Should We Welcome Globalization or Fear It?

Having just finished reading Gregg Easterbrook’s new book, ‘Sonic Boom’, I think he would say that we should welcome globalization. He sees fantastic potential for social progress, but improved living standards are likely to be ‘wrapped with ribbons of stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction (p.34). His bottom line seems to be that globalization is inevitable and that we just have to learn to live with it.

Easterbrook expects the forces of globalization to grow stronger. That means that the insecurity that people often associate with globalization is likely to accentuate:

‘Job turmoil, the economic roller-coaster, financial bedlam, media superficiality, celebrity inanity, political blather, targeted advertising, scream-and-shout discourse, the paving over of nature – they’re all going to get worse. A lot worse in some cases. Most likely, global economics will be blamed for whatever about coming decades we don’t like.’

He also suggests, however, that much of what people tend to like about life will get better:

‘Prosperity will increase, especially in the less affluent nations where improvement is most needed. Democracy will flourish on five and perhaps six continents … . Information and knowledge will proliferate as never before, while art and culture become available to everyone. Many aspects of this evolving sonic boom will be really terrific.’

Then comes the recommendation:

‘The terrific aspects and the anxiety inducing aspects will be intertwined and we’re just going to have to live with this’ (p. 209).

Why is globalization inevitable? I think Easterbrook discusses this in several places but I have noted one place in particular. (I’m glad I made notes as I read the book because there are few clues offered in the contents page about where to find stuff and the index doesn’t seem to be as helpful as it could be. But I digress!) Easterbrook suggests that we can’t stop global change because it is associated with the spread of freedom – ‘most of the world’s nations are acquiring the same core structures (democracy, free-market economics, emphasis on education) that makes the United States the current world leader … . The more America-like the world becomes, the faster the pace of economic change will be’ (p. 192).

I think Easterbrook is basically right about this. It would probably take a world war to stop globalization and there doesn’t appear to be one of those on the horizon. Perhaps some people said similar things around 1900 – prior to a few decades of disruption in global trade and investment. Even so, the main point is that the forces shaping the future of the global economy are beyond the control of any individual, firm or government. At a national level it is possible to shield some groups from the forces of global change but only by reducing the opportunities available to others.

Easterbrook acknowledges that it is possible for governments to provide a safety net that will provide citizens with some degree of security, particularly in relation to health care. He argues that people in the U.S. suffer more stress than do people in western Europe because of problems associated with the U.S. health care system (pp. 200-202). I don’t know whether or not this is a valid point. Evidence from the Gallup World Poll suggest that people in the U.S. tend to experience more stress than do people in western European countries and Australia. But Mexicans report experiencing a lot less stress than Americans and less stress than Europeans and Australians – so there is probably more involved than health care.

My main reservation about this book, as with Easterbrook’s earlier book ‘The Progress Paradox’ (discussed here), is that I think he overstates the insecurity that people actually feel as a result of the forces of globalization. The book seems to be full of colourful phrases to describe this insecurity. For example, Easterbrook writes of ‘change-based anxiety’ (p.34), ‘Multiple Media Personality Disorder’ which he defines as a ‘a universal low grade nervous tension from which there may be no realistic escape’ (p.70), ‘the Super Bowl of stress’ (p. 72) and ‘collapse anxiety’ (p. 168).

I acknowledge that job insecurity has increased. Easterbrook makes a strong case that each year it gets easier for someone to come along with a superior idea and put an established firm out of business (p. 134). He could be right that in future there will be a greater risk that people who have risen to the middle classes will ‘fall back’ down the economic ladder and end up bitterly unhappy (p. 196). I also acknowledge that the insecurity of modern life is a popular topic of conversation, particularly in the media. But I don’t think insecurity is having a large impact on behaviour and the way people feel about their lives. If a lot of employed people were feeling a high degree of insecurity about their jobs I think they we would see more precautionary saving and less willingness to go into debt than we have seen in recent years. Survey evidence suggests that the vast majority of people in high-income countries feel that they have a great deal of control over their lives.

My conclusion is that there must be a huge gap between the fears that a lot of people express when they talk at a superficial level about the challenges and insecurity of modern life and the deeper feelings that they have about opportunities and threats in their own lives.

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