After a week in which it looked like the Great American Way was closer to a suicide pact than a governing arrangement—with so many undemocratic choke points that the polity strangles—a whole new way of thinking about our domestic arrangements may be in order. A woman who has been held at gunpoint by her husband for a week, to suggest a situation with certain parallels, might want to get out of the relationship. Tea Party types, like abusive family members, may tend to ask whether we really think the neighbors have it any better. And so it seemed apropos when a friend passed on, the other day, a new book proposing that the answer to all of America’s problems is not to blame Canada but to join it.
The book, called “Merger of the Century,” is by Diane Francis, whose author bio tells us that she divides her time between Toronto, where she’s a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Management, and New York. Her argument isn’t, as the title suggests, for a high-minded union in the name of democracy, it’s for a practical, hardheaded business arrangement: “Like Google and Motorola, the US and Canada could combine to better meet competition and cope with shrinking markets … [they both] should understand that they are at the beginning of a long slow slide downward unless they change their attitudes and behavior.” The U.S., she argues, though burdened by a too-big military and a too-bad health system, has remaining competitive advantages in its entrepreneurial culture and optimistic outlook—its excitability, in plain English. Canada has complementary competitive advantages in the stability of its banking system and the wealth of its resources—its unexcitability, in other words. Match American gee-whiz with Canadian let’s-see, and it will produce a super country—rather like a marriage between a dull, stable person who owns a nice chunk of land and is looking for a little fun and a slightly crazed but still attractive one who needs some stability after a wild stretch.
Francis also makes the shrewd point that the two outlier regions in both countries—Quebec in Canada, and the American South—have been allowed to unduly distort the politics of both countries, with Quebec’s suspicions tugging Canada hard to the left and the South’s paranoias pulling the United States far to the right. The outliers, in this scheme, would be bypassed, or perhaps seduced: Quebec’s tropism for America is famous, and the Quebecois might “overwhelmingly opt for the merger, as they did in 1988 with free trade, if only to get out from under English-Canadians.” The South would see that the merger makes economic sense: “A major migration of Canadians would leave for America’s warmer climates and lower living costs, and Canada’s two million or so snowbirds would stay permanently in Florida, Arizona, California and other Sunbelt destinations if affordable health care was available.” (Point hers, italics mine, and more to come on both.)
This is not the first time such a merger, or union, has been proposed. (A mordant-minded friend of mine has often suggested, with apparent sincerity, that the great tragedy of modernity is that Lincoln, stubborn to the point of paranoia, forced the South back into the Union, with all the death that caused, instead of letting it go, thus forcing American’s imperial affections northward. How that might have worked out for the remaining slaves is another, large, question.) I have, of course, a natural interest in the idea, since my own bi-national family would, in this arrangement, suddenly seem less eccentric and more vital, necessary middlemen to explain each culture to each. We have all kinds of bi-nationals in our family, from my parents, long Canadian citizens, to my wife, thirty years resident in the U.S. but still proudly maple-leaf bearing, and my son, an American citizen who roots strenuously for Team Canada in the Olympics.
One never quite knows how seriously to take books of this larksomely utopian kind. That once famous book making an argument for the abolition of television was really meant to point out that we could do well with less—but the seemingly equally unreal “Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” turned out to be prescient. And Francis’s book, though cheerily deadpan, has some serious points to make. The really significant thing may be that the one crucial holdup to the merger is American medicine. In a section called “America’s Health Care Blind Spot,” she writes, “The US system of health care is indefensible from an economic as well as a business standpoint.” And, she adds, “If Americans had the same system as Canada or Germany the savings would total 1.079 trillion per year.” She also has some harsh things to say—again, strictly from a balance-sheet point of view—about our military. In other words, the takeaway of this free-market, business professor’s view is not that America would engulf Canada but that Canada would need to be sure America was up to grade before it could consider the merger. With all the difficulties Obamacare has had getting set up, that fundamental point is not about to go away.
What the new country would need, of course, is a leader. Who would become the first Prime Minister of Canmerica, Inc? (For, if we’re getting up to grade, then the advantages of a parliamentary system are such that we would surely jointly choose that.) The odd truth is that the current American President, for all that we tilt right, might be too liberal for Canadians, while the current Canadian Premier, Stephen Harper, might be much too conservative for Americans. The compromise candidate would have to be someone in the northern tier, a person broadly liberal in outlook and yet sufficiently conservative to speak to a resource- and rural-minded people—and someone who could somehow combine the Canadian taste for deadpan satiric comedy with the American one for hyper-passionate political engagement. Step up, Premier Al Franken! Your moment to lead us all may have arrived at last.