Globalization and the League of Women Voters
Sept. 10, 2001

I spoke to the League of Women Voters recently. The subject was globalization.

“Could you take the ‘pro’ side?” said Ms. Joan Young, who was arranging a debate on the topic for the benefit of the League members.

I agreed, with relief. The “pro” position fit in with my own natural sensibilities–so I wouldn’t have to try unduly hard to come up with arguments in support of globalization.

“Will the speaker taking the ‘con’ side of globalization talk on the same occasion?” I enquired. “Perhaps, I should don some armor....”

“Oh, no,” said Joan, laughing. “He will come to a later meeting.”

So, on a fine Saturday morning, I found myself in a restaurant in Algoma, speaking on globalization to a group of about twenty or so League members. It was a diverse group–among the gathered were business owners, school teachers and a nursing-home worker. The lone male member of the audience was a retired politician.

We had breakfast. First things first, I thought approvingly. Then we got down to business. Joan introduced me to the group, and I launched into my speech.

Since globalization meant different things to different people, I figured it would be helpful to begin with a definition of the term. Accordingly, I described the phenomenon as the furtherance of trade in goods, services, capital, labor and ideas around the world.

That large amounts of goods cross borders every day is rather evident–your computer, your VCR, your robot dog, they were all probably manufactured in some other country. Similarly, American-made aircraft, corn and machinery are sold to other countries.

Trade in services tends to be largely overlooked. Look at the global reach of MTV, the allure of Baywatch, the popularity of Sylvester Stallone, and you see how American entertainment services are being exported to the far corners of the world. But this is hardly a one-way street. Witness the burgeoning interest, in this country, in imported cooking programs (Iron Chef), foreign movies (on Bravo), and Hispanic programming. Armed with a satellite dish, an Indian immigrant can watch Hindi movies in Green Bay–a possibility inconceivable just a few years ago.

Trade in capital, in certain quarters, has become synonymous with the rapacity of multinational corporations and fickleness of foreign investors. Multinationals, in this view, are eager to exploit low-wage labor and lax environmental standards in developing countries. As trade barriers fall, they waste no time in laying off domestic workers and transferring their operations overseas, causing a giant sucking sound, in Ross Perot’s memorable phrase.

But, if low labor costs and less stringent environmental standards were the primary factors inducing multinationals to relocate, countries like Bangladesh and Sudan should be among the biggest recipients of foreign investment.

The fact is that the bulk of the capital flows occurs among developed countries–e.g., Mercedes-Benz opening a factory in Alabama, and Vivendi, a French company, assuming ownership of Universal Studios. The proportion of foreign investment actually going from developed countries to developing countries is relatively meager, a point that the protesters at the upcoming IMF/World Bank meetings in Washington will no doubt deem inconsequential.

Trade in labor has become increasingly significant, both as an economic and a political issue. Mexican immigrants prop up large segments of the low-wage sector of the U.S. economy–bereft of them, homeowners in Los Angeles will find their well-tended lawns turning into jungles, for instance.

With the increased ease of migration, you see interesting patterns around the world. In the Philippines, for example, you will encounter Americans playing professional basketball (albeit in a separate league so that they do not dominate the shorter Filipinos.)

Finally, there is the trade in ideas. Television, newspapers, magazines, the Internet, are all extending their reach into the darker nooks and crannies of the world where information used to be tightly controlled by authoritarian regimes. But now, people can watch Jay Leno or David Letterman skewering American politicians mercilessly every night, and wonder when they could do the same to their politicians.

“The ability to make fun of your leaders should be a fundamental human right,” I concluded. Was that a pained smile on the face of the retired politician, I wondered?

Following the talk, the League members posed a series of questions. Tough, penetrating questions. They did not let me off lightly. The breakfast, I saw now, was simply the occasion to fatten the calf for the slaughter.

In a few weeks, the League will be inviting a speaker to take the anti-globalization stance. “I hope you feed him well,” I said, feelingly. Joan merely smiled enigmatically.

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