Penny wise, pound foolish

Jeff Burgar
High Prairie

It’s cool again to be a farmer. Or a plumber. Or somebody who bolts or nails things together.

Let’s backtrack. For a long time – too long in fact – the thinking was school students would grow up to work for government of some kind. Schools didn’t teach business. They also did poorly encouraging students to become tradespeople, or equipment operators or truck drivers.

It’s nice these days there are many teachers, health workers, government office staff. In fact, the way things were going even up to a few weeks ago, we were slowly turning into an entire nation of civil servants.

Who would grow our food? What? Why even plant garden, never mind whole fields dedicated to peas, cattle or whatever? Everybody knows food comes from the supermarket.

Also, when it costs pennies to build a motor in China, why bother trying to build them in Detroit or Windsor, or for heaven’s sake, New Brunswick?

A few times in the past 30 years, this newspaper carried editorials talking about downsides to free trade. At one point, we predicted the likely demise of most of the Ontario and British Columbia wine industries. After all, when one is competing with Mexican migrant workers tending grapes in California and other places, how does a high-priced winery in Canada make a dollar?

We also said, in the long run, Canada and the United States would not be able to compete with Mexico. In anything.

That turned out to be sort of right. It didn’t quite turn out how we expected. What those in favour of free trade figured was, all the ‘brains’ in North America would invent the ideas and plans for ideas. Then, they would send those plans to factories in low-cost countries to actually get the ideas built. Not just Mexico would get jobs. The Philippines, Viet Nam, South Korea, Taiwan. And of course, China. They would all be the ‘screwers and gluers,’ so to speak. America would always be the scientists and engineers. And everybody everywhere would be rich.

It didn’t work out that way. American and Canadian companies sent their ideas and plans off around the world. Some nations stole ideas and copied them. Twenty years ago, some people overseas had never seen a smart phone. Last week they were running monster factories making the best smart phones in the world. With both phones and factories built from their own designs.

Take this to logical extremes. Canada and the U.S. would, in time, be nations of hewers of wood, drawers of water, competent miners and farmers and a really big cohort of civil servants. All, of course, making far less than they are today.

Why far less? Because their Chinese owners wouldn’t want to pay much and would also be able to tell our ‘own’ government what to do. That’s right. Golden Rule time. He who has the gold makes the rules.

We saw an inkling of this last week: 97 per cent of drugs made for North Americans are reportedly made in China. Sound like a good idea today?

Fortunately, some people here remember how to make such drugs. But in a few more years? Uh, oh!

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