Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

April 18th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

Brian Mulroney thinks the numbers are his friends. He proudly points to the percentage of Canada’s gross domestic product now made up by exports to the United States—40 per cent! The number of jobs created by trade—four in five! And Mexico’s status as an important U.S. trading partner—second only to Canada! These numbers are a vindication, our former prime minister believes, for the free-trade deals he negotiated first with the United States, then with Mexico.

He still doesn’t get it: Those numbers aren’t his friends; they’re his worst enemy. Opposition to free trade has grown, and grown more vocal, precisely because private wealth has soared without translating into anything that can be clearly identified as the public good. It’s not that critics don’t know how much money is being made under free trade—it’s that we know all too well.

While there’s no shortage of numbers pointing to increases in exports and investment, the trickle-down effects promised as the political incentive for deregulation—tougher environmental standards, higher wages, better working conditions, less poverty—have either been pitifully incremental or non-existent.

The labour and environmental side agreements tacked on to the North American free-trade agreement have a spectacularly poor track record. Today, 75 per cent of Mexico’s population lives in poverty, up from 49 per cent in 1981.

Trade may be creating jobs in Canada but not enough of them to keep up with the number of jobs that have been eliminated—by 1997, there had been a net loss of 276,000 jobs, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Total pollution has doubled in Mexico since NAFTA was introduced, according to the Sierra Club.

And the United States has become a climate-change renegade, chucking out its Kyoto commitments wholesale. It turns out that defiant unilateralism is the ultimate luxury item in the free-trade era, reserved for the ultra rich.

There is always a ready excuse for why the wealth liberated by so-called free trade is stuck at the top: a recession, the deficit, the peso crisis, political corruption, and now another looming recession. There is always a reason why it should be spent on another tax break instead of social or environmental programs.

Only economists worship wealth creation as an abstraction, only the very rich fetishize it as an end in itself. The rest of us are interested in those rising numbers on the trade ledger for what they can buy: Does increased trade and investment mean we can afford to rebuild our health-care system? Can we keep our promises to end child poverty? Can we fund better schools? Build affordable housing? Can we afford to invest in cleaner energy sources? Do we work less, have more leisure time? In short, do we have a better, more just, sustainable society?

The opposite is the case.

As Mr. Mulroney was kind enough to admit on Monday, "free trade is part of a whole that includes the GST, deregulation, privatization, and a concerted effort to reduce deficits, inflation, and interest rates." These are the domestic preconditions of playing the global-trade game—a package that, taken together, guarantees that the numbers Mr. Mulroney touts so proudly do little to address stagnant wages, economic disparities and a deepening environmental crisis.

And when economic growth is severed from meaningful measures of social progress, thinking people begin to lose faith in the system. They start to ask difficult questions not only about trade, but about how economists measure progress and value. Why can’t we measure ecological deficits, as well as economic growth? What is the real social cost—in cuts to education, in increased homelessness—of the whole package of policies referred to by Mr. Mulroney?

These are the types of questions that will be heard in Quebec City this week. They will come from people such as José Bové, the French cheese farmer whose campaign is not against McDonald’s but against an agricultural model that sees food purely as an industrial commodity, rather than the centrepiece of national culture and family life. They will come from health-care workers questioning a trade system that defends patents for AIDS drugs more vigorously than millions of human lives. They will come from university students, paying more for their "public" education every year, while their schools have been invaded by ads and their research departments are being privatized one study at a time.

The slogan "people before profits" is dismissed as unfocused by free-trade defenders, but it neatly encapsulates the sentiment running through the campaigns that are converging in Quebec City. The argument for barrelling ahead with the Free Trade Area of the Americas is based on an unshakable ideological belief that what’s good for business will be good for everyone—eventually. Even if that dubious argument is true, the timeline is unacceptable. According to the governor of the Bank of Mexico, at the current rate of economic growth, it will be 60 years before Mexico doubles its per capita income and ends its extreme poverty.

What the protesters are saying is that human dignity and environmental sustainability are too important to be patiently prayed for like rain during a drought. They should not be belated side effects but the very foundations of our economic policies.

Thankfully, the protesters are resisting the pressure to come up with a one-size-fits-all alternative to free trade and are, instead, defending the right to genuine global diversity and self-determination. Rather than one solution, there are thousands, slowly coalescing into an alternate economic model. In Brazil, that means free generic AIDS drugs for anyone who needs them. In Cochabamba, Bolivia, it means insisting that water is not a commodity but a human right, even if that means throwing out the international water conglomerate, Bechtel.

In British Columbia, it means First Nations and non-native rural communities demanding the right to manage "community forests," which combine selective logging, tourism and local industry, as opposed to granting industrial tree-farm licences to logging multinationals.

In Mexico and Guatemala, it means coffee farm co-operatives that guarantee a living wage and ecological diversity.

Some defenders of free trade say that, if the protesters were serious, they would be on the other side of the chain-link fence politely negotiating side agreements on labour, democracy and environmental standards. Indeed, the building of the fence, denounced as unconstitutional by more than 5,000 Canadians, is being justified in court by the summit organizers on the ground that a handful of "civil society representatives" have been issued personal invitations to enter the gated city.

But 13 years after the first free-trade agreement with the United States, it’s not the details of the deal (we still don’t know them) but the economic model itself that is under fire—the numbers just don’t add up.

Last week, Jean Chrétien told Le Devoir that thousands are coming to Quebec City to "protest and blah blah blah."

Quite the opposite. They’re coming to Quebec to protest because they’ve had it with the "blah blah blah."