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The Progressive Economics Forum

The Financial Crisis and Interprovincial Trade

In Saturday’s Globe, Gordon Campbell ridiculously presented eliminating inter-provincial barriers as a response to the global financial crisis. Although Marc beat me to the punch in replying, I have a few further thoughts.

Several months ago, TILMA boosters said that removing alleged barriers to labour mobility was particularly pressing given a “tight” labour market. Today, the same people say that removing barriers is particularly pressing given an economic downturn and rising unemployment. These contradictory arguments confirm that TILMA is a solution in search of a problem.

The notion of eliminating inter-provincial barriers as a response to the financial crisis reminds me of a point that J. K. Galbraith made in The Affluent Society: the economic losses caused by microeconomic inefficiencies are very small compared to those caused by macroeconomic problems. Even wildly excessive estimates of supposed inter-provincial barriers suggest that these cost 0.25% of GDP. Even the most conservative estimates of how much the financial crisis is reducing annual GDP relative to normal growth are at least ten times larger. Stimulating the overall economy is far more important than ironing out tiny inefficiencies.

The renewed attack on supposed inter-provincial barriers is especially bizarre because, this past summer, Quebec dismantled its famous restriction on coloured margarine and all Premiers agreed to mutual recognition of occupational credentials as well as financial penalties for AIT disputes.  It’s hard to imagine what “barriers” could remain. The Throne Speech’s tough talk on inter-provincial trade may well just position the federal government to claim credit for what provincial governments were already doing.

I think that there is an opportunity to counterattack on this front. Provincial opposition parties should expose governments that publicly rejected TILMA but are now introducing some of that deal’s worst features through the back door.

For example, during the 2007 provincial election, Dalton McGuinty wrote, “We will not sign an agreement that would lower or would allow for the lowering of environmental, labour, health and safety standards for Ontario workers.” But by agreeing to “mutual recognition of occupational credentials between all provinces and territories,” he is indeed committing to lower Ontario’s standards to permit the minimum standard maintained by any other province or territory.

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