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Archive for December 27th, 2007

It’s enough to make you cry in your milk

with 5 comments

William Watson, Special to the Sun
Published: Thursday, December 27, 2007

William Watson teaches economics at McGill University. So you can probably expect this was special to more than one paper

It is the standard rant against subsidies for Canadian farmers. So far as I am aware, I have not seen many stories about people being stopped at the border and having cheese confiscated – though it would not surprise me at all to learn that if you declare it, they make you pay duty on it. (I did do a quick check on Google too and found little of relevance)

But of course what is missing from this story is the 100 mile diet angle. Fortunately, most Canadians live within 100 miles of the US border, so we could get cheap dairy products and still not break the carbon tax bank. But the real thing that would suffer would be quality. There are some very good Canadian cheeses that I am quite happy to pay a hefty premium for – Balderson being as essential to me as fair trade, shade grown, organic coffee beans. There is very little American cheese that I have eaten with pleasure – and most of it seems to be designed to be melted over something else – including tuna! Then there are cheese playthings – cheese that looks like silly putty and tastes very similar.

The real reason for all this nonsense is that as long as there are props for local businesses they do not have to try very hard to compete on quality. And that is why I will and do pay more for things that I consider are better than their cheaper competitors. Remember too when Japanese cars were first exported they were regarded as cheap and nasty. That changed very quickly indeed. Honda and Yamaha did not crush the UK motorcycle manufacturers by selling cheap bikes but better bikes. We now pay a premium as Japanese cars (Toyota, Honda and so on – even though they are often built on this side of the Pacific) are obviously better built, more economical to oeprate and last longer than the Detroit equivalents.

When free trade was first discussed in Canada in my hearing in the election at the end of 1988, I thought of the changes we had seen in Britain as a result of the EU. And despite all the frothing in the popular press, most of it was positive. But the deal Mulroney did was much, much worse than anything in my experience, and completely lacked all the safeguards that the Brits liked to chortle about when they went after Brussels bureaucrats. But a lot of it was driven by quite proper distaste of poor quality British products that the French and Germans did not want to flood their markets. British beer for example is made out of all sorts of things – not just the barley, hops, water and yeast permitted by German law. Their sausages actually had to have meat in them. Their chocolate had to have a minimum cocoa content and so on. Mrs Thatcher’s claim to scientific fame was to produce soft “ice cream” for Walls – which contained almost no dairy content. The French were quite properly appalled by what was sold as cheese in many British shops. However, they also inflicted their dreadful golden delicious apples on us.

Anyway, the point I am not making very well is that we do not have “free trade” within Canada – let alone within North America. And the fact that we still have border guards along the 49th parallel is proof that NAFTA means nothing. But before we start to move in that direction, we do need to think a bit more carefully about how to protect what we value – and that includes the “family farm” which is a Canadian icon, and has a lot more political power than concern for the cities where most of us live.

Written by Stephen Rees

December 27, 2007 at 4:34 pm

Posted in Economics, politics