The falling stock of workers

Blinding moments of insight often come in asides, parentheses or (among academics) footnotes; what seems overbold gets slipped past fast. This happened in a recent Globe and Mail column by Murray Campbell on the decline of Ontario's economy: "The long-term trend toward globalization" (here it comes, pay attention) "-- seeking out lower-cost jurisdictions --". And it's gone. But he said it. All the glam theory and rhetoric on globalization and free trade came down to one thing: businesses taking work from here and shipping it to where people will do it more cheaply.

Notice that he doesn't even specify what the lower costs apply to in those "jurisdictions." It must be an economic factor that dare not speak its name. So I'll name it: workers. Labour. When workers appear in news about the current crisis, it's mostly as victims, collateral damage to impersonal forces like the economy, credit freezes or globalization.

What a comedown from the heyday of classical economics. All the greats, from Adam Smith to Marx, called labour the source of wealth and value. Workers were the core of the economic process, not vulnerable bystanders.

This is why the sad hallmark of this week's federal budget is its failure to restore the wasted employment insurance system for those out of work. It's the hallmark because of what it says about our attitudes toward the economy.

When unemployment insurance began, during the Depression of the 1930s, it was built on the idea of a right to work, like other basic rights, and not just a need to survive. Also on the dignity of work. UI was meant to tide the jobless through bad patches so that they needn't grab any shabby job offer that came along for the sake of survival. It reflected a sense of work as the heart of social and economic life, in a society where left-wing parties, ideologies, writers and, above all, unions, voiced this sense.

When UI became EI in 1996, what a difference. Workers were expected to take gratefully whatever came their way as jobs bled elsewhere; to "turn on a dime," as a government booklet said, because "change is good" and they were part of an exciting new globalized world in which industrial production was de-emphasized or shut down. EI was drastically cut back and restricted, to discipline them to this new reality. In fact, EI today remains insurance, bought and paid for by workers who can no longer access it readily, or amply. But many people seem to see it as an equivalent to welfare.

So the shift didn't just happen; it's part of a "globalization" strategy that involved destroying a culture built around productive work and reliable jobs in order to increase profits. On Monday, drug maker Pfizer spent $68-billion (U.S.) to buy Wyeth and simultaneously laid off 8,000 people. (The company has 1,400 employees in Canada.) Globalization is a good way to obscure not just the human debris but this new economic culture. What typifies it? The way that finance supplants goods. Fifty years ago, the finance sector provided 2 per cent of U.S. corporate profits; now it's 40 per cent. Comprehensible production of real stuff is replaced by illusory financial "products" -- which works for a while, till it doesn't, like any illusion.

Nothing in this budget alters that pattern, including fiscal "stimulus." Once you strip an economy of its productivity, you can't restore it with infrastructure. What are you going to move on those repaved roads? Stuff imported from abroad? How will you pay for it? With more of the debt that created this mess?

The globalization model was never meant to build an actual global economy to serve people; it was a tawdry, short-sighted, long-winded scheme to increase profits by intimidating workers (and their unions), and replace a real economy with "devices" and "instruments." The point now isn't to inject money into our economy; it's to inject some economy back in it.

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