Brian Lee Crowley

Fiddling while the border cracks

The Toronto Star kindly invited me to contribute to a debate in their pages on the question as to whether Canada has a refugee crisis, especially in the context of 26,000 illegal border crossers at Roxham Road and elsewhere. Even though I am not sure that the word “crisis” is quite the right one, in a nod to journalistic style I agreed to write the piece saying Yes for the Star’s 17 July 2018 edition. My argument is that while it may not yet be a full-blown crisis, all the elements are there for it to become one, as these illegal crossings become only one more sign that Canada is losing control of the border.

As I conclude in the article:

“Regardless of the share of these illegal entrants finally accepted as bona fide refugees, the fact is they are purposely doing an end run around the rules, causing us to lose control of the border. That is playing both with fire and with the liberal Canadian consensus on immigration.”

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Thinking, not emoting, about NAFTA

One of the big public policy issues Canada is wrestling with is whether, and on what conditions, NAFTA can be renewed. Unfortunately, the political class seems more intent on whipping up emotion around the topic than helping Canadians to come to grips with the real issues and how we might turn this mess to Canada’s advantage. In order to fill this gap, Sean Speer and I co-wrote three op-eds (and Frank Buckley joined us on the first one) hoping to illuminate for Canadians some of the stakes, the realistic options and where Canada’s interests truly lie in these negotiations. In retrospect I see that the summary of our argument is that the NAFTA negotiations are like any dispute in a long-term relationship, like a marriage. There are three lessons to be learned:

  1. Get to understand what the other person wants. It’s not all about you!
  2. Look inward to find where you might have contributed to envenoming the dispute. You might think all the fault lies elsewhere, but usually responsibility is shared.
  3. Before your roving eye draws you to another potential partner, be sure you really understand how much you have invested in your existing relationship and how hard it would be to replace.

Sean, Frank and I applied Lesson One in the Globe on 3 July 2018 in which the three of us laid out what the Trump administration wants and how their world view is an important break from many of the assumptions of recent decades. The fact that Trump may come up with the wrong answers to the questions that exercise him does not mean he is wrong to ask them. There is also a video version of this piece on the page.

Then Sean and I applied Lesson Two in a 6 July 2018 piece for Macleans’ magazine where we reviewed the many ways that Ottawa has antagonised the Trump administration while bringing no benefit to Canada. As the current occupant of the White House might have tweeted, “Sad!”

Finally, we applied Lesson Three in a 20 July 2018 Globe op-ed examining the idea that “diversifying” our trade, especially to China, will somehow offer some kind of realistic alternative to our deep economic entanglement with the US. Not bloody likely!

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Getting real about China, on NAFTA, national security and trade diversification

I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet these days about China, as any sensible person should. Everyone seems fixated on Donald Trump bullying Canada (and that is a reasonable concern) but the number of people who hold up China as some kind of alternative is truly staggering. If you want real, subtle, long-term bullying in unapologetic pursuit of national interests, you cannot do better than China. Add to that that China is an authoritarian, autocratic and repressive country without even a nodding acquaintance with the rule of law and a hostile relationship with the western alliance, etc., etc., etc., and China gets less appealing every day as a partner for Canada. Here are three recent op-eds in which I develop these various themes:

In the 30 May 2018 edition of the Globe, I took aim at China for its clear threats to Canadians’ national security. The context was Ottawa’s rather unexpected but welcome decision to veto the takeover of Canadian construction giant Aecon by a Chinese firm. As I pointed out, if this means that Ottawa is going to take national security threats from China more seriously (including their to-date insouciance about Huawei’s deep involvement in building Canada’s next generation 5G wireless network) that is very good news indeed and not before time.

Then came the G7 Summit. The G7 seems to me a little adrift these days, an organisation in search of a mission that would unite the disparate interests of Japan, North America and the largest European economies. My suggestion in an 8 July piece in Inside Policy: they should all agree to unite and reinforce their current disparate efforts to confront China’s disgraceful behaviour in the South China Sea that is an affront to the rule of law and freedom of navigation. There is also a video version of this piece.

Finally, Ottawa has been ramping up its focus on “trade diversification” as a kind of defensive card to play in its NAFTA negotiations with Washington. But of all the daft ideas, the one that China can replace or even partially compensate for our trade relationship with the US is surely the daftest. Read my op-ed, co-authored with Sean Speer, in the Globe of 20 July 2018 about why China is no trade saviour for Canada.

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A primer on Canada’s pipeline mess for Canadians and others

On the topic of pipelines in general and Trans Mountain in particular, there has of course been much action in recent weeks, including most notably Ottawa’s acquisition of the TM project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion. Here are two examples of my commentary on the issue:

30 May 2018 I published an op-ed in the Financial Post arguing that the Liberals are chiefly the authors of their own misfortune on TM, through their ill-advised political alliance with the hard-line environmental movement. I predict that they will reap the social licence whirlwind when their erstwhile allies really get serious about civil disobedience.

