Tuesday, March 05, 2024

History of free trade


Amid the Globe and Mail's coverage of Brian Mulroney's life and career last week (headlines: "great patriot," "Canada's greenest prime minister," "extraordinary statesmen," "Quebec's illustrious son"), a couple of pieces stood out. 

In the Business pages, under the headline "Economically speaking. we're all living in Brian Mulroney's Canada." Tony Keller gives a triumphalist account of Mulroney's free trade project, mocking anti-free traders who thought "the Americans were bent on deflowering our national virtue" and celebrating the great benefits free trade brought, including the dispute settlement mechanism Mulroney inserted into the agreement. Isn't that the one that had to be killed off because it was used exclusively by American businesses to claim millions in compensation for Canadian government programs? 

In the Opinion pages, Andrew Coyne's column, likely written before Mulroney's death was announced, is all about the anemic growth rate of the Canadian economy in recent decades. The article comes with copious statistics about how we used to have one of the world's highest GDP per capita rates, terrific capital formation figures, and other measures of growth and prosperity, all of which seem to have been falling away for decades. Coyne seeks no specific cause for these seriously worrying developments. But the charts suggest they really started to gather force about a decade after the implementation of free trade


Today Maude Barlow wonders where all the free trade prosperity is these days. Maybe she fears we really are living in Brian Mulroney's economy?

Update, March 7: Jared Milne writes:

Reading your commentary on 'free trade' in Tuesday's blog post, I find it ironic that Andrew Coyne cites so many OECD statistics in his article to describe how Canada's struggled economically in recent decades. The thing is that Mel Hurtig was doing the exact same thing 20 years ago, and he cited 'free trade' as one of the main reasons for it. 

 It's a shame that critics like Hurtig, Eric Kierans and John Ralston Saul were either ignored or dismissed as cranks when they were making their warnings about what was coming. At a time when populists on both the left and the right are savaging the whole idea of neoliberalism, they look like prophets in hindsight. 

Both links there, one from Policy Options, the other from Medium, are worth following. Also relevant: economic commentator Armine Yalnizyan, taking down the whole panic over GDP per capita, and setting out what changes in that metric really expose:  

 The reason you should be worried isn’t that GDP per capita is falling, but what the proposed fixes are.

Update, March 11:  One more contribution to the discussion of economic and cultural backsliding by Canada, Ken Whyte, former editor of Saturday Night, National Post, Maclean's, etc, now publisher of Sutherland House Books, examines the decline of independent Canadian cultural expression "in the fifth decade of the neo-liberal era," i.e., since the Mulroney government's adoption of free trade, free markets, and globalism. 

This analysis of the struggles of Canadian cultural expression is much more plausible than the "Who killed Canadian history?" plaints pointing to wokeism, social historians, and minority voices as the problem.

Full throated praise of Mulroney's achievements -- and much more muted "hmmm's" as well -- continue to appear, and not always from the expected sources.



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