Our love hate relationship with globalization

Canadians have a love-hate relationship with globalization. On the one hand, 100-mile diets and buying locally authentic products are all the rage.

Canadians have a love-hate relationship with globalization.

On the one hand, 100-mile diets and buying locally authentic products are all the rage. On the other, if you did eat a 100-mile diet you would still be wearing clothes from Bangladesh, using a fork from IKEA and neglecting your companions to check a smartphone designed in California and built in China.

Like it or not, globalization is a defining characteristic of our age.

It is also politically controversial. Some want us to think like global citizens. Others want to block immigration or restrict imports from foreign countries. It is also a topic we haven’t fully thought through, since many have contradictory instincts. Some parts of the political spectrum, for example, are in favour of being citizens of the world on environmental or immigration topics but look down on buying foreign products. Others are pro-trade, but anti-immigrant.

Some of the uglier tendencies on this topic have come out recently in Europe. Anti-foreign parties have done disturbingly well in recent elections, often stealing votes from traditional parties on both the right and left.

Benjamin Carle, a French journalist, has just completed a 10-month experiment that illustrates the complexity of the topic. Seeing Socialist minister Arnaud Montebourg launch a nationalist “Made in France” campaign in an attempt to save French jobs, he decided to test-drive the idea. He tried to live for a year using only French products.

Initially he found that around 95 per cent of the items in his apartment were non-French. Almost a year later, an external auditor declared his life to be 96.9 per cent French. He still had those IKEA forks, foreign wallpaper and never succeeded in finding French nail clippers. He had to go without a washing machine. Fortunately, his girlfriend was French and got to stay. (Nigel Farage, charismatic leader of the anti-foreign UK Independence Party that did so well in last week’s elections, has a German wife.)

At the end of his effort, Montebourg gave Carle a medal. From an ocean away, it seems slightly absurd to me to see a Frenchman worried if his cheese comes from Belgium, his coffee maker from Germany or his wine from Italy. Indeed, why restrict the feeling of absurdity to neighbouring countries. What’s wrong with Polish furniture, Canadian wheat or Chinese electronics?

This highlights one of the challenges of protectionism: how to define what to protect? Economics professors often demonstrate this with a reductio-ad-absurdum argument. Should we buy global or buy Canadian? Should we buy Yukon or buy Canadian? Should we buy Takhini or buy Yukon? Takhini North? Cassino Street? Your own house on Cassino Street?

I don’t think even the most enterprising residents of Cassino Street, if they wanted to emulate Benjamin Carle, could make their own smartphones.

Some worry about the environmental impact of long-distance shipping. But advances in shipping technology have made this astonishingly efficient. I spoke to an analyst looking at the carbon emissions of groceries in Europe, and he told me the biggest carbon emissions per kilo of food were usually in the “last mile.” What he meant was your leg of lamb’s trip from New Zealand in a super-efficient freighter probably emitted less carbon than the same leg’s share of the carbon emitted by your SUV as you drove from the grocery store.

Buying a foreign product shipped to a local store by truck might also be more carbon-efficient than a national product shipped by airfreight from a website in Eastern Canada. Choosing to go on vacation by airplane or buying a suburban house with a daily commute probably completely swamps the carbon-differential as you choose between Alberta and New Zealand meat.

Others worry about the low wages paid to workers in foreign countries. The entertaining economics show Planet Money looked at this question when they went to garment factories in Bangladesh. Wages and conditions were indeed unacceptable by Canadian standards, but the workers interviewed still preferred factory work to subsistence agriculture in the country. Do we agree with Montebourg that French people should not buy shirts from Bangladesh, potentially putting these Bangladesh workers out of a job?

We also worry about security. Where will we be if there is a global famine? Most Yukon families only have a week or two of food in their larders and would soon be reduced to eating whatever is in all those out-of-date sauce bottles that fill our fridges. Or what if we allowed our industrial base to wither away and there was another big war? What about saving Canadian jobs in industries shrinking under foreign competition? These aren’t easy questions to answer, since using border restrictions to protect entire industries can end up passing surprisingly large costs onto Canadian families.