Then on June 12th I sought to explain to an international audience the issues surrounding TM and pipelines in general in the context of Ottawa’s sudden ownership of TM. The Washington Examiner was kind enough to publish my piece. I also did a video version of the op-ed which is available at the top of the MLI page.

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Of deficits and infrastructure

One of the signature policies of the Liberals in the last election was their promise to increase substantially infrastructure spending and to run a deficit solely for this purpose. As Sean Speer and I argued in this 19 April 2018 piece for Inside Policy their policy has failed on both counts. Not only have they proven woefully ineffective at spending infrastructure dollars, they have nonetheless run up deficits on a host of other spending.  Ottawa’s approach to infrastructure badly needs a rethink.

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Why the SCC must not have the last word on Comeau and barriers to trade

Another hot topic for Canadians in 2018 was the disappointing decision of the Supreme Court of Canada on the Comeau “Free the Beer” case. Here is some of my commentary following that decision:

First, I took the SCC to task for its failure to honour Canadians’ economic rights and its tendentious reading of the plain language of the Constitution. In a 21 April 2018 op-ed published in the major dailies throughout New Brunswick (where the Comeau case originated) I also pointed out that it was probably always a long shot that the profoundly economically-ignorant SCC might solve Canada’s failure to fix its internal barriers problem. That puts the onus right back squarely where it has always been: on Ottawa’s shoulders.

On 30 April MLI released a video of me making the same case.

Finally, on 16 May 2018, Sean Speer and I co-wrote a piece for Inside Policy reiterating these arguments and adding new ones about Canadians’ economic rights!

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Is abstinence or harm reduction the right tobacco policy?

On 18 Oct 2017 I had an op-ed in the Sun newspaper chain arguing that technolgical innovation has rendered tobacco abstinence the wrong policy if we want to reduce the harms caused by tobacco use.  Since the scientific evidence is eloquent that most tobacco-related harm is caused by combustion, not tobacco per se, the emerging technologies that allow people to use tobacco at greatly reduced risk are likely to produce better health outcomes than an abstinence policy honoured more in the breach than in the observance.

 

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The premiers don’t speak for Canada

In my latest column for the Globe’s ROB Economy Lab, I dissect the behaviour of the premiers as they demonstrated yet again, over the course of the summer, why we cannot expect them to speak up for the national interest. The issue is protecting the rights of economic citizenship of Canadians (otherwise known as “internal trade”). Read on to find out what the systemic reasons are the premiers will never be the ones who deliver free trade within Canada. It’s Ottawa’s job.

By the way, If there is any question about what business, those ultimately responsible for job creation and exports think, the major Canadian business associations have banded together to publish a paper urging action.  Their vision is much more expansive than the premiers’, calling for all barriers to be ended and rules to be harmonized.   As Ailish Campbell, Vice President at the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) has put it, “We want to see firms growing from Canada into global leaders. A common market to boost growth and jobs shouldn’t be in question.”

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Good intentions are not enough

In a follow up column to his two-part series on Fearful Symmetry, Globe columnist Neil Reynolds talked about the dissenters among his readership:

“In this space last week, economist Brian Lee Crowley advanced his intriguing theory that demographic changes will compel Canada to return to the classic liberal principles of personal responsibility and limited government. A number of readers dissented. “Don’t be so greedy,” one of them wrote. “We have found in our character a generosity that has mandated, by the authority of democratically elected governments, the equitable distribution of wealth among most of our people.”

“He suggested that people who find wisdom in Mr. Crowley’s newly published book, Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values, possess “hard little hearts.” These hard-hearted people, he said, think that economic losers should be made to suffer.”

Neil goes on to cast some doubt on this proposition in his own way. Now let me add my own view that the dissenters have missed the point. If they ever pick up Fearful Symmetry they will discover in it an impassioned plea for a reform of social programmes so that those programmes will stop doing so much harm to the most vulnerable in our society. Good intentions, the desire to help those less fortunate, are laudable impulses. But we too often make the mistake of simply throwing money at the problem through ill-designed social programmes, such as EI and many kinds of provincial social welfare, that end up trapping our most vulnerable citizens in a near-permanent dependence on benefits. In the book I make the case that this is a far worse fate than being a productive member of our society, even in a relatively low-paying job.

Work is one of the key ways in which we develop our humanity, contribute to our community and become free people pursuing our own goals. These are essential elements of the fully human life. When we design social programmes that make that harder to achieve, we are not being “generous” or “caring”. We are being destructive and using tax money as a cheap salve to our inflamed consciences. If you pick up the book you’ll see that I also argue that this view of the centrality of work and the importance of keeping the most vulnerable out of the clutches of the well-meaning welfare state is increasingly accepted across the political spectrum.

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Brian Lee Crowley