I began teaching part-time at the Vancouver Film School in the mid-eighties, for what I then thought was fairly decent remuneration. I still teach at Langara College part-time, for wages that are two dollars less per hour than I was paid in 1986. In Canada, disposable income has increased by just 10% since 1990; this while inflation totaled about 60% over that time. In the U.S., one of two recent college graduates was unemployed or underemployed in 2012. It’s all because of DEP.
DEP is an acronym of my own invention, abbreviating Downward Economic Pressure. You’re welcome to use it anytime; feel free. If your daughter, having completed an expensive university degree, seems able to secure little more than a minimum wage service job, you can shrug and simply say, “It’s DEP.” Those auto workers in Ontario who have recently watched their jobs waft gently over the border to Mexico and the southern States? They can put it all into proper perspective by just mumbling, “More DEP.”
Economic (and with it political power) is shifting eastward to Asia, and southward, to places like Brazil. The glory days of North American prosperity are waning. It’s a trend we’ve all heard of, but it’s hard to appreciate just how significant that trend is, or how lasting its effects may be. Can anyone say, ‘British Empire,’ once the largest the world has ever known?
The median salary in Mexico is less than 3000 Canadian dollars; in Canada the median wage is about $46,000. That about explains it, but again it’s difficult to overestimate the long-term implications of this divide, once global capitalism has its way. And yes, I know that a few American companies have of late moved their manufacturing facilities back to the States, and I’ve heard that some plants in China have recently relocated to Viet Nam, where labour costs are still lower, but in the end the net effect is the same. We in the West are losing our position of comparative affluence, and it ain’t coming back, not in our lifetimes.
Because this is precisely what ‘globalization’ means—the leveling of economic benefits across the globe, like water syphoned from one bucket to another, the liquid eventually finds its own matching level. If wages are rising in India, they are falling in Canada. And so it must be.
Or does it? Someone like Linda McQuaid, the Canadian writer and social critic, doesn’t think so. McQuaid, in books like The Myth of Impotence, would suggest that it’s indeed possible for governments to counteract the free-market effects of globalization with tools like the so-called ‘Tobin Tax,’ a levy proposed by Nobel Laureate James Tobin on international currency conversions. And it may be possible, with some obvious benefits, but it’s not likely to happen, given the political power of those folks involved in international currency conversions.
But then, in contemplating the moral high ground held by someone from the left end of the political spectrum like McQuaid, I’m given to recall a tale told in Granta Magazine, years back, by a former British shipbuilder. When some sort of technological change came around in the shipbuilding trade, requiring a shift from one union sector to another—from iron to copper pipe or some such territorial advance—it meant that many members from the replaced union sect were contemplating unemployment. The industry’s solution, under pressure from powerful unions, was to institute an arrangement where the former pipefitter stood over the shoulder of the new pipefitter, ensuring that the job was done correctly. Both workers would be paid equally. Needless to say, the British shipbuilding industry slipped quietly away.
British Finance Minister George Osborne, austerity champion and someone who, a recent study indicates, appears more often in British nightmares than any other public figure, goes about these days saying that western nations must “do or decline.” He may be right about that, and it can all be a little daunting, but, as I say, the trend is not going away, and maybe it shouldn’t. Morally, can we assert that Western peoples, with their consumer lifestyle and broad social safety net, have any sort of inherent right to the preferred position? Certainly colonialism put this sort of east-to-west economic flow in place, and perhaps we’re now simply witness to the final, just outcome of colonialism.
Equally perplexing is the question of whether the planet’s environment can sustain the rise of the non-western world to the same accumulative lifestyle that exists in Europe and North America. All those cars, paid holidays, and insured medical expenses. Time will tell, and the telling of this tale of macro-economic adjustments will get your attention, you may be sure. We are all, it seems, subject to the ancient Chinese curse; we are all living in interesting times.