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Americanize Me? No Thanks

Why Canadians must fight 'deep integration' with US.

Murray Dobbin 21 Apr

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee.

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Dorks next door: Jeb 'n' Dubya Bush.

Today in New Orleans Prime Minister Stephen Harper is meeting with George Bush and Mexican President Calderon at the fourth leaders' summit of the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP). This is mostly a photo-op but on the ground, where it counts, it seems that almost every week there is some new outrage in the march to our deep integration with the United States.

Most recently it was a secretively signed agreement called the Civil Assistance Plan, which "allows the military from one nation to support the armed forces of the other nation during a civil emergency."

Now we find out that despite recommendations from the Canadian Pediatric Society and the Canadian Cancer Society that Health Canada dramatically increase the recommended daily does of Vitamin D, the federal agency refuses to do so. Why? Because it is committed to "harmonizing" Canadian nutrition standards with those in the United States.

It all got me to thinking about just why on earth Canadians would want to integrate into the U.S.

Let's be clear. This goes way beyond just having a bad neighbour. It's about moving in with them.

Don't get me wrong. We can actually feel sorry for folks next door. They weren't always this bad. But there is just no question that today they are a dangerously dysfunctional family. A lot of them are ill, but the other half refuses to come to their assistance. The old man squanders the family's considerable income on his gun collection. They foul their own nests and squander their resources.

The family behaves as if the neighbourhood's rules don't apply to them: they are noisy, pushy and if you try to reason with them they bully you. Hey, it's not just our neighbourhood -- they bully people all over town.

We've lived next door to these people for decades but they are so self-centred and narcissistic that they still don't even know our names. Their obsession with vicious dogs, car alarms and security systems strongly suggest that in spite being the wealthiest family in town, they live in a constant state of fear. What the hell are they afraid of?

Before you take exception to the metaphor or pigeonhole me as anti-American, let me say that if Americans want to be Americans, best of luck to them. It's just that I don't want to be one. Why?

Let me count the ways.

Democracy. U.S. democracy started off extremely well with lots of checks and balances so executive dictatorship was difficult. And corporations were put on a very short leash. But now the system is so thoroughly corrupted by corporate money that only millionaires can run for Congress and due to shameless gerrymandering only a handful of seats are actually up for grabs. According to Richard Pildes, a professor of law at New York University, some 400 congressional seats are totally safe for the incumbent meaning that democracy truly exists in only 10-15 per cent of congressional districts.

Two presidential elections in a row have been tainted by fraud because of corrupted voting systems, and almost nothing has been done to fix them. And they are actually trying to peddle this product around the world.

Health. Despite having the highest per capita spending on health care in the world, the U.S. ranks 37th in overall health performance, and 42nd in the world in life expectancy. Infant mortality is at 6.8 deaths for every 1,000 live births; for African-Americans the infant mortality is a staggering 13.7. Forty countries, among them Cuba, Taiwan and most of Europe, did better. According to the New York Times, the lack of health insurance coverage causes 18,000 unnecessary American deaths every year -- that's 50 every day, day in day out.

Economics. The U.S. economy is in the dangerously contradictory position of being the most powerful economy in the world and at the same time an emerging economic basket case on pace to self destruct.

And this was true before the sub-prime mortgage lunacy morphed into a global financial crisis.

In only one year in the past 25 did the U.S. have a trade surplus so that its accumulated trade deficit is now over $7 trillion -- yes, trillion. But that's just part of the story.

There is no little irony in our Bay Street business gurus -- recent warriors against deficits -- suggesting we join the U.S., which under George W. Bush has created over a trillion dollars in new government debt since coming to office. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office estimated the cumulative total would be $5.8 trillion by 2013, based largely on tax cuts and new military commitments by Bush. There is a near zero savings rate with average personal debt equal to more than average annual income -- a record that gets broken every year.

The holders of U.S. debt would be ill-advised to call it in (Japan, China, Taiwan, and South Korea hold 40 per cent of it). Still, if circumstances changed these countries alone could bring the U.S. economy to its knees. There is a tipping point at which the decline of the U.S. dollar's value will trigger such a disaster. In other words, at the same time that the three NAFTA country leaders talk about the need for "North America" to compete with Asia, every passing month sees the U.S. become more dependent on these countries as it jettisons jobs by the tens of thousands.

