At the Three Amigos summit last week in Ottawa, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto celebrated the North American Free Trade Agreement and the shared values of the three countries.
Obama then suggested that the values that supported social tolerance, free trade and globalization were not simply North American or western values – indeed they were (or should be) universal values.
The contrast between the smiling unity of the NAFTA partners and the crumbling Euro zone with its bitter Brexit storm in Great Britain were put on display for the world to see.
Behind the bonhomie, however, the surprising popularity of Replublican presidential candidate Donald Trump with his anti-free trade rants, his crude xenophobia, and targeted attacks on the political and economic establishment would suggest that the ‘shared’ values that the Three Amigos waxed so passionately about are not as universal as they suppose.
According to Michael Green, executive director of the Social Progress Imperative, outside the comfortable corridors of the rich and powerful, the U.S. is shockingly weak in key areas of its national well-being.
Consider personal safety. Americans are increasingly concerned about their physical well-being. The U.S. has the developed world’s highest rates of physical violence, homicide and traffic death. Clearly the rise of gun violence and the regularity of mass killings negatively impact the American public’s sense of personal security, unravelling trust and national unity.
But other key areas of well-being are also collapsing in the U.S. The educational system is struggling under the weight of various social disorders, including the classroom burden of increasing numbers of non-English speaking students and special-needs students. Combined with persistent racial animosity and drug problems, the results are predictable: shockingly high school dropout rates.
Of course, health care is also a problem. The United States spends more than any other nation on health, but ranks just 69th in terms of the health of its citizens.
But perhaps most troubling, the U.S. has the world’s No. 1 economy yet ranks just ninth in terms of gross domestic product per capita.
Clearly the economy is not serving the little guy: employment rates are down significantly; among those of working age, it’s just over 60 per cent and falling. Meanwhile, wages have stagnated for decades even as economic productivity has risen dramatically.
If there is one theme that links the inexplicable rise of Trumpism and the shocking Brexit referendum, it’s the fundamental breakdown of trust. More and more people believe the social elites don’t care about them or their problems; they simply don’t trust politicians to do anything to advance their well-being.
Democracy is wasted on the little people by Pat Murphy
So while the shared values celebrated by the Three Amigos are worthy, they are not universal. More importantly, free-trade deals like NAFTA will not survive for long in the absence of social progress, with enhanced well-being for the vast majority.
Modern politicians seem to have been convinced (by economists) to trust the market to optimize economic efficiency and national well-being. They cling to these values blindly.
They could learn a few lessons from a political master, iconic 19th century U.S. President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln knew that values are important – but he also knew that values don’t exist in a political vacuum. A successful politician must not only make the value case in principle, he must also ensure they carry the public with them.
Employed effectively, social tolerance, free trade and globalization are worthy means to a progressive end. However, the present approach is too hands off, too blind to the declining material, social and physical well-being of the majority. And this flaw will have predictable results – results now beginning to show in ballot boxes in Britain and the United States.
While the status quo is not dead, it is certainly dying. More than ever we need leaders worthy of our trying times – hopefully in the mould of heroic leaders like Abraham Lincoln.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.