The Expendables: How the Middle Class Got Screwed by Globalization

By Alan Freeman

 

by Jeff Rubin
Random House Canada
2020/$32.95/368 pp.

Jeff Rubin has always been an outlier. Traditionally, bank economists are careful folks, perusing data from StatsCan to make forecasts on regional growth rates or unemployment. Rubin, who rose in the ranks of the CIBC to become its chief economist, has courted controversy, predicting in 1989 that Toronto’s real estate market was about to crash, a brilliant call. But soothsaying is tough, so when Rubin predicted in 2008 that oil was going to hit $225 a barrel by 2012, he turned out to be completely wrong. In 2009 Rubin quit CIBC and dedicated himself to his writing career. His latest tome, The Expendables, pulls no punches—Rubin thinks globalization is the root of all evil and has been the downfall of anybody outside the top 1 per cent of incomes.

Economist Thomas Piketty famously studied growing global income equality in his 2013 book, Capital in the 21st Century. Rubin attacks similar themes in a book designed not for economists but for the public at large. He writes engagingly, interspersing statistics with historical examples and anecdotes.

Rubin’s arguments are familiar. The days when a North American factory worker could depend on a unionized job to buy a home and support a family are gone. Good manufacturing jobs have been moved to China and Mexico by “avaricious” companies intent on lowering production costs. Multilateral trade arrangements have made this possible by slashing tariffs, purportedly in the interests of efficiency but really at the expense of the middle class. Massive companies such as Google and Apple dodge taxes by shifting assets to low-tax jurisdictions. Rubin also goes after the rise of global immigration, bemoaning the waves of poor people from Africa, Asia and Latin America moving north seeking a better life.

It’s all a bit facile. Rubin seems to have a real soft spot for Donald Trump and right-wing populist leaders who have taken on the liberal global elites Rubin blames for the state of the world. He praises Trump’s embrace of tariffs, arguing that thanks to Trump, steel and auto plants are reopening and jobs are being created, with still-shaky proof. He notes that Canada has been penalized by Trumpian tariffs, imposed on the grounds that Canadian steel and aluminum posed a national security threat.

Rubin admits the security excuse is bogus. “It wasn’t national security that the Trump administration was trying to protect. It was the jobs of American steel and aluminum workers,” he writes, seemingly unconcerned about this outrageous treatment of a close US ally.

Rubin naively thinks that Trump embraced workers because he cares for them like Bernie Sanders does, noting that, “The one percenters probably didn’t vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders.” What about the Koch brothers, Senator Mitch McConnell and their cronies, who were the beneficiaries of Trump’s massive 2017 tax cuts? Rubin ignores the racism and xenophobia that powered Trump’s success and his embrace of “cultural” issues like gun rights and opposition to abortion.

Referring to Hungary’s construction of a border fence to keep out migrants who streamed into Europe in 2015, Rubin calls Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban “colourful.” Not a word about Orban’s authoritarian tendencies or his attack on the free press, independent courts and academic freedom. Yet Rubin finds time to attack George Soros for making money from currency speculation.

Rubin is above all nostalgic for some magic moment in the 1950s and thinks the pandemic will somehow bring it all back, arguing that the coronavirus could kill globalization. While Canada should stop depending on China for medical goods such as face masks and drugs, to think we’re going back to making T-shirts or creating an all-Canadian car is dreaming. We need to better govern globalization, but it’s not going away.

Alan Freeman is an honorary senior fellow at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

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