But what about the two decade long increase in U.S. productivity, constantly touted by Bay Street as a model for Canada? According to Doug Henwood of the Guardian newspaper, much of that increase can be traced to the enormous amount of forced, unpaid overtime by both waged and salaried employees. Americans work longer hours per year than those in any other industrialized country. In some case, it's slave labour. A recent story out of Pascagoula, Mississippi, detailed how a group of Mexican pipe fitters, who had quit their U.S. jobs because of life-threatening working conditions, were subsequently arrested by the sheriff and told they "belonged" to their employer.

Education. Increased productivity in the U.S. is certainly not the result of a robust education system and highly educated workers. The U.S. ranks 49th among 156 countries in literacy and its functional illiteracy rate is five times higher than Cuba's. Twenty per cent of Americans think the sun orbits the earth and 17 per cent believe the earth revolves around the sun once a day. Twenty per cent can't find the U.S. on a world map. And according to the New York Times, U.S. workers are so badly educated and lack so many basic skills that American business spends $30 billion a year on remedial training.

Research. The U.S. is now behind Europe in the number of scientists and engineers it graduates and no longer leads the world in innovation, which it must do to counter the exodus of manufacturing jobs to Asia. As David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and president of the California Institute of Technology stated: "We no longer have a lock on technology. Europe is increasingly competitive, and Asia has the potential to blow us out of the water."

Yet the U.S. Congress cut funds to the National Science Foundation in 2004. It will issue 1,000 fewer research grants this year. It gets worse. According to the New York Times, "Foreign applications to U.S. grad schools declined 28 per cent in 2004. Foreign student enrolment on all levels fell for the first time in three decades, but increased greatly in Europe and China."

As a result, the U.S. is beginning to lose its technology-based competitive advantage. The countries of western Europe, Japan, Korea, and China have set ambitious national goals and are building universities, inviting immigration, and have clear objectives regarding industrial development and new technologies.

Ross Armbrecht, president of the U.S. Industrial Research Institute, says "more and more of the most far-reaching innovations will be going overseas, to India and China, in the near future."

President Bush's answer to these competing, nation-building efforts? Tax cuts and a perpetual war economy.

Good government. There is much, much more dire data about where the U.S. ranks on many social and economic scales. The cause of most of it is the catastrophic decline in democratic governance, the virtual abandonment of any serious social or regulatory role for government under George Bush and the Republicans.

At no other time in the past century has the U.S. had people in power so dedicated to the dismantling of democratic governance.

What happens to government when it is controlled by people who are hostile to the whole notion of governance? It gets handed over to their friends and hangers-on for their own personal wealth and benefit.

According to American political commentator Hendrik Hertzberg, "When the ameliorative functions of government are held in contempt, then a single thread ties together upper-income tax cuts, the dismantling of environmental and safety protections, the shredding of the social safety net, the peopling of regulatory agencies with cronies hostile to their purposes, and, finally, outright corruption. If government is seen as a whore, why not treat her like one? All that remains is to fleece the johns and divide the take."

The occupation of Iraq, the most privatized war in history, is the most outrageous example of corruption in terms of sheer scale. But perhaps no other event in recent U.S. history symbolized corruption and decay more than the criminally inept response to Katrina. There was George Bush, standing with the head of FEMA, saying to its incompetent head (and Bush pal), Michael Brown, "You're doing a heck of a job, Brownie," while people were dying for simple lack of food and water.

When governance is hijacked by the likes of Bush and Brown there is only one possible outcome: massive, intractable, endemic corruption permeates the whole system. Stories following up on the Katrina catastrophe show that nothing has changed. Billions have been wasted, stolen or remain unaccounted for. The tragedy has been used as a useful crisis to dispossess thousands of New Orleans' poorest residents, privatize the education system and ensure that the wealthy get the benefit of public money.

Stay clear of the collapse

We can watch from this side of the fence as our neighbours self-destruct and we can have sympathy for the scores of millions who will suffer so that a tiny elite can become super-rich. But moving in with them won't help them. And it could destroy us. Mimicking their culture of fear, their self-destructive individualism, their suspicion of others, their isolation from the rest of the world, their minimalist decaying government, and their passive acceptance of extreme poverty will just help perpetuate their decline.

Better for both of us that we Canadians strengthen our own country. Let us enhance our communitarian approach, build on our social programs, reverse the decline in education spending, take the lead in fighting climate change, and revive our tradition of progressive international engagement and leadership. That way, if and when, in desperation, our neighbours look for a model to follow, there will still be one. Just next door.

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