The Phony Issue of Globalization

Globalization as a phenomenon is irrefutable.   The world continues to become more interconnected by any measure you can think of.  National economies are so interdependent that it’s hard to untangle the threads.

Globalization as an issue is something else.   There is a long list of globalization problems:  it picks winners and losers economically, it makes some people feel like the country has changed out from under them, it destroys the sense of community.

The trouble is that globalization is responsible for essentially none of that.  Our real problem with globalization is how much we can blame on it.

Let’s start with jobs.  We begin with a frequently-cited quote from Harvard economist Lawrence Katz on automation versus globalization for jobs:  “Over the long haul, clearly automation’s been much more important–it’s not even close.”  That gets us part of the way there.  It’s not primarily globalization.  As many studies have shown, Trump’s core supporters lost their good union jobs for many reasons, not just globalization.

However, that’s history.   What matters is now, and the jobs story gets more lopsided all the time.  For today, one can say unequivocally that no set of tariffs is going to bring back those good union jobs.   And the future looks worse.  Self-driving cars and machine translation are key indicators of where things are going.   One article about Artificial Intelligence puts it this way: “the A.I. products that now exist are improving faster than most people realize and promise to radically transform our world, not always for the better …  they will reshape what work means and how wealth is created, leading to unprecedented economic inequalities and even altering the global balance of power.”

There is a growing jobs problem, and it’s not globalization.  We’re moving ever faster into a two-tiered society with participants and (increasingly many) non-participants in the technology-driven economy.  But we would rather futz around with NAFTA, because apparently that plays better.   By continuing to blame globalization as the jobs problem, we end up doing crazy things.  We’re actually skimping on education and research!  One thing we really can do for Trump’s core is make sure their kids have futures, but we’re not even trying.  Instead we’ve got a budget plan that vilifies the unemployed without any notion of what jobs are waiting for them.

That’s jobs.  What about alienation, feeling the country has been overrun with immigrants?  Is that really globalization?  There’s a key to that one too:  no one is talking about Swedes and Germans.   It’s Mexicans and—whether we want to admit it or not—blacks.  Just about any study of the last election talks about the importance of race.   “Immigrants” is a keyword; race was always part of it.  Violence after the election was immediately directed against blacks.  With Obama as President, the Republican party has been deliberately stoking racism for years.  Trump just whipped it up into something more obviously ugly.  Globalization is a smoke screen for deliberately-provoked racial hatred.

How about community?  We now have a whole media wing promoting the idea that cultures can’t mix:  Trump’s Mexican rapists and Bannon’s calls for holy war are just starters.  We’ve always had that sort of stuff in this country (Jews, Italians, Irish…), but we’ve always emerged better for what had been vilified.  Human beings have a built-in fear of strangers.   As they get to know each other they tend to get along.   But they can be whipped into a frenzy by demagogues who choose to exploit that fear for their own advantage.  Trump is certainly not the first to ride scapegoating to power.   Globalization is a convenient bogey man.

So globalization itself is not the issue.  What we really have in this country (and elsewhere)  is demagoguery–self-serving lies under the flag of fighting globalization. And the lies are damaging, as they undermine both national competitiveness and individual well-being.

There are no simple solutions, particularly now that so much has entered the legitimized mainstream.  But there is still a good use for “globalization”–the next time you hear that that disadvantaged workers need the government to fight globalization, you know exactly who’s looking to win!

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