Brian Lee Crowley

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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Sean Speer and I tackle the role of marriage and family in social policy

In the struggle to gain insight into the causes of social ills like unemployment, poor educational performance, welfare dependency, inequality, social mobility and a host of other vital issues, almost  any and every explanation is considered worthy of study except one of the most important ones: the vital role that marriage and the family play. In this 11 May 2018 op-ed for the Sun newspapers Sean Speer and I set the record straight.

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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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Don’t look at unemployment, but rather employment to understand Donald Trump

In what turned out, alas, to be my last regular column for the Globe’s ROB, I point out that unemployment statistics hide more than they reveal. What tell us a lot more are the data for the shae of the population in paid work or looking for work, know as the labour force participation rate. Focusing on this number tells you lots about politics, the state of the economy, and even some of the roots of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. You can read the unedited text below or online here.

 

What do we know about the people who Donald Trump turned into such a potent political force in the last election?  US unemployment is well below five percent; surely there was no objective basis for the economic insecurities that drove the “basket of deplorables” to vote for the Republican candidate.

Consider, though, that one of the best places to seek insight is not the unemployment rate, but the “labour-force participation” or LFP. The LFP shows the share of working age people who have jobs or are actively seeking jobs in the US. In other words it is also a pretty good measure of how many people have left the workforce because they are discouraged and feel there are no opportunities for them. What do we know about them?

Trump’s election coincides with the US LFP rate hitting its lowest level in more than 30 years. The state-by-state figures  provide even more insight into Donald Trump’s political resonance.

Nine out of 10 states with the lowest LFP rates voted for him. Of the five states that went from Blue to Red in 2016, three – Florida, Michigan and Ohio – experienced a drop in their participation rate relative to 2012, meaning a smaller share of people worked and were looking for work compared to four years earlier. The other two states had no increase in the share of people working despite several years of modest economic growth.

By contrast, the years of Bill Clinton’s presidency coincided with a high LFP rate, a time when workers were prepared to give Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton the benefit of the doubt about how trade would improve Americans’ standard of living and those harmed would not be left behind. No more. That good will is gone.

New research from the centre-right American Enterprise Institute think tank shows that millions of American men are jobless and have given up looking. The share of men 20 and older without paid work is nearly 32 percent. That bears repeating: basically a third of all men in America who are over 20 have no paid employment. Two economists at the centre-left Brookings Institution have now added that the LFP rate of prime-age women has stagnated and also declined. People collecting disability benefit has increased markedly.

This doesn’t just affect their job prospects. Other research, including by a Nobel laureate, shows that the life expectancy and health of these displaced and discouraged workers has gone into a tailspin thanks largely to illnesses related to drug and alcohol abuse and other “lifestyle” factors. As one analyst said, these people are dying of despair, with over half a million needless deaths being attributed to bleak job prospects.

So looking solely at the unemployment rate causes us to lose sight entirely of a major part of the population. This segment is not just constituted of men–and now increasingly women–left behind by economic change. It also includes their parents, friends, and colleagues, who see these people they care about left on the shelf and are angered that opportunities for them seem so few and far between. This starts to be a significant part of the population—and the electorate.

It is no answer to say that these people have misdiagnosed their plight when they follow Trump in seeing trade and immigration as the cause of their problems. Yes, the problem is far more down to automation and other productivity-enhancements, meaning that manufacturing requires fewer and fewer poorly-educated, relatively low-skilled workers. Yes, Trump is wrong when he says that America doesn’t make things anymore and needs to return to this economic vocation. The truth is that America has never made more things than it does today. It just doesn’t require many workers to do so.

But the fact that the diagnosis is incorrect misses the key point about Trump’s voters – they vote for him chiefly because they feel he is the only political leader who doesn’t simply dismiss their fears and anxieties as misguided and ill-informed and doesn’t tell them condescendingly that their problems will disappear if only they get a university degree or if the government institutes a guaranteed annual income and basically writes them off as contributing members of society.

A pervasive feeling has taken hold in many parts of American society that ordinary people are being made to pay the price of the ideals of the elites. Free trade is one such ideal, one in which I happen to believe, but also one whose highly-concentrated destructive effects are undeniable and frequently easier to identify than its widely-dispersed benefits. That is why free trade can only be sustained when the winners use the extra wealth created to compensate the losers – something we, like the Americans, have done poorly and unimaginatively.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

 

 

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Big cities an antidote to poverty, except in Africa

Cities everywhere are perhaps the moist important drivers of prosperity, pulling millions out of poverty and putting them on the ladder of economic success. As I argued in my 28th April column for the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business, however, Africa remains something of an exception. It’s cities do not generate the same kind of economic progress that others do elsewhere, including in Asia and Latin America. Why not? My answer? You can read it yourself in the unedited column text below or you can read it online:

 

According to Harvard’s Edward Glaeser, “Cities are the best path we know out of poverty.” This is echoed by prominent economist Paul Romer who has made the richly documented case that humanity’s urbanisation over the last 10,000 years has been the main driver of human progress. He argues that the present century is the one where the urbanisation trend finally reaches into every corner of the globe, and the world’s population will stabilise at 10-11 billion people, with 70-80 percent of them living in cities.

But alas it is not sufficient to shepherd people in to growing urban areas for them to participate in the economic benefits of urbanisation. I was put in mind of this the other day when I read a piece by a journalist detailing the challenges he faced flying out of Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. Kinshasa is a city of some 12 million people and the third largest in Africa, so its challenges are emblematic of the obstacles to cities bringing widespread prosperity to that continent.

