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Rick Salutin (Deborah Baic)
Rick Salutin (Deborah Baic)

Rick Salutin

The fear factor in national economics Add to ...

Since the Second World War, the U.S. economy has been built around what you might call the fear sector: its military-industrial complex, its crime-prison complex and its homeland-terror complex. We're now seeing the first attempt by a Canadian government to follow this model.

In the U.S., the military portion has been the healthiest (economically speaking). It made weapons the government could sell abroad and employed a work force with unions that were able to bargain medical and other insurance, taking pressure off governments to provide those. Its budget is 43 per cent of what the rest of the world spends militarily and as high in the Obama era as before.

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The prison-industrial complex has ramped way up since the Reagan years, due to sentencing changes based on "zero tolerance" and "three strikes." In 1972, it held 300,000 inmates; by 2000, two million; and, in 2008, 7.3 million in jail, on probation or on parole. With 5 per cent of the world's people, the U.S. has 25 per cent of its prisoners. Private prisons have taken off.

Since 9/11, there's the homeland-terror sector, described in The Washington Post this week as a "jobs program" with "a gusher of money." More than 850,000 Americans now have top-secret clearance. The Department of Homeland Security, which hadn't existed before 9/11, is next in size to Defence and Veterans Affairs. Prospects are limitless. Finding shoe bombers takes more than finding foreign missiles or armies - just as finding a needle in a haystack would take far more personnel, technology and time than finding a hay wagon.

The latter two sectors aren't as cost-beneficial as the military. They don't make much to sell to the rest of the world, or generate social benefits. But deduct the impact of all three from the U.S. economy, and from its employment stats (including people in the armed forces or jail), and that mighty economic engine would be a holey mess.

The Harper government is clearly impressed. They don't seem to mind big government, if they can tax and spend in the fear sector. So they've expanded our military budget and just announced a $9-billion (or maybe $16-billion) purchase of 65 U.S. jets we'll have to find some use for. They're increasing the prison population through U.S.-style sentencing laws and planning "major construction initiatives" that will boost (sorry) corrections costs by 43 per cent. On homeland security, there's that amazing $1.2-billion spent at the G20.

But it's a hard sell. Canadians will have to be persuaded to shift more money from a stretched health-care system to the fear sector. The benefits here aren't as obvious. For buying those jets, all our firms get is the right to bid on U.S contracts. Lotsa luck. Mostly, though, there's the fear culture that you need for a fear sector.

For some reason, U.S. society is highly susceptible to mass fear and paranoia. Scholars have written on this. It's not that there aren't real enemies, but any candidate, from the Red Menace to al-Qaeda, falls into ready, fertile ground. For oral history on this, consult anyone who recalls the McCarthy era and Reds under the beds. My own lasting image is of a family at Disney World a year after 9/11, drawing on tubes from the water bottle on mom's belt to avoid dehydration and peering around for Islamists (who might target Mouseland) while plotting their next moves in the Magic Kingdom.

I lean toward Michael Moore's theory about this, in his best film, Bowling for Columbine: that there's a deep, residual fear of the country's former slave population, now free and full but perhaps angry citizens.

By comparison, Canadians seem a happy, unintimidated lot. To justify G20 security, 9/11 was never even invoked here, as if we wouldn't have bought it. They just talked old-style vandalism and anarchists at us. And people still went downtown, to gawk or shop. We won't be easy to reboot.

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