The audacity of consensus

The audacity! Seven independent delegates from seven of the richest nations in the world came together to develop a list of recommendations for the G7 leaders to chew over as they meet now in Cornwall, England, for the first time since August 2019. The topic? How to build economic resilience by acting in concert in the wake of the global pandemic. (You may know more of these names, but two popped out for me: Mariana Mazzucato, she of The Entrepreneurial State fame, is Italy’s delegate; and Carolyn Wilkins, ex- Senior Deputy Governor of the Bank of Canada is our delegate.) The eight sets of recommendations they developed are striking enough, but the self-dubbed name of the project is even more striking: they called the project the “Cornwall Consensus”. 

It names-without-naming the problem if we “go back to normal”, which means returning to the underlying economic framework we’ve been following since 1980: The Washington Consensus. That’s the playbook for late 20th century capitalist economic growth and it had a zero tolerance policy for veering away from the principles of lower taxation, freer and more global trade, fewer rules and regulations for business, and more privatization of public assets. In short, more market, less government. The only measure of success was making more money, not the impact on people’s lives.

Population aging alone will challenge that approach. But so will the growing public intolerance of the inequalities that daily drag down individual and collective potential. That’s why this moment could be an inflection point: we have been offered another map of how to get from here to someplace new, and better. 

The eight recommendations of the Cornwall Consensus basically reverse the thrusts of the Washington Consensus. You’ve probably already heard about the 15% corporate minimum tax idea. There’s also a growing focus on what we can do at home, for each other. That includes addressing cyber-security and privacy issues, improving health care strategies (population and public health for the win!), and puts global supply chains and trade on the table. But perhaps most strikingly, the Cornwall Consensus wraps with a focus on the people who do the work! 

Recommendation 8 is all about labour, and its title - Support Stronger Labour Standards and More Inclusive Labour Participation - suggests what is so very wrong with “normal”. The section launches with bolded prose:  

“G7 nations should take concerted action across the public and private sectors to promote fair and just labour standards in global supply chains; prioritise health, safety and dignity in the workplace; invest in workers; and increase and diversify workforce participation in both G7, advanced and developing countries.”

It goes on to tell the G7 leaders what this means, making clear that the G7 leaders should be, well, leaders, in living by their word and supporting legitimate expectations of fair and good practice in people’s working lives at home and abroad.

  •  “Reaffirming national commitments to implementing International Labour Organization labour standards and ensuring their compliance.” (Imagine: rules, and enforcement of rules, in labour markets, just like for trade and investment. Wowser!)

It affirms that in domestic and global labour markets, there is a whole lot of precarious and exploitative work, and even where laws exist, workers have fragile access and face weak enforcement. Look, no one gets their rights handed to them without institutions that protect them, or a fight. This recommendation acknowledges we need one another (through unions, governments and collective action) to enforce our rights.

  • “Recognising the vital role of labour organisation and collective rights for workers, which are critical to enhancing equity and resilience in our societies”.  (An obvious, evidence-based statement, but radical given the history of economic “consensus”.) 

It talks about the need for reliable supports for people making transitions into and out of the labour market, including the displacement and relocation that will accelerate with the pivot away from oil and gas to renewable energy options; and how these transitions need to keep in mind who loses work, and who gets work, and the quality of that work. 

  • “Developing common principles and standards in line with the ‘just transition to greener economies’ that secure workers' rights and livelihoods, improve participation and promote social inclusion in the workforce.” (This passage has more legs than a bucket of chicken!)

This recommendation is also breathtakingly clear that the goal is not just how to get more people into the labour market, but how they could thrive, not just in the G7, but in the supply chains that feed the G7 economies and citizens. Increasing access to decent work opportunities, enforcing labour standards that are on the books and improving those standards, empowering and protecting collective rights, and measuring success with metrics that go beyond GDP, trade, investment, profits and inflation: this is how we know if we are creating economic resilience, for individuals and for societies. Promoting economic growth, and tracking how much money got made, just isn’t enough anymore. 

The Cornwall Consensus is admittedly an aspirational document. The G7 leaders may not endorse these recommendations. And even if endorsed, the recommendations will have to be reworked as action plans, which likely wouldn’t happen until the fall. Germany has an election in September, Japan’s is in October. Canada may have a fall election too. So, is this just show-boating? No.  

Even if none of these recommendations become a new consensus soon, they demonstrate that shift is happening. They can and will take root somewhere. Canada could be a leader in this inevitable parade towards the future. Before or after the next election is called, federally or provincially, even municipally, these ideas can be road-tested by parties and elected representatives that want your vote. Of course, policy alignment is more powerful than one-nation-at-a-time. Exhibit A: the Uber fight to relabel workers as contractors not employees keeps playing out the same way in country after country. We need to be as strategic as the companies who seek to exploit workers are. Hence the importance of a global minimum corporate tax, if we can get there. 

The time is now, in the immediate phases of post-pandemic economics, to be exemplars of equitable recovery, and put flesh on the bones of the call for “inclusive growth”. Throughout the Global North the care economy will grow, post-pandemic. Will it generate more profit, or more well-being, for the givers and receivers of care alike? Like everything else we’ve learned from the pandemic: it’s up to us. Why shouldn’t Canada be the nation that shows the world how shift happens?

The Cornwall Consensus has challenged the conversation that passes for “normal” at the highest, most powerful institutional level. It has shown how exclusion from opportunity, which reduces outcomes for one and all, can be meaningfully addressed. And it urges the G7 leaders to be leaders, and not just economically. (The G7 nations  - U.S., U.K., Germany, France, Italy, Japan and Canada are the richest in the world, per capita.) The G7 workforce numbers almost 400 million people (employed and unemployed), and their 760 million residents shape global labour markets through their purchases. For the sake of the future, and the future of workers, it’s time that our leaders act like money doesn’t have to crowd out ethics.

Find me on Twitter @ArmineYalnizyan, and on Instagram @futureofworkers.

The Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers is supported by the Atkinson Foundation. Find more information here.