My Weekly Reader 23 July 2018.

“Globalization” means the trade in goods and services, the flow of capital, and the movement of workers across national boundaries with little or no national constraints.  This is an old story in human history, but it accelerated dramatically after 1945[1] and it has moved at astonishing speed since 1990.[2]  Globalization has spawned disruptive costs that accompany its immense benefits.  Much attention has focused on some of the costs more than on the benefits.

The political reaction against globalization commands the headlines.[3]  Examples include President Trump’s “America First” policies of tariffs and limits on migration; the British vote to leave the European Union (“Brexit”); and Angela Merkel’s suddenly precarious leadership of Germany.  The most persuasive interpretations see this reaction as rising from two sources.  One is the unequal distribution of both the benefits and costs of globalization.  The other is the resulting discrediting of the elites as leaders in the eyes of everyone else as followers.

One can point to many flaws in democratic governance.  However, part of the current problem is that democracy actually works.  Donald Trump won the 2016 election; a narrow, but real, majority of British voters chose “Brexit”; Italian voters supported the current coalition of anti-immigrant, anti-EU parties that governs the country.  Many of the reforms seem intended to blunt the responsiveness of politicians to the popular will.  These include giving the president of the United States more authority to commit the country to treaties that could not pass the Senate; extending the time between elections to buffer politicians from the public moods; raising the pay of politicians so that a better class of person will go into politics; and instituting civic literacy tests for voters.

Trends that have nothing to do with globalization, but which will rock a globalized world economy get lost in the shuffle.[4]  For example, in Western countries, robots look like a mechanical version of China: low-cost, high-productivity workers.  In developing countries, however, they are just as great a challenge.  Hundreds of millions of people in China, India, and elsewhere have been pulled out of abject poverty by industrialization.  Their jobs, too, are at risk.  Developed countries will have no incentive to off-shore production and developing countries will have to compete with their own robots.

Then soon–but possibly not soon enough–a demographic shift will occur from low birth-low death to low birth-high death.  The United States already depends upon immigration for its population growth (and the financial stability of Social Security).  Japan and many European countries (Germany and Italy for example) are in much worse shape in terms of their young workers-elder retirees ratios.  China will soon enter the ranks of countries this imbalance.  How will different societies pay for their aged, non-working populations?

[1] After the Second World War, the United States led the construction of an open “Free World” economy through institutions like the World Bank (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

[2] The collapse of the Soviet Union discredited centrally-planned, non-market economies in the eyes of previous true believers.  Russia, the former “captive nations” of the Soviet Empire, and the Peoples Republic of China all adopted capitalist market economies.  Many other leftist economies in the developing world (notably India) did the same thing.

[3] Dambisa Moyo, Edge of Chaos (2018).

[4] Ian Bremmer, Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism (2018).


My Weekly Reader 9 March 2017.

In the bad old days,[1] individual nation-states pursued the welfare of their citizens—political, economic, psychic—through nationalism, protectionism, and war.  The “Devil’s Decades” from 1914 to 1945 thoroughly discredited this approach.  In place of this disgraced “realist” world-view arose two rival systems.  The Soviet model of centrally-planned economies and Big Brother-little brother domination of surrounding countries came to dominate one half of the world.  The Western model of a market economy based on borders open to the flows of capital and people, and regulated by rules and laws came to dominate the other half of the world.  Both systems seemed to depend on international political stability.  Thus, “The “Cold War” was, as John Lewis Gaddis put it, “The Long Peace.”  However, the Soviet model also rested upon a set of beliefs about human beings that were completely false.[2]  Since 1990, former followers of the Soviet model have been in flight toward the Western model.  Intellectuals declared “the end of history” since all the ideological rivals to the Western model had been defeated.

The financial crisis of 2008-2009 and the adjustment problems of the Eurozone posed huge problems of economic management for experts and politicians.  However, they hardly dented the belief in the one best way.  Hence, it is fascinating to encounter a restatement of the Western model[3] made just before the Brexit referendum, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the arrival of Marine Le Pen as a sort of Snow White to a host of populist dwarf parties.

Michael Mandelbaum understands the substance of international relations and domestic politics almost entirely in material terms.  A stable international order has allowed governments to focus on the promotion of economic growth and the distribution of its benefits.  (Indeed, the pacification of international relations and the de-legitimization of most ideologies have left them nothing else to pursue.)  Mandelbaum carefully explains the main components of the system.  He considers the changes that may be necessary to respond to the rise of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies.  He calmly contemplates the teeter-totter shift in power as the United States experiences a relative decline and other countries develop economically.

Two points are worth noting.  First, Mandelbaum says little about the impact of the disruptive changes in the old industrial countries brought by globalization.  The adjustment costs of globalization have chiefly been born by common people in sectors of the economy swept by the winds of change.  Currently, Western populism is being fueled by the anger of these people at the elites who have promoted globalization without devising any adequate devices for helping the losers.  Attention-grabbing though these movements have been, what will happen if the Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian people disrupted by globalization launch their own populist movements?  At least the Western countries have political systems designed—however grumpily and disdainfully—to accommodate grievances.

Second, writing in 2014, Mandelbaum foresaw that “it is reasonable to expect that the United States will do less global policing in the future than it has in the past….making the world a politically and militarily more turbulent place.”  Donald Trump may make this long-term trend worse, but he didn’t cause it.

[1] Admittedly, days beloved by history students.

[2] As one fictional character remarked, “All you had to do was keep them penned in and wait for the food riots to start.”  See William Gibson, Pattern Recognition.

[3] Michael Mandelbaum, The Road to Global Prosperity (2014).  See Tod Lindberg, “An Elite Guide to Globalization,” WSJ, 3 April 2014, p. A15.