Cost is a key question here, because globalization has enabled specialization and cost-efficiency that would astonish Adam Smith and the early economists who studied the gains from trade. Clothes and basic consumer goods are so cheap they are almost disposable. Most inhabitants of rich countries spend, by historical standards, just a fraction of their working days earning enough money to feed themselves. They have access to drugs and advanced electronic devices that wouldn’t be economic to develop for just the Canadian market.

The debate on globalization is sure to continue. But, tellingly, I suspect that few of the people who applauded Benjamin Carle’s experiment will throw out their foreign clothes, foods and gadgets.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Channel 9’s Yukonomist show or Twitter

@hallidaykeith

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, speaks to media at a press conference about COVID-19 in Whitehorse on March 30. The Yukon government announced three new cases of COVID-19 in Watson Lake on Oct. 23. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Three new COVID-19 cases identified in Watson Lake

The Yukon government has identified three locations in town where public exposure may have occurred

Teagan Wiebe, left, and Amie Wiebe pose for a photo with props during The Guild’s haunted house dress rehearsal on Oct. 23. The Heart of Riverdale Community Centre will be hosting its second annual Halloween haunted house on Oct. 30 and 31, with this year’s theme being a plague. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Plague-themed haunted house to take over Heart of Riverdale for Halloween

A plague will be descending upon the Heart of Riverdale Community Centre… Continue reading

Indigenous lobster boats head from the harbour in Saulnierville, N.S. on Oct. 21. Elected officials in the Yukon, including all 19 members of the legislature, are backing the right of Mi’kmaq fishers on the East Coast to launch a moderate livelihood fishery. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)
Yukon legislature passes motion to support Mi’kmaw fishery

“It’s not easy, but it’s also necessary for us to have these very difficult conversations”

A pedestrian passes by an offsales sandwich board along Fourth Avenue in Whitehorse on Oct. 22. NDP MLA Liz Hanson raised concerns Oct. 21 in the legislature about increased hospitalizations due to alcohol consumption that correlate with an extension in the hours alcohol can be sold in the territory. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Alcohol-related hospitalizations rise after off-sales hours extended

Reduced hours for off-sale liquor establishments likely part of Liquor Act spring reforms

Tourism and Culture Minister Jeanie McLean (formerly Dendys) speaks during legislative assembly in Whitehorse on Nov. 27, 2017. The Yukon government has announced $2.8 million in tourism relief funding aimed at businesses in the accommodation sector that have already maxed out existing funds. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tourism relief funding offers $2.8 million to hotels and overnight accommodations

$15 million in relief funding is planned for the tourism sector over the next three years

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over the Takhini elk herd be struck by the court. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)
Yukon government asks for Takhini elk lawsuit to be struck

The Yukon government is asking for all claims in a lawsuit over… Continue reading

The Yukon government has filed a reply to an outfitter’s petition challenging the reduction of its caribou quota to zero. (Yukon News file)
YG replies to outfitter’s legal challenge over caribou quota

The Yukon government has filed a reply to an outfitter’s petition challenging… Continue reading

The Yukon government is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine this year, saying that with COVID-19, it’s “more important than ever.” (Black Press file)
Get flu vaccine, Yukon government urges

The Yukon government is encouraging people to get the flu vaccine this… Continue reading

Benjamin Munn, 12, watches the HPV vaccine in 2013. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available to all Yukoners up to, and including, age 26. Currently the program is only available to girls ages nine to 18 and boys ages nine to 14. (Dan Bates/Black Press file)
HPV vaccine will be available to Yukoners up to, including, age 26

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine will be available… Continue reading

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council this week

asdf
COMMENTARY: Me and systemic racism

The view from a place of privilege

asdf
Today’s mailbox: Electricity and air travel

Letters to the editor published Oct. 23, 2020

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Irony versus Climate

Lately it seems like Irony has taken over as Editor-in-Chief at media… Continue reading

Most Read