The Book Club

In a Globalized World, You Have To Look Out for Yourself

Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy.


Thanks for having me, and thanks for these great questions.

First off, I do think there are some striking ironies in globalization. I’m not sure the seen-it-before pitfalls of China’s industrialization are one of them, however. I agree with you completely that some aspects of China today look like the United States at the turn of the 20th century. But I don’t think the United States exported those practices. We didn’t invent them, after all; you could argue that they were in vogue in the United Kingdom several decades before The Jungle was published.

China has a choice now of which practices it wants to adopt. When Deng Xiaoping began to open the Chinese economy in the late 1970s, the United States had already moved away from much of its ugly industrial past. Our system isn’t perfect, of course, but countries other than China have seen fit to adopt some of our better ideas. As I wrote in the second chapter of Connected, Japan did this with its Fair Trade Commission, which was modeled on our Federal Trade Commission.

What I do find ironic is that China has the best and the worst of economic growth on show. General Motors’ spotless plant in Shanghai produces Buicks to tighter specifications than its plants in the United States, according to Robert Feenstra of the University of California-Davis, because the Chinese plant is newer and more automated. There’s also Haier, the massive appliance manufacturer in Qingdao; its culture-based tailoring of products to specific markets (big washing machines for Pakistan, where families are large; small ones for Japan, where people like to do a load every day) is on the cutting edge. But the same nation that’s home to these shining outposts of industrial progress still has subsistence farmers scraping by in the countryside, forced labor, and environmental horror stories. That’s ironic.

The Chinese are starting to talk about the side effects of their growth at the highest levels of government, but I’m not sure you’ll have the same Teddy-Roosevelt-defenestrating-his-breakfast-sausage moments that led to wholesale legislative change here. China tends to move a bit more slowly and deliberately.

As for other ironies, one of the biggest has to do with oil. Look at the countries that have found and tried to exploit oil in the past few decades, and look how many are still mired in poverty and conflict. What seems to be manna from heaven often turns out to be black sludge from hell, as political factions fight to control the windfall. We are all connected to this problem, since it’s our demand for oil that pushes prices upward and makes it a valuable commodity—something worth fighting over. In addition, the participation of multinational energy companies can mean that a country gets rich before it’s ready.

Clearly, it’s a bitter irony in this case. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela says he’s trying to overturn it, but I think the jury is still out on how much his expensive social programs have helped his people.

On your second question, I think that globalization has, if anything, pushed me in a direction perpendicular to the usual political spectrum. Your comments echoed part of my introduction to Connected: “There’s not much subtlety in the jingoistic pronouncements of a laissez-faire true believer, nor is there much nuance in the screams of a black-clad protestor outside a major trade summit.” My own reaction has been to move away from the globalization-good vs. globalization-bad debate.

The reason for this move is that in my view, we’d have a hard time slowing down globalization—even with the kind of legislation some folks have been suggesting. To me, it’s more important to deal with globalization’s fundamental challenge: making sure that we spread around the gains that it generates from trade, so that everyone is better off. Thinking about how to manage the transition to a more globalized world could be a lot more productive than just shouting at each other.

That’s why I decided to take a practical approach, rather than a polemical one. What I see in our society is that government, your boss, and your union won’t necessarily manage that transition for you. You have to look out for yourself, and I hope the book gives readers some tools for that task. If you hear about a lot of unrest in oil-producing nations, you might set aside some extra cash for winter heating. If you see global competition rising in your industry, you might encourage your children to pursue different careers. And if you have money to invest, you might look more carefully at options outside the United States.

Lastly, on June 15, 2005, I was in London. I was sitting at my laptop for almost 24 hours straight, watching the newswires. My only break was to have lunch with some visiting editors of the International Herald Tribune, which meant that I had a lot of catching up to do when I got home. But I did look at every single business or financial wire story from the major services, starting from 12:01 a.m. in New York. There was more than enough for a book, as there probably would be on any given day.