When I lived in Kinshasa over 30 years ago, hardly anyone flew out of the local airport. When I left I took the African Queen-like ferry across the Congo River to Brazzaville whence you could connect to French international flight networks.

Apparently it is slightly better now in Kin, as the locals call the city. Now there are 11 international flights a day. Still a paltry number for any self-respecting city of 12 million residents, for one of the ways cities create wealth for their inhabitants is through dense networks of connections with other cities. There are 1400 flights a day through Heathrow and 1100 through Pearson.

And it is not just airline schedules.

When I lived in Kinshasa almost no one had a telephone. Copper wire was so valuable that even if you could get a phone connection installed (in itself a minor miracle) the chances were that scavenging gangs would quickly rip out the connection. Making an international call was a hilarious undertaking. Since the country never paid its bills to the national telecom companies in other countries, international operators would never accept calls from Congo. You had to go down to the main telephone exchange  and bribe an operator to start calling every country in the world until they came across an operator that hadn’t got the memo that calls from Congo were verboten. Mobile telephony has surely improved things, but not nearly enough.

These tiny examples illuminate the larger principle about much African urbanisation, namely that unlike, say, China or Korea or even much of Latin America,  Africa is urbanising without globalising; Africans are getting only a tiny part of the benefit that growing cities might confer on them.

Fixing this will perhaps be the single most important thing that could be done to help pull Africa out of poverty and connect it with global opportunities. But that means focusing on the right problems and the right solutions.

The biggest obstacle African cities face to realising their full potential is the weakness of the institutions on which they are based. Yes, people come to cities because there are more jobs, higher levels of specialisation and therefore higher wages, educational opportunities, infrastructure and other advantages. But mostly they come because successful cities have rules of behaviour that protect the investment that companies and individuals make to improve their business and their lives.

If organised gangs can take what you have worked so hard to create, why invest in your education or your business? If the government can bulldoze your little shanty on a whim or ownership isn’t even available because slumlords backed by violence control vast slums, how can you build a stable life? If water, sewer and electricity hookups are a luxury available only to elites, how can you avoid epidemics or connect to the Internet?

What makes cities in the West such magnets for people from all over the world is that property rights are clearly defined and enforced, when your safety and security is threatened you can call the police and they will come and they won’t extort you, if you sign a contract it will be enforced pretty even-handedly on the parties. We have created the certainty needed for investment to be made in the provision of services such as water, sewers, electricity and data pipes, not to mention education, transport and health care.

Lagos, Kinshasa, Nairobi and other emerging African megacities show that the continent is getting the easy part right, with urban dwellers doubling every 20 years. But services and institutions are falling behind.  Institution-building will determine whether those cities can realise the promise of prosperity too.

Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.

 

 

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The conflict between elites and ordinary people that brought us Trump and Brexit has Canada in its sights

There is no wall protecting Canada from the populist tidal wave that washed Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States, as I argue in a new Macdonald-Laurier Institute commentary based on a talk I gave in Vancouver to the local chapter of NAIOP.

The phenomena that delivered a stunning election result in the United States and a surprise vote to leave the European Union in Britain are – despite what some observers think – also happening here in Canada. I single out three areas where this conflict is already coming into the open: labour markets, immigration and housing prices.

The Brexit vote last June and the recent election of a populist and anti-establishment American president are perhaps only the opening chapters of a new era of friction and even confrontation between the opinions of the Davos-inspired elites who have been in charge for decades, and those of the man and woman on the street.

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What explains labour’s falling share of income? Corporate concentration one answer

In my Globe column I argue that the share of national income going to workers is being squeezed in Canada and other G20 countries. An excessive concentration of market share in the hands of fewer and fewer companies – not greed or offshoring – may be one of the most important trends responsible for this change.

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Think the conditions that led to Trump’s rise don’t exist here? Think again.

In my Globe column I argue that typical Canadian smug moral superiority has no place in our assessment of Donald Trump and the political phenomenon he represents. Canada is not immune to the economic dislocation and policy arrogance that propelled Trump to the presidency. If we forget about those whom free trade, balanced budgets and higher productivity are leaving behind important parts of our population will be vulnerable to Trump-like appeals.

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Will robots steal the last job?

In the era of Donald Trump it has become commonplace to bemoan the disappearance of work and the fear seems widespread that robotics will replace virtually every kind of work. We won’t even drive ourselves anymore for Heaven’s sake! Machines will do it all.

Or will they? It is a common fallacy that there is a fixed amount of work to be done and if machines do more of it there will be ever less of it left over for humans to do.

But it is a fallacy no matter how hard some people believe it. The reason is that what creates jobs is human needs and desires and these are infinite. Moreover as we become wealthier (which automation allows us to do with no extra effort on the part of humans), we begin to think about satisfying those wants and desires that we had to set aside when we were too poor to afford them. There is a reason why it is wealthy societies, not poor ones, that go to the moon and the stars….

Read more in what has been my most commented-on Globe column of 2017. OK, it was also my only one in 2017 (published 6th January) so far anyway. Just checking to see if you were reading closely!

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Millenials have to earn their place in the workforce

In my May 20th column for the Ottawa Citizen  and other Postmedia papers I take aim at the attitude that employers must tie themselves in knots to accommodate young workers’ preferences around when and how they want to work. I beg to differ. Jobs are not created for the convenience of employees. They exist because of employers who risk their capital and their reputation. The deal is that employees sell their time and have a duty and an obligation to give their best efforts to meet their employers’ needs during that time. Employees are not doing their employers a favour and if they want their preferences accommodated in the workplace the way to do it is to make it clear that they are diligent, energetic and trustworthy employees.

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Brian Lee Crowley