Updated: May 8, 2020
By David Sherman
Remember when we were sold global Free Trade? It was going to be Christmas every day. We’d all be able to buy Walmart-stores full of inexpensive everything and live happily ever after.
There would, of course, be adjustments made in some sectors of manufacturing. Blue collar workers would bleed a bit for the common good, but educated North Americans would move into high-paying white collar jobs and be masters of the universe. We’d all score by paying people across the sea pennies an hour for their labour. Every day would be Christmas. That turned out true for a few thousand billionaires. But, for tens of millions, it meant living a pay-day-away from disaster and millions more without a payday.
No one said North America would stop making almost everything, including mundane medical swabs, masks, gowns, respirators, ventilators. No one said we’d send wood across the ocean and it would sail back as tooth picks and guitars, baseball bats and book shelves. No one said we’d send whole fresh salmon across the ocean and it would return filleted and frozen, sealed in plastic.
Making anything other than money in North America became almost anachronistic.
Across the sea, in every pocket of China, linked by millions of miles of new roads, trains and bridges, people gave up agrarian lives to file into factories like drones, work like dogs, live in dormitories, dream of suicide and iPhones, building everything from clothes to cars.
No one told us cities like Detroit would crumble. That if you weren’t one of the privileged or the lucky, the jobs left would be minimum-wage jobs and that minimum wage would not be enough to live on. And a good portion of North Americans would become drones, working two or even three jobs to survive while government was remade. The Just Society and The Great Society mantras morphed into Small Government and Low Taxes.
And then along these Chinese engineering marvels of roads and trains and bridges came a virus or two or three hitchhiking on giant airplanes, also built by the gospel according to free trade – a wing built there, an engine built someplace else, a fuselage built someplace else again and avionics computed somewhere else again. Some planes would crash and the viruses would spread like the benefits of free trade as the minions of the masters flew back and forth forging deals.
The myth that rode the latest virus was that it did not discriminate. But, if you had money, you had frictionless access to doctors, tests, masks and machinery. If you had money, you didn't live on the street or in crowded apartment blocks or ghettos, travel on stuffy subways or buses or infected taxis. You cruised in private cars and planes, lived behind steel gates and uniformed doormen and atop steep elevators. The myth also claimed rich and poor would all lose jobs and wealth, verified by the Dow Jones and S&P thermometrics displayed on cable news, supposedly taking society’s temperature. The higher the numbers, the healthier we were. Or so we were tutored But the indexes were more a measure of how well the small-government beneficiaries were doing, namely those who bought and sold the overpriced shares.
The great unwashed were counselled not to panic, not to sell and relax as retirement savings, really just numbers on paper, evaporated. The experts who counselled calm, were, however, surreptitiously buying and selling and profiting. Their calls for calm reminiscent of their promotion of the glories of free trade. And, we’re told, we’re all in this together. But, the one per cent were inoculated against the financial ravages of this new virus by something called a bailout. Governments printed money to salvage the most greedy and least needy. Companies like Boeing and Hilton and GM and cruise line companies, registered in tiny countries to avoid North American laws, taxes and safety standards, got all the money the presses could provide.
The rest got a few hundred dollars, pink slips and eviction notices. Yes, global free trade was Christmas in July. Just not for everyone. There are indeed Walmart-priced goods for minimum-wage workers sold by minimum-wage workers made by slave-wage workers across the sea.
Turns out, Covid-19 is not the disease, just a pernicious symptom. And the virus, the pandemic was and is a bomb. Just not for everyone.