Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ralston Saul and the Collapse of Globalism

I've not thought much about John Ralston Saul. I've read a little of his stuff, but mostly my views were shaped by what others wrote about him, and I wasn't too impressed. Funny how perceptions change when you actually see the person in full voice.

Today I was flipping through the channels when I saw him talking on TVO's Big Ideas. I stopped. I listened. And I kept listening. Here I had this image of a George Orwell kind of professor who sits in his armchair and spouts intellectual nonentities, and instead, I was watching a man who made sense.

He was talking about the Collapse of Globalism, the ideas contained in his book of that name. He talked about how evidence of this collapse was everywhere from the new foreign policy direction of the UK -- one of the major players in capitalism and free trade -- to the fact that none (or few) of the newly elected politicians down south were for globalism, to the recent move to take culture out of the WTO (did you know that? I didn't. About time.), to the development of local farming co-operatives in southern India, to China's new 5-year plan that is focussed more on domestic than on international, to the US's decision not to sell its ports to the UAE and to keep them in domestic hands. Yet, he said, Canada's elite continue to operate, alone of the big nations, as if globalism is still king. We continue to sell our businesses to foreign interests, when that is not in the interest of Canada's public good, either from a sovereignty point of view or a wealth creation point of view. Even that bastion of capitalism, the US, does not allow such a sell-off. Apparently, 6% of businesses in the US are foreign owned. It's 30% here. This is a trend some of us ordinary non-elite Canadians are noticing and worrying about, yet our elite seem to think this is good, if they think anything at all. Worse, our trade surplus is even more dependent on our natural resources than ever. I had no idea. I had been under the impression that we were becoming less dependent on our natural resources for our GDP. A nation cannot be self-sufficient nor create wealth if it depends on other countries for its manufactured goods, for innovation creation, even for its culture, and if it's biggest source of income is for natural resources. Producers are the least paid in the supply chain. The manufacturers, distributors, and retailers are the ones who make the money. Yet we seem content to remain producers. It's no wonder really that our personal wealth has dropped over the years. I believe that it's the first time ersonal buying power has been less than previous generation -- that I heard awhile ago, and Saul explained why today.

Although a low-on-the-totem-pole person like me can be expected to not notice nor worry about the increased dependence on natural resources, the selling of our businesses to foreign interests, the government letting opportunities of scientific discovery slip out of our hands to the astonishment of other governments, it should absolutely be of concern to our elite, to the people who have the power to make changes. Saul is right. They are asleep at the switch. Yet the three international treaties that are moving the globe away from the idea of economics trumps all -- globalization is good -- were all initiated by Canada: landmines, criminal court, and culture out of the WTO. He suggests it must've been by accident that our elites did that, but it proves Canada is capable of doing great good.

It's interesting that some Indian citizens moved to create co-ops as a way to generate wealth and to get out of the Monsanto-induced debt so many Indian farmers have fallen into. The idea is to produce for local consumption. Here, our co-ops are under siege, yet the eco movement may be our saviour. There's an increasing call to buy locally, to buy our milk, meat, veggies, and fruit from farmers within 100km. That would make the produce selection in winter a bit measly, but it is fundamentally an anti-globalization move, one that will by accident get Canada onto the same train as the rest of the world.

Saul ended his talk by pointing out a couple of Canadian problems and how easy they are to solve. The growing epidemic of obesity in children has the elite wringing their hands as to how this happened and what to do. Yet to feed the idea of capitalism, governments cut back on education so that school boards looked to pop companies to get back that lost funding. They also cut back on sports so that at least the 3Rs were adequately funded. The result is fat kids who grow up to cost the health care system more than it would've to fund the schools properly, including soft subjects like sports.

The health care system is in a wait-time crunch. This crunch began because a couple of bozos told the government, look, you have a surplus of doctors and nurses and they're what's costing the system. Cut back on medical school places, and you'll reduce health care costs. Well, lo and behold, it wasn't doctors costing the system, it was sick people. And they didn't drop in numbers just because there were fewer doctors. So now sick people are stuffing our ERs, and governments are patching here and there, but nothing much has improved.

Easy to fix these problems, declared Saul. Yes, it is easy. Ban junk food and pop from machines and the school cafeteria and fund the education system appropriately. Secondly, license all the competent foreign-trained doctors, plus increase medical shool places to appropriate levels for the population, plus hire more nurses. Yet our elites so far have shown no ability to see this reality. Those fixes Saul talks about take an act of will, a desire to meet the public good and to ignore the ideologues of capitalism, and the courage to actually do something. Canadians seem to be really good at electing politicians who think doing nothing is the way to go. But things may've gotten so bad, in our cities and on our farms, that our politicians, including Toronto's Mayor, may now be willing look at things differently and to change their passivity into activity that benefits the public good.

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