The Icelandic fish sticks revelation

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By Roderick Benns

Roderick Benns is the publisher of The Advocate. An award-winning author and journalist who grew up in Lindsay, he has written several books including Basic Income: How a Canadian Movement Could Change the World.

Reykjavik, Iceland's capital. Photo: Roderick Benns.

Common sense is apparently what my grandmother had and what I lacked, at least as a child. This information was often relayed to me at her rural Apsley home many decades ago, when I would spend time with her almost every summer. If I acted too much the smart aleck she would remind me of how much I still didn’t know.

The Oxford dictionary defines common sense as “the ability to think about things in a practical way and make sensible decisions.”

Roderick Benns, publisher.

I wish my grandmother had been consulted in the 1970s and 80s, when business leaders and economists decided in earnest then that the supply chain economy was the way to go.

To save pennies per unit on whatever was to be manufactured, companies determined what small component could be created most cheaply in any given country. Then airplanes, ships and transport trucks would be used to have all these base components meet up somewhere (usually China) to construct the unit itself — the most plum part of the assignment given that it created the most jobs.

Back home we’d eagerly wait for whatever was made so we could buy it, after our own manufacturing base was gutted, our middle class shredded, and our environment became sullied by those same airplanes, ships, and transport trucks that brought these goods to market.

But hey, we saved a bit of money on our stuff, right? And we figured out how to maximize corporate profits, too, which exacerbated inequality and ensured workers’ wages, when adjusted for inflation, were kept at 1970s levels, even while our education levels rose. Smarter and dumber, I bet grandmother would have observed.

As we’re discovering in this pandemic, we realize we’ve lost not only our capabilities but a good deal of our national pride along the way.

What can we do about this? For starters, the federal government should go further than encouraging the private sector to create what we need. It’s time to establish some strategic Crown corporations and figure out what we can do well — especially for our core needs as a society, like health care, food and defence production.

In the past 30 years we’ve bought into the notion only the private sector knows how to do business. It’s simply not true. As our Second World War effort showed we are more than capable of vigorous, government-led enterprises that could be intelligently designed and profitable — for all of us as Canadians, not just for corporations.

A few years ago when I was in Iceland, I learned how a local fishery operated. It was Icelandic fish they were pulling off their boats — fish battered in Iceland, put in an Icelandic box that had been printed by an Icelandic printer.

My English-Dutch grandmother wouldn’t have been able to speak their language, but she would have been right at home in Iceland with its good old-fashioned common sense.

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