Friday, November 11, 2005

Who Hates Globalization?

Why, people made worse by it of course. And who might they be? For eighty years the workhorse model of international trade, which for purposes of this discussion can be extended to all forms of global linkage, is known as the neoclassical or Heckscher/Ohlin model. In it, nations differ because of the resources they possess. Under free trade, incentives will cause people in different countries to specialize in the goods that heavily use the factors with which their nations are well-endowed. For example, with such fertile land Argentina will export agricultural goods. The flip side is that nations will import goods that intensively use factors that they have little of. One of the reasons Japan is such a powerhouse exporter of complex manufactured goods is their total paucity of natural resources and agricultural land. That they don’t import even more food than they do is due to government policies designed to protect Japanese farmers.

More generally, owners of scarce factors find, when their country’s citizens are prohibited (or prevented by transportation costs) from trading with citizens of other lands, that they are able to exploit that scarcity, to earn higher incomes than they would if they had to compete with people all over the globe who also control those factors. So Japanese rice farmers live much better shielded by their country’s tall trade barriers than if they had to compete. In rich countries, low- and moderately educated workers are the most damaged by free trade with poorer ones, and are therefore are the most opposed to freer trade. For those individuals (though not for all the residents of a society, including consumers and owners of other factors), globalization makes them (at least in the immediate term, before considering their opportunities to move onto other, perhaps much better things) worse off.

This analysis can be applied to much anti-globalization sentiment, especially that revolving around “culture.” More and more there are reports of people inveighing against the intrusion of the outside world on the grounds that it destroys local culture, and in particular that it leads to the imposition of a banal American culture on an unwilling world. Leave aside that culture spreads only when for every seller there is a buyer, so that there is apparently a lot of call for whatever we are selling. Why would someone object to the intrusion of cultural forms from elsewhere? In saying this recall that in some circles in the West there is no more noble ideological cause then multiculturalism. While this is a phrase with a thousand meanings, one of its features is surely the idea that people should be exposed to the output of different cultures.

But when people in non-Western societies show enthusiasm for Western cultural output, whether it be trivial – e.g., buying flowers and trinkets on Valentine’s Day - or substantial – e.g., consensual government – people are troubled. Opponents of cultural globalization are often afraid that a purer, more noble culture is under assault by one powered mainly by slick marketing rather than innate worth. No one from Africa or Asia or Mexico could possibly choose to shop at Wal-Mart, to watch a Hollywood action flick or to eat at McDonald’s once in awhile unless they were victims of a cultural invasion.

To think this way is to completely misunderstand what culture is and where it comes from. It is a mistake to talk of discrete “cultures” – of isolated islands full of culture that must be protected, in the manner of authorities at the airport in Hawaii interdicting invasive plants and animals, from destructive contact with foreign cultural life forms which would contaminate, out-compete and ultimately destroy the irreplaceable local cultural flora and fauna. This is a terrible model, because almost no cultural product worth remembering was created in such sterile, often nationalistic isolation. Germans take justifiable pride in Bach, perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived, but he wouldn’t have been nearly what he was without the opportunity to benefit from exposure to composers in Germany and France. Jamaican reggae music is often admired in part because it was produced as the culturally authentic voice of a tiny nation in the very shadow of the U.S. cultural behemoth. Jamaica became in the eyes of cultural protectionists sort of the heroic little country that could. But reggae would never have existed had not Jamaican workers spent time in the U.S. (Bob Marley himself spent time earning money at a U.S. auto factory), and had Jamaican musicians not been exposed to U.S. R&B and doo-wop. Cultural producers trade, they learn, and their products evolve. It is foolish to imagine culture as a static product needing to be protected from the taint of the outside world.

Culture is no different than any other human activity that creates value for other people at some opportunity cost. It is better under conditions of competition and exchange, and worse when the government subsidizes and protects it. Jean-Francois Revel argues that French and Italian cinema were far better when Fellini and Truffaut were free to exercise their creative genius in competition with Hollywood than when directors became helpless wards of the state. Global culture is better culture. It is more vigorous, more diverse, more interesting.

But this is not good news for all. Like French small farmers, Mexican street merchants staring down Wal-Mart and American textile workers, those with a great stake (which may or may not be directly financial) in the existing culture will be those who are the most threatened by cultural competition. And so perhaps we are not surprised that clerics, traditionalists and intellectuals are most prominent among cultural anti-globalization partisans. Ultimately, in the economic sense they are cultural protectionists, fated to struggle in a world of cultural free trade because they can no longer exploit their scarce knowledge and the income and control over others it often yields. There is no going back of course, but that does not mean that in the meantime those with the most to lose will not do everything they can to recreate a mythical lost world where every culture is an island, where it is not possible to cross the seas separating one culture from another without the guidance of an expert.


Anonymous Jasper E. Omolo said...

I think sometimes people hide underneath their culture to avoid dealing with reality. For example, child labor could not be possibly condoned by any culture if poverty were not a problem. Futhermore no one, even in most ethnocentric countries, could complel anyone to watch foreign movies, or dress like New Yorkers. People are just attracted to these things....

1:51 PM  

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