Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Spinning past thinking on the Canada-US Border

Growing threats to both economies argue for boldness in Canada’s relationship with the United States. That’s the last thing we're going to get from the anything-but-Beyond-the-Border-initiative.  
This Wednesday in Washington, Stephen Harper and Barack Obama will sign off on measures to improve border operations, hopefully without stirring paranoids in either country. The deal, however, will camouflage a failure—especially of the Canadian government that must always take the lead in the relationship—to think in fresh, ever so slightly radical terms about their two changing economies and their common destiny.
Harper shouldn’t be attacked for taking too many risks; rather, he should be called for taking too few.
For weeks, the only real drama about the pending signing ceremony was whether Obama would make it news by even participating.  
Last Friday, Harper, along with an anodyne statement from Perrin Beatty and Thomas J. Donohue, the CEOs of the Canadian and US Chambers of Commerce, set the stage.
Harper played the vigilant nationalist, circa the 80s:
“We are seeking ways of ensuring security in North America while at the same time making sure that we continue strong Canadian access to the American market,” Mr. Harper said. But the Prime Minister had a different message when asked about plans for a pipeline to Canada’s Pacific Coast.
“Diversifying our markets for those products is not just essential to our economic prosperity but to our economic security,” he said. “It is not in our country’s interest that we are a captive supplier of the United States of energy products, especially when we see some of the politics that are going on south of the border.”
The Chambers’ review of the expected deal relied on the timeless language of standing committees. Benefits will be enhanced, hassles will be eliminated, procedures will be aligned and simplified, standards will be modernized, and search and seizure capabilities will be improved.
“This agreement gives us the chance to fix what’s broken. With the commitment from both sides, the Beyond the Border initiative can strengthen the security and the efficiency of our borders.”
These are the kinds of statements that statesmen in France and Belgium were making two generations ago.
We deserve, especially from market liberals like Stephen Harper, more than past platitudes about better access and shimmering visions of a border that works. Rather than telling their officials to meet, leaders should be challenging their populations to think about dismantling the border all together.
Better access for business executives, widgets, and resources is just fine-tuning the agreements of an earlier time. In 1988, it appeared that essentially all we had to do was secure access to each other’s markets. The dynamism of North America’s economy today, however, won’t be sustained by just-in-time delivery and just-visiting professionals.  
Beyond free access for finished products and finished ideas, our cosmopolitan information economies need free access for workers, their skills, and their half-baked as well as their most promising ideas. True labor mobility—one labor market for the two most advanced large economies in the world—would bolster every significant commercial center on the continent.
Market reformers shouldn’t be satisfied with a state-of-the-art border. No one in a line-up or on the other side of the best border in the world can breathe as easily—and work as productively—as one can within one common labor market, if not one federation.
Of course, professional border watchers are right—in the short-run, US politics is turning inward for the 2012 elections. Still, Canada should prepare for better times. On Wednesday, Harper ought to acknowledge the limitations of what has been accomplished and offer something more to think about.
Why not, for starters, propose that both countries look at scraping their lists of preferred trades and professions and open each other’s job markets to each other’s high skilled workers and post-secondary graduates?

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