The Mystery and Anxiety of Free Trade.

First Published: 2004-06-04

Who Moved My Conch?

By Zhivargo Laing,

244 pp. Freeport, Grand Bahama.

A Book Review by Ralph Massey.

Zhivargo S. Laing, the former Minister of Economic Development in the government of the Free National Movement, has written a book about Bahamian life and international trade.

This trade has been the basis for the country's prosperity since the mid-1950s; and the country developed ways of dealing with it and controlling it so as to serve its needs.

These ways are threatened by the incredible growth in international trade (the "Globalization" of trade), the revolution in computing and telecommunication technologies and the call of competing "Free Trade" organizations.

These organizations differ significantly in membership, objectives, accomplishments and the likely costs, risks and rewards of joining. The whole subject is complex, legalistic and academic. It is no wonder that Bahamians feel threatened.

In "Who Moved My Conch?" Mr. Laing successfully accomplishes his objective of removing some of the mystery and anxiety produced by the prospect of freer trade.

First, he does the following:

a. Clearly defines free trade, provides a brief history and lists in a tabular format the barriers to free trade providing short definitions of each. This format is used effectively throughout the book.

b. Defines the Theory of Comparative Advantage. This economic theory shows how international trade in practice widens markets for producers thus allowing for specialization and growth in production and net gains in total output. Understanding this theory and what has happened in the world are critical to understanding the free trade movement. In this regard Mr. Laing's explanation is as good as it gets.

Mr. Laing then moves on to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that is being negotiated. Eight chapters are devoted to a comprehensive examination of the Agreement: its component parts, the negotiations and its opportunities, benefits and challenges. All of this is done in both text and tables.

He contends that "the single largest challenge" of Bahamian membership in FTAA will be to change the tax system. Once again he scrupulously examines the arguments for and against and includes specific comments on hot issues like the free movement of labor, the treatment of foreign professional labor, the Wal-Mart threat, national sovereignty, etc.

Next he examines the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Caribbean Single Market Economy (CSME). In a very straight forward way he examines the distinct challenges of membership.

He concludes that the Bahamas is best served by an activist participatory response to the free trade movement; but he does not choose what organization or what combination of organizations best serve the Bahamian interests.

It is important to understand what the book is not. It is not an economics text book; it reads like a newspaper article intended for the general public…that is his target market. One cannot fault him for that; but there are some limits in this approach.

For instance, the author states on page 43 that the Bahamas "is one of the most open economies in the Western Hemisphere." He does not footnote this statement nor provide factual support as one would expect in a more academic publication. In this connection he states that "work permits are granted freely" (page 42) when discussing Bahamian "controls on foreign labour". This may be true in theory…but certainly most businessmen believe that this is not true in practice.

Furthermore, the author in analyzing the trade liberalization movement identifies tax reform as the biggest issue; while the Tourism Taskforce on Trade Liberalization in 2003 came to a surprisingly different conclusion. It identified high operating costs as the single biggest threat to the Bahamas in meeting the challenge of freer trade.

The reader should not consider these responses as alternate answers to the same question; one deals with specific trade agreements and organizations and the other with the health of the country's major industry. Both points of view add something substantive to the public dialogue.

The bottom line is that Zhivargo Laing has written an interesting and informative book that is recommended reading for all concerned Bahamians.

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