encyclopedia of Canada that brought about the end.
Full disclosure: I'm both a former Chapters employee and former contributor to the Encyclopedia.
Thanks, Brian. So much for that example, though I hold to the larger point about the globalization debates.

I meant to say in the original post: in the current state of affairs, the Canadian Encyclopedia is Hurtig's principal legacy. (Full disclosure: I wrote for it too) It never went away, and continues to be maintained and updated as a prime online source of information about Canada.  Today it is run by the Historica Foundation. Indeed, it may be the principal accomplishment of that organization too, to have kept it up and up to date..

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