Volume 51, Issue 3: Summer 2017

For the 150th, let’s also re-make our economic myths

Every society needs its myths. But as much as myths and stories can empower, they can also be damaging. Here are three economic myths about Canada that could use re-writing. The first economic myth to remake is that we are “hewers of wood and drawers of water” — or, in more contemporary terms, extractors of some of the dirtiest fossil fuels known to humankind. Stephen Harper was deeply invested in perpetuating the myth that Canada’s destiny is tied to the fossil-fuel economy — a myth deeply embedded in a colonial history that erases First Nations title and rights to the land.

Justin Trudeau, for all his heartfelt tweets and playful socks, also plays into this narrative. Four months ago, he accepted an award at an oil lobby conference saying, “No country would fi nd 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there.” He regularly brags that he has been able to approve two tar sands pipelines, Kinder Morgan and Line 3, something that eluded Stephen Harper despite his two terms in power. Trudeau outdoes Harper’s confrontational politics towards First Nations with a cynical stance of rhetorical reconciliation intended to mask underfunding for First Nations social services and aggressive resource development.

Unfortunately, the Left has a history of perpetuating the fossil-fuel myth in its own way. The argument that Canada is a “dependency” of the U.S. or somehow on the global periphery was once infl uential on the Left. Not only is it hard to square with Canada’s true place in the world economy — Canada is a member of the G8, an end point in advanced supply chains and headquarters to much of a global mining industry that wreaks havoc in the real periphery — but this view bolsters the inevitability of natural-resource extraction. If Canada is peripheral, then it is fi tting it remain largely a source of natural resources.

And that’s second myth: that we can’t do anything to change our economic situation. Ha-Joon Chang and others have described how nearly all countries developed through a mix of interventionism, from industrial policy to grow key sectors to targeted public investment to limits on fi nance like capital controls. And as Mariana Mazzucato has argued, so much advanced technology that is ubiquitous today would be nowhere without state support and intervention. Most of the guts of an iPhone originated the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Now imagine if countries devoted resources not to developing weapons systems — “accidentally” inventing GPS and the Internet along the way — but consciously channelled them to more socially-useful ends. Canada may a leading oil exporter today; it could be tomorrow’s leader in green energy or biomedical technology.

A new Canadian industrial policy could focus on developing renewables like wind and solar, resurrecting a nuclear power industry, preparing to electrify the transportation network or building out public research at the frontiers of medicine. Rather than continue to dismantle a once-thriving automotive sector, why not repurpose it to provide clean vehicles for transport and expanded public transit?

As entire regions deindustrialize, untold volumes of human talent and experience go to waste. Shaping the economy means building on existing human capacities, not accepting their loss as the collateral damage of unfettered markets. Workers — whether from an oil industry that needs to be rapidly phased out to save the climate or a manufacturing sector left to atrophy on its own — could be retrained for greener jobs with better working conditions.

A third myth about the economy to dispense with is that regular people cannot be agents of change — that only the “job creators” or the technocrats can be entrusted with economic management.

The oil executives and lobbyists have one vision for resource exploitation: profi t as much as possible regardless of the consequences. Many of the First Nations on whose ancestral lands these resources are found have a diametrically opposed vision. Being serious about adopting UNDRIP and redressing colonial history means devolving real power and decision-making.

Oil workers have been at the forefront of developing alternative plans for their industry and themselves: wind it down, retrain the workers and build a vibrant green economy in its place. The one thing they are missing is the power to impact operations and investment plans. And they are not alone; workers across economic sectors are the ones most capable of making many decisions — they are the ones who do the work day-in and day-out. Saying that “we” can alter the economy means something when it is truly democratic.

The stories and myths of Canada as a dynamic, green, democratic economy are waiting to be written. Are we up to building the politics to achieve them?

Michal Rozworski is a union researcher and writer. One of Canada’s leading young Left economists, he blogs at Political Eh-conomy.