By Mike Koetting January 30, 2020
The main problem with globalization is that you can’t quit. No getting out of the club. Just isn’t possible. There are plenty of other problems with globalization. They are very difficult and some are at the very edge of human’s ability to solve. But the most important underlying feature is that it is here and, unless you believe you can jet off to another planet without taking earth’s problems with you, the only way to avoid it is to let things get so bad that we all have to start over. That does not sound like a fun ride.
Here’s why you can’t quit globalism. And there are more where these came from.
It isn’t just that the world’s supply chains are now entangled. That has always been true to some extent. What is changed is the density and speed of the connections. It is a rare economic process today that doesn’t have to explicitly consider international aspects in all phases of its business. Even much of the produce I buy is from other countries. These interactions build on themselves, organizing an ever-denser network of economic and commercial connections made possible by hitherto unimaginable communication capabilities. Right now, wherever you are, look around and think about how the items around you are influenced by the global economy. From Apple to Zappos, and everything in between, our entire day-to-day life would be up for grabs if there were a real attempt to roll-back globalization. That might be a theoretical option, but if you think America has trouble accepting LED light-bulbs, try to imagine a seriously less globalized world. Could we get by without some of it? Sure. But anything more than changes at the edge? It could happen only as an absolute last resort.
I am not suggesting that this is an entirely good thing. It certainly has many advantages for people on all sides of the interchanges. But is also full of drawbacks for other people. The particular way our global systems have evolved has increased inequality and created serious social disruptions. It has upended local cultures and pushed people into already crowded cities—then left the cities mired in problems when globalization moved the jobs to the next cheaper site. There is a lot of ugliness there. Still, most people believe they are better off having the opportunities, uneven and sometimes ephemeral, that globalization has created. No one wants to give up their smart-phones.
As long as people have grouped themselves into entities larger than families, there have been struggles. The story of recorded history is meted out primarily in terms of wars and conquests. But in the last 75 years, the nature of how these disputes can be pursued has changed in life altering ways.
The first is lethality. The advent of atomic war changed the stakes. The extent of potential collateral damage from a dispute between nations that got out of control has grown exponentially, possibly even extending to the entire world. The proliferation of atomic weapons elevates the possibilities of involving by-standers, as have advances in chemical and biological warfare.
The second is the collapse of distance. As recently as WWII it took a couple days to get bombers across the Atlantic. Now. we realistically worry that North Korea or China could put an IBM in Los Angeles in hours. In the other direction, drones being guided from Nevada can take out targets thousands of miles away. America is no longer protected by its oceans nor Russia by its steppes. As 9/11 showed us, even conventional weapons can become international as the movement of the people around the world accelerates.
Third, warfare—the direct consequences of which used to be limited primarily to combatants—has become not just about destroying armies, but about destroying societies. A determined cyber-attack could bring almost any developed country to its knees. (And such an attack could be unleased from pretty much anywhere; doesn’t even require a massive state infrastructure.)
So far, conflicts have been largely contained—and it may be possible to continue doing so for some time. But increasingly, no one is safe unless all are safe.
We generally think of improved mobility as a good thing. Until it starts to bring people to our country we don’t want. Or more outsiders than can be readily absorbed. But it’s very difficult to have it both ways. Once economies become densely connected by a powerful communication structure, people can readily see differences in opportunity between where they are and some other places. And they will choose the place with more opportunities. As we see all over the world, it is possible to resist waves of migrants. But it’s a stressful, uphill battle. It isn’t going away as long as people can imagine a better life by migrating. (Or, for that matter, as long as people in one country believe they can get a marginal advantage by letting in some people from other countries.)
By the way, there’s another aspect of global mobility that makes the world smaller. It is really easy to transport disease. Ebola has, so far, been largely contained in Africa, but SARS spread a little more widely and the coronavirus now is major news. (Another sign of how we’re tied together: even if the coronavirus never has major health impacts in the US, the economic ripples from China might be material.)
Don’t need many words on this. Anyone who doesn’t believe that there is a global hazard from environmental change is guilty of willful ignorance. Even if you don’t believe it’s caused by human activity, it is hard to see how you could dispute that there are major, interlinked, environmental changes happening around the world. Left unchecked, they will end the world as we know it. Major cities will be flooded, run out of water, or be burned up. Oceans will acidify, coral reefs will die, and species will go extinct. I don’t pretend to know how that is going to play out. It doesn’t seem obvious to me that mankind will die off, but it does seem to me that in the absence of unprecedented and coordinated efforts, there will be a huge amount of unpleasantness around the world. Combined with the other trends I have identified, I think all of us but the most outspoken environmentalists have been kidding ourselves about what we have in store.
Mitigating this absolutely requires global cooperation. The spectacle of this or that nation trying to argue out of their role by citing others doing less could well turn out to be a slow-motion version of mutually assured destruction.
This is one of the softer threats, but I don’t think less real. History is full of atrocities. But for most part people didn’t know about them because they were separated by miles and continents and oceans. But now we are rarely able to avoid knowing about them. The question then is what are we going to do about it?
This is a more complicated question than I can address fully in this blog. But it belongs in the list of reasons why it is impossible to escape globalization. We will constantly have to make decisions as to what moral atrocities we are willing to ignore. Addressing them all is exhausting beyond anyone’s capabilities. Moslems in Kashmir, Uighurs in China, dissidents in North Korea, children in Syria and Jamal Khashoggi. But ignoring them all will surely lead to a moral callousness that is dangerous not only to other citizens of the world, but to the citizens of the state doing the ignoring. Some degree of moral relativism is necessary, but the more the world becomes interconnected, the more it is necessary to consider where and how to draw the boundaries.
The moral of this post is simple. The only way to deal with globalism is to embrace it. Pretending it is possible to opt out is an exercise in self-delusion, one with possibly fatal consequences. Arise you citizens of the world…and save your ass!