The real pandemic is economic, with no vaccine

I got a chuckle from Margaret Wente's saying yesterday that the pandemic story exploded in the mass (or mass hysteria) media because it was time to change the subject from the economy. Then I gasped: OMG -- what if it shifted not from tedium but paralysis? Right now, there's far more reason to panic about the economy than over a new flu. This recession emerged from a recent strain that's mutating, contagious and has no known cure. What if EGD (economic globalization disease) is the real pandemic?

Canada's economy was one of the first to fall victim to this new virus back in the mists of 1988, with the U.S.-Canada free-trade agreement, after the U.S. failed to make more comprehensive deals it had targeted. It fell back on a gradual strategy, and Canada was injected as an early test case. We were told our economy would be healthier, as in wealthier, with no annoying side effects on cultural or social programs. This proved false. Unemployment insurance, for instance, which used to help more than 80 per cent of the jobless through hard times, now covers well under 50 per cent.

The chief impact, though, was on the nature of work. Manufacturing, the economy's backbone, started to bleed whole factories to the southern United States. Under subsequent outbreaks, such as NAFTA, they spread to Mexico, then China and beyond, as the illness advanced. The jobs that remained were less rewarding, as workers and unions succumbed to threats to relocate. Many who lost out moved to "service" jobs, at Wal-Mart or McDonald's.

As the disease progressed through the main, er, body of working Canadians, they had less to spend. Yet, their economic role was now mainly to buy what had been made elsewhere. They'd become primarily consumers, rather than producers. To fulfill this responsibility, they resorted to ever greater debt. Meanwhile, the economic boss organs, which used to focus on industry, mutated toward finance, devising ever more arcane methods to lend and borrow. Eventually, any system collapses under this kind of economic vacuity, which creates less that's real, yet requires real stuff to sustain it.

We are now at a level five alert, announced Wednesday, in the spread of the global economic disaster. No, wait, that was actually the global flu classification system, newly activated, though it also sounds a lot like the old terror alert systems, except those were by colours. It gets confusing. I kind of expect CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta to offer himself for an injection of swine flu, the way Fox News' Sean Hannity said he was willing to try waterboarding.

But back to the Canadian test case. It's not clear there's a vaccine for this. Once you unwind a system's healthy elements, they're hard to replace. You've made the body vulnerable, and pumping in some money and stimulus may just mask the symptoms while the next bout of fever gathers strength. Take Michael Ignatieff, who will be installed as Liberal leader in Vancouver tomorrow. He's been touring Western Canada asking audiences if they've noticed where the new economic centre of the country is. Right here -- in the West! he says with the gusto of the boy who stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum.

But this may not be such great news. It was the combination of manufacturing in Ontario and Quebec, with a strong resource and farming economy elsewhere, that Canadian prosperity was based on. Without that mix, or by trying to substitute finance for manufacturing, with the ruinous results now on us, we risk going from developed to underdeveloped status. Maybe we should try a balanced economy, without a centre, avoiding the grievance and aggravation that leads to.

On the other hand, the swine flu extravaganza may not be evasion by metaphor. It's possible we've acquired two unprecedented diseases -- one medical, one economic -- and neither has any known cure.

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