By Mark Taliano
Lee Iacocca once said that there “are no free lunches”. It seemed to be a mantra extolling the virtues of hard work. Fair enough. Then along came “free trade” and all of its ensuing inferences and associations.
Somehow free trade was thought to be linked directly to democracy, equality, and the shedding of the yoke of poverty and disease from the world. Turns out, it’s not very “free”, and it’s quite indifferent to poverty and disease, unless there’s money to be made.
If we dig deeper, and “follow the money”, we find “free trade” is also associated with de-regulation and privatization. That’s when it impacts us directly. After all, it’s the P3 hospital in North West St.Catharines that seems to be having its way with most of Niagara. The democratically elected Regional Council has voted in favour of an independent review of health care in Niagara, but its supplication has been met with callous indifference. I would suggest the insinuation of private monies into the equation (P3 hospital) has colored the equation. It’s a somewhat tenuous conclusion, but democratic–style negotiations with the HIP and LHIN have been an abject failure so far.
Free Trade hasn’t been so free or egalitarian in its treatment of Niagara’s middle-class either. Its effects have been rather costly in terms of high taxes and the loss of good-paying jobs.
What about the trickle-down effect and good jobs? Has the money from trade trickled down to the less affluent? Certainly not in Welland, but apparently not in Mexico either. The truism that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is unfortunately more valid than we’d like to believe. The poverty rates in Mexico are about the same, if not higher, since the ratification of NAFTA.
It would seem this “free” flow of goods and services endorsed by NAFTA hasn’t always served the markets well either, unless billion dollar bailouts funded by taxpayers is good service. This deal is “more equal” for the relatively small number of people who own most of the stock market, than it is for the regular tax payer.
The link between free markets, capitalism, and world democracy is also quite tenuous. Saudi Arabia, home of religious extremism, and birthplace of most of the 911 terrorists, is very autocratic, not democratic, but goods and services flow quite easily between the Saudis and the U.S. So this link doesn’t hold water, but if it does, the vessel is full of holes.
There is much talk of Homeland Security, infrastructure expansions, and holes in the trade and security net between Canada and the U.S . The process to enable “free” trade between Canada and the US will continue to be very expensive, and the taxpayers are footing the bill, so again, What’s so “free” about it?
Especially irksome is that powerful, free-ranging corporations, protected by trade treaties, are undermining what used to be sovereign issues, and are starting to dictate foreign policy. Currently, AIDS medications, protected by “Intellectual Property rights” are very expensive and unaffordable to countless peoples in Africa. The developed world could make those meds more affordable if it weren’t for patent laws protected under trade agreements. There’s something very wrong about that. Foreign policy used to be the domain of elected political parties. Less so now.
So, if it weren’t for some of these binding trade agreements, democracy at home and abroad would be more powerful. Mexico and other developing countries would be more self-directed, and less trapped by economic colonialism. We’d have more industry in Niagara, and foreign assistance to the developing world would be more effective. I would suggest we say “goodbye” to extreme capitalism, its trickle down theories, and its tenuous associations with democracy, and “hello” to renegotiated trade treaties. Failing that, let’s at least stop calling it “free”.
Mark Taliano is a resident of Niagara, Ontario and regular contributor of commentary to Niagara At Large.
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