Common sense says Canada should say no to trade deals

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A Three Amigos summit -- Canada, U.S., Mexico -- celebrating the abominable NAFTA trade deal of 1994, is coming at the end of this month and normally I'd save this column for it. But I'd like to suggest Justin Trudeau and trade minister Chrystia Freeland, take time to think about striking a different note there, like backing off future deals such as the Pacific and European ones now pending.

They came into office saying they'd carefully examine those deals before signing on, which is ritualistic crap -- as ex-Quebec premier Jean Charest wrote this week. You say you'll look seriously, then you just sign -- as another new Liberal government did with NAFTA.

But that pattern might be changeable. Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, one of the "smart guys" Freeland reveres (too much perhaps), says he advised her against the deals, so that's a bit of cover. But mostly ordinary people everywhere have rounded on them. U.S. and German support for the Europe deal has dropped from the mid-50s to the teens in just two years. And it's usually the far right -- such as Trump -- which has occupied the new terrain. It will go by default to them unless someone else steps up.

So what has changed? What's behind this shift?

The pro-dealers keep citing numbers to prove what bargains we're getting. I wouldn't say numbers lie but they don't tell the truth. Numbers don't do anything, they're numbers! What has pre-empted numbersism is common sense, like when Bernie Sanders says you didn't need to be a genius in 1990 to visit Mexico and realize that people willing to work for a few dollars a day would get jobs from farther north if trade deals (which were, by the way, rarely about trade and mostly about freedom to move production) went through. Now, that common sense logic has been ratified by experience. It's exactly what's happened.

Elementary logic also suggests that deals (they're rarely called "free trade" deals any more, just trade) written in secret with only corporate figures present alongside governments (versus workers', women's or Native organizations; environmentalists -- basically everybody else) will reflect -- guess whose interests? That doesn't take genius either, though WikiLeaks provides useful confirmation.

The credibility dip has been steep. The chief argument that "liberal" pro-dealer Paul Krugman, another Nobelist, has left for those deals is that they raised wage levels in poor countries. I think there's some truth to that but why does it fall solely on Western workers' families to pay the price for such progress through their own desperate decline while the rich soar to levels never known before? This is an exact recipe for the rise of xenophobia and rage, as you needn't look far to see.

Lastly, the glam is gone from the globalization mantra. I recently attended a performance of Bach's Cello Suites in Toronto. Cellist Misha Maisky introduced himself as a citizen of the world.

"I play an Italian cello with French and German bows, Austrian and German strings, my six children were born in four countries, my second wife is half Sri Lankan, half Italian, I drive a Japanese car, wear a Swiss watch, an Indian necklace and I feel at home everywhere."

It was weirdly tone-deaf for a virtuoso. Didn't he know where he was? And who doesn't drive a Japanese car? Outside the concert a Latino busker played "La Vie en rose" on an alto clarinet. He didn't congratulate himself for being a world citizen. He just is, like so many others. Deal celebrants may not have noticed how dated their shtick has grown.

And now for some breaking news. On Wednesday, General Electric said it will build a new plant in Welland, Ont., in response to hefty bribes, whoops and subsidies from governments here. They'll happily screw their U.S. workers, just the way many Canadians were screwed by previous moves to Mexico, then China, then Vietnam… it's your basic race to the bottom.

The benefit in Welland? 150 measly jobs. But they're jobs. The only excuse for sticking with Canada's disgraceful sale to Saudis of democracy-busting military equipment is to provide some work around London, Ont., where so many decent factory jobs vapourized during the NAFTA years.

What's the alternative -- no trade? Hardly. These people sometimes talk as if no one ever thought about trading before NAFTA. But slathering on more of these particular (not even really about) trade deals will only make things worse.

This column originally appeared in The Toronto Star.

Image: Flickr/Center for American Progress

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