Price of a Bargain: Review in Literary Review of Canada

My review of The Price of a Bargain: The Quest for Cheap and the Death of Globalization, by journalist Gordon Laird, is now out in the Literary Review of Canada. LRC makes some of its essays available online, but not all. Mine is not available, but some of the other contributions to the November 2009 issue are here.

I strongly recommend the lead essay by Charles Wright, Too Much Health Care; Janice Gross Stein is always worth reading whether you agree with her or not, even when she’s writing out of her usual field, and her take on the financial crisis (Between Euphoria and Fear) is a useful overview of a lot of points of view. Personally I’m not that interested in Pierre Trudeau, but apparently a lot of other people are, and Paul Wells of Macleans reviews the latest biography by John English called We’re Still Watching and there’s a lot more. I feel pretty good at being in that company.

One of the nice things about LRC is that you get over 2000 words, so you can do an essay not just a summary of the book’s contents. Here are some excerpts from the first few paragraphs to give a sense of where it goes:

The global supply chain digs shale from the hostile terrain of Northern Alberta, refines it, ships it half way round the world and back again, and in the process turns it into thousands of distinct consumer items, from dollar store plastic sharks to laptop computers.

Some see this continual transformation of the world’s raw materials into things that consumers can use as a Hayekian cornucopia…Others see something more sinister at work…Both pictures have some truth. Nothing can be this massive without having multiple faces, but Gordon Laird definitely leans towards the “sinister” camp. While he does note that “the supply chain has brought us many gifts”, he is more concerned that it has done so with “a global legacy of unresolved problems”: environmental horrors in the backwaters of rural Asia, unregulated emissions of shipping fleets in the world’s oceans, conflict and oppression of the labour force in China, global warming.

But, argues Laird, the era of the global supply chain is almost over. We have gone on our spending binge, and now we must face the hangover. As the environmental consequences of lax standards come home to roost, as sources of cheap energy, cheap credit, and even cheap labour threaten to dry up, we are nearing the death of globalization. “The golden age of affordable consumerism was short. We will very likely never shop this hard again”. … “Our bargain-addicted consumer economy is dangerously leveraged on a series of innovations and inventions not built to last. Specifically, the fundamentals of growth – cheap credit, offshore labour, affordable energy, and transport – will be depleted or become unavailable during the twenty-first century”.  He is not alone: ex-CIBC economist Jeff Rubin and John Ralston Saul both broadly share his opinion about the future of global trade, which is that there will be less of it, and that it will leave many difficult problems in its wake.

Gordon Laird … starts by browsing with us through piles of cheap consumer goods at Las Vegas trade shows for discount stores, then takes us to Shenzen in China where many of the goods are made, shows us around the port of Los Angeles where a never-ending stream of standardized containers flows off the ships and onto trucks, and flies us back to the very beginning of the chain, to the muskeg of northern Alberta where the largest industrial project on the planet is run with Wal-Mart-like precision to extract oil from tar sands. He also ventures to the Mexico-US border to track the migration of workers driven by the shifting labour patterns of globalization. He supplements this field work with wide reading (his list of sources is 25 pages long and contains about 400 items) and a good selection of interviews. The Price of a Bargain is a valuable contribution to the continuing debate on global trade, its impact, and its future.

But while Laird’s willingness to travel and read is obvious, the book would be better if he had sat longer, alone and quiet, to distil the complexity he presents into a coherent picture. As it is, his portrayal is confusing and sometimes contradictory. The book is strong on data, weak on synthesis.

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