I suspect that the social events readers enjoyed during the holiday season were marked by certain conversational themes: the millennium, of course; our health, our families, and our work. By and large, teacher talk focuses on the immediate and the practical. Anyone alert to the realities of the classroom knows there is never a shortage of problems to unravel or stories to be told. The intensity of the present can make it difficult to convince teachers that it is worth spending one's time and energy worrying about vague and distant forces that threaten our schools and communities.
At least, this is what I tell myself when teachers' eyes glaze over ever so slightly when the conversation turns to international trade agreements and how they could affect public education. I sympathize with this reaction to a topic that is littered with acronyms and footnotes. Ten years ago, when a pivotal federal election was fought over the FTA, most Canadians knew that these letters stood for the Free Trade Agreement with the United States. But soon we were trying to sort out NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), MAI (Multilateral Agreement on Investment), FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas), and, most recently, GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services), now being negotiated through the WTO (World Trade Organization).
You can see how quickly dishing out this alphabet soup can kill conversation. But even at the risk of social isolation, "tradies" push on, determined to make the public trade-literate. Steven Shrybman, a Canadian who writes extensively on trade, insists that "remaining uninformed about issues that so directly bear on virtually all public policy is a luxury that a democratic society cannot afford."1 Since these deals affect the future of everything from health care to education, from the environment to culture, trade literacy is the price of admission to every debate.
Shrybman points to the Canadian policies, laws, and programs that have fallen as a result of international trade disputes. The casualties include fisheries conservation regulations, programs to support Canadian publishers, the Canada/US. Auto Pact, water export controls, and supply management for agricultural commodities. Foreign investors have successfully taken advantage of rules written on their behalf to block the plain packaging of cigarettes, to sink public auto insurance, to demand compensation for a ban on the use of a toxic fuel additive, and, currently, to challenge a ban on the export of hazardous waste. According to clauses that enshrine "investors' rights," these matters are no longer to be decided by governments and citizens, but by trade tribunals.
The "Cliffs Notes" versions of these ponderous agreements highlight three key themes. First is "national treatment," which means that corporations based in other countries but doing business in yours must be treated at least as favorably as companies based in your own country. Second, each agreement seeks to widen trade to include services as well as goods. Third, the principle of "no return" means that once an area - health care, for example - has been taken out of the public sector and opened to private business, governments can never, without penalty, adopt policies that favor government provision of the service or that would show any preference to national companies over transnationale.
These trade agreements do not force public services such as education to be thrown open immediately to privatization, but the treaties' mechanisms continually push in this direction. Coupled with the rhetoric of globalization, which fosters a sense of gloomy inevitability and civic passivity, the marketization of public services seems preordained. Neo-liberals bent on using globalization to justify their mantra of less-government-lowertaxes-higher-productivity persuade us that we don't have to wait for trade agreements to strip us of policy sovereignty - we can do it to ourselves and be ahead of the game. …