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Merle Robillard

Interview with Tim O’Neill

A former Bank of Montreal chief economist and longtime United Church member discusses his economic views

By Kenneth Bagnell

Q Study documents issued in recent years by our church take a very critical view of international corporations and international trade. For example, the document “Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire” asserts that “neo-liberal economic globalization and unlimited market capitalism” have intensified suffering, poverty and environmental ruin in poor countries. You’ve said you differ profoundly with this. Why?

A Because the evidence, by and large, is the exact opposite: that the opening up of emerging economies to freer trade, to foreign investment, to a market economy, has led to greater prosperity, which raises living standards. The best examples are in Asia and India. You can clearly trace the path: economic growth has led to higher living standards, greater access to education, lower infant mortality and longer life expectancy. So we’re not talking just about money, but about health, education and quality of life.

Q Some people are unconvinced, claiming that the capitalist system, with free trade and so on, results in affluence for some but misery for many. How do you respond to these claims?

A If you study the way emerging economies develop as a result of market forces — greater reliance on enterprise, openness to trade and so on — there’s absolutely no question of the fact that for the vast majority of citizens in those countries, their lives have improved. Wages are up, education is better, public infrastructure is in place, social safety nets more available. So, even for people who sadly aren’t as yet able to rise completely out of personal poverty, life is still better than it was before. Why? Because of the overall improvement in their society and the recent social programs their country can now afford to establish.

Q Paul Collier, the Oxford economist and expert on African poverty, has written a new and widely acclaimed book, The Bottom Billion. I’d like to quote a passage from it for you to comment on. He says: “The left needs to move on from the west’s self-flagellation and idealized notions of developing countries. . . . The countries of the bottom billion are not there to pioneer experiments in socialism; they need to be helped along the already trodden path of building market economies.”

A I can’t express how strongly I agree with what Collier says. We had the experiment in socialism in the 20th century. And we saw it was an economic failure. I hope I’m not misunderstood. I’m not saying socialism isn’t high in moral purpose. And I am not suggesting there have been no improvements whatever in countries where it’s been tried. But, whatever the improvement, it’s been vastly inferior to that of countries that have been more market-oriented, such as Japan, the so-called Asian “Tigers” (Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines) and of course, the best known, India and China. Vietnam is a recent example of a country also on its way to a stronger economic performance. Unfortunately, the poorest countries — and the ones whose living standards have not improved — are those that have not moved in the direction of the market economy.

Q In view of what you’re saying, I must ask this: You seem to have a reasonable and plausible economic view, and it’s shared by a lot of senior people from the corporate world and business schools. Yet that view is rarely reflected in the church’s official positions on economic issues. That seems curious for a church that regards itself as inclusive. Why are views like yours absent from the church’s major economic policy discussions?

A I don’t want to presume to speak for that many people. But I can speculate. Some may not have time or else choose, for a variety of reasons, not to take time. But there may be something else: a subtle form of intimidation. If a business person gets the feeling that he or she is distrusted because of their success or their above-average income, that person begins to sense that they don’t fit in, that they’re not quite part of the ethos of today’s United Church. I’m not suggesting any manipulation whatsoever. But I wonder if some of the church groups you refer to have become so accustomed to viewing issues from one perspective that they aren’t inclined to listen to or to consider another one.

Q I’d hope it would be possible, surely, for people in the United Church to engage in a dialogue that’s real, genuine.

A That’s my major hope. I certainly don’t fault people for deeply held views, views that differ from mine. My father was a strong union man in Cape Breton who ran as a CCF candidate. Some members of the family hold views at odds with mine. So people can deeply and honestly differ on their policy views and on the evidence and analysis that supports them. But what I strongly regret is the absence of open dialogue, honest debate on a subject of major consequence such as “Living Faithfully in the Midst of Empire.” Saying in essence, as this document appears to do, that the whole market system is virtually evil, is actually making things worse, because it may prevent productive debate. It can obviate discussion of the most effective approaches to deal with global poverty. That’s most unfortunate. All of us, whatever our policy views, ultimately want the same outcome, the one our faith urges upon us: to help the poor, the marginalized and the vulnerable to achieve a better life.

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