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The Staple Theory at 50: Introduction to a special blog series

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Photo: Mel Watkins

This fall, the Progressive Economics Forum will host a series of special guest blog commentaries on the 50th anniversary of Mel Watkins' classic 1963 article, "A Staple Theory of Economic Growth." In the article below, economist Jim Stanford provides an introduction to the series and an overview of the contributions to come.

In my job as economist for Unifor (and before that the CAW), I have had a long-time interest in more sustainable and sensible policies for managing Canada's resource wealth. The challenge, given the lucrative but fleeting nature of resource booms, is to leverage Canada's resource wealth in a manner that stimulates a more diversified, inclusive and sustainable economy. Market-driven approaches, reinforced by the rules of free trade deals (including, in particular, the still-unprecedented energy-sharing provisions of the NAFTA) will leave us with a skewed, polarized, fragile and environmentally doomed resource-addicted economy.

A few weeks ago, I was giving a presentation about the bitumen boom and the economic and social dangers it poses to Canada. At the end of the slide show I provided a list of key references for further readings -- including Mel Watkins' classic 1963 article: "A Staple Theory of Economic Growth." That article applied and updated Innis' original analysis of the role of successive waves of staples in Canada's economic development. It laid the intellectual foundation for so many subsequent theoretical and policy interventions during the tempestuous late 1960s and 1970s. Chief among these was Mel's own work on the subsequent Task Force on Foreign Ownership and the Structure of Canadian Investment, which reported in 1968.

Right there in front of the audience, I realized out loud (with surprise) that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Mel's classic article. In recognition of both its stand-alone importance, Mel's many broader contributions to progressive political economy in Canada, and the renewed importance of a critical understanding of Canada's staples problem (given the resource-dominated regression of our economy over the last decade), it is important that the heterodox economics community in Canada collectively mark the occasion.

To that end, the Progressive Economics Forum will host a series of special guest blog commentaries on the Relentlessly Progressive Economics (RPE) blog this fall, recognizing the lasting significance of the 1963 article, and exploring its relevance to modern-day development and industrial policy debates in Canada and internationally. The blogs will run at regular intervals through the fall, starting now. Mel himself will write a concluding wrap-up and retrospective, engaging with the blog commentaries and providing his own thoughts on the staples issue 50 years after his article.

Later in the year, the whole collection will be published as a stand-alone report (available online and in hard copy) by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Our goal with this series is not just to reflect on the importance of the 1963 article (and Mel's other work). It is also to add concretely to the current debate over staples, including a frank consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of staples analysis in the context of our current economic, geopolitical, and environmental conjuncture. Many of the commentaries will be applying staples analysis to new topics: such as B.C.'s proposal to base future growth around exports of LNG, the gender stratification of Canada's economy, and the obvious challenge of developing new development strategies that recognize and respect the environmental constraints facing our country and our world.

Authors who have accepted our invitation to contribute to the series include: Gord Laxer, Marjorie Cohen, Dan Ciuriak, David Wolfe, Alberto Gago, Tom Gunton, Marc Lee, Diana Gibson, Daniel Poon, Brendan Haley, Daniel Drache, and Hugh Grant. Fittingly, our first contribution, posted concurrently today to RPE, is from Abe Rotstein: Professor Emeritus of Economics at the U of T, Mel's colleague during the heady days of political economy research in that program, and one of the founders of the Committee for an Independent Canada. Abe provides a personal retrospective on the vibrant theoretical community that spawned this great work of Canadian economic analysis.

We welcome comments and responses to this special series, posted either in the comments area below each post, or through e-mail to me at jim.stanford [AT] unifor.org. And collectively, as we launch this series, we say a special thank you to Mel Watkins for his important theoretical and personal contributions (in economics and in many other areas of life) to building a better Canada!

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