Canadian government adopts America's fear economy

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support for as little as $5 per month!

Since the Second World War, the U.S. economy has been built around what you might call the fear sector: its military-industrial complex, its crime-prison complex and its homeland-terror complex. We're now seeing the first attempt by a Canadian government to follow this model.

In the U.S., the military portion has been the healthiest (economically speaking). It made weapons the government could sell abroad and employed a work force with unions that were able to bargain medical and other insurance, taking pressure off governments to provide those. Its budget is 43 per cent of what the rest of the world spends militarily and as high in the Obama era as before.

The prison-industrial complex has ramped way up since the Reagan years, due to sentencing changes based on "zero tolerance" and "three strikes." In 1972, it held 300,000 inmates; by 2000, two million; and, in 2008, 7.3 million in jail, on probation or on parole. With 5 per cent of the world's people, the U.S. has 25 per cent of its prisoners. Private prisons have taken off.

Since 9/11, there's the homeland-terror sector, described in The Washington Post this week as a "jobs program" with "a gusher of money." More than 850,000 Americans now have top-secret clearance. The Department of Homeland Security, which hadn't existed before 9/11, is next in size to Defence and Veterans Affairs. Prospects are limitless. Finding shoe bombers takes more than finding foreign missiles or armies -- just as finding a needle in a haystack would take far more personnel, technology and time than finding a hay wagon.

The latter two sectors aren't as cost-beneficial as the military. They don't make much to sell to the rest of the world, or generate social benefits. But deduct the impact of all three from the U.S. economy, and from its employment stats (including people in the armed forces or jail), and that mighty economic engine would be a holey mess.

The Harper government is clearly impressed. They don't seem to mind big government, if they can tax and spend in the fear sector. So they've expanded our military budget and just announced a $9-billion (or maybe $16-billion) purchase of 65 U.S. jets we'll have to find some use for. They're increasing the prison population through U.S.-style sentencing laws and planning "major construction initiatives" that will boost (sorry) corrections costs by 43 per cent. On homeland security, there's that amazing $1.2-billion spent at the G20.

But it's a hard sell. Canadians will have to be persuaded to shift more money from a stretched health-care system to the fear sector. The benefits here aren't as obvious. For buying those jets, all our firms get is the right to bid on U.S contracts. Lotsa luck. Mostly, though, there's the fear culture that you need for a fear sector.

For some reason, U.S. society is highly susceptible to mass fear and paranoia. Scholars have written on this. It's not that there aren't real enemies, but any candidate, from the Red Menace to al-Qaeda, falls into ready, fertile ground. For oral history on this, consult anyone who recalls the McCarthy era and Reds under the beds. My own lasting image is of a family at Disney World a year after 9/11, drawing on tubes from the water bottle on mom's belt to avoid dehydration and peering around for Islamists (who might target Mouseland) while plotting their next moves in the Magic Kingdom.

I lean toward Michael Moore's theory about this, in his best film, Bowling for Columbine: that there's a deep, residual fear of the country's former slave population, now free and full but perhaps angry citizens.

By comparison, Canadians seem a happy, unintimidated lot. To justify G20 security, 9/11 was never even invoked here, as if we wouldn't have bought it. They just talked old-style vandalism and anarchists at us. And people still went downtown, to gawk or shop. We won't be easy to reboot.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable. has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.