Disarticulation goes North: ... In a recent piece published in the New York Times, Paul Theroux, after traveling through the American South, was shocked by the depth of poverty there, wrought in his opinion by the destruction of jobs that have all gone to Asia and import of cheap commodities from China. He was even more distraught by the apparent lack of interest of American political and economic elites who seem to even fail to notice the plight of the Americans in states like Mississippi and most ironically in Arkansas where philanthropists such as the Clinton Foundation have not been much seen even as they proudly boast of efforts “to save the elephants in Africa”.
The key issue raised by Theroux was whether trade, that is, globalization was responsible for this plight. The second issue that was raised was why there is so little empathy with the domestic poor or interest in doing something about their destitution. ...
One can safely claim, to the extent that these things that be causally proven, that the rapid worldwide progress in poverty alleviation is due to globalization. It is also true that on any income or consumption metric, poverty in parts of Africa is much worse than in Mississippi. But of course none of that may be politically or socially relevant because national populations seldom care about cosmopolitan welfare functions (where happiness of every individual in the world is equally valued). They work with national welfare functions where a given level of destitution locally is given a much greater weight than the same destitution abroad. There are studies that show the revealed difference in implicit national vs. cosmopolitan weighting of poverty (the ratio for the US is estimated at 2000 to 1); there are arguments for this, going back to Aristotle who in Nicomachean ethics thought that our level of empathy diminishes as in concentric circles as we move further from a very narrow community. And there are also political philosophy arguments (by Rawls) why co-citizens do care more for each other than for the others.
But I think that it is insufficient to leave this argument at a very abstract level where one group of Americans would have a more cosmopolitan welfare function and better perception of global benefits of trade and another would be more nativist and ignorant of economics. I do not think that the real difference between the two groups has to do with welfare concerns and economic literacy but with their interests. Many rich Americans who like to point out to the benefits of globalization worldwide significantly benefited and continue to benefit from the type of globalization that has been unfolding during the past three decades. The numbers, showing their real income gains, are so well known that they need no repeating. They are large beneficiaries from this type of globalization because of their ability to play off less well-paid and more docile labor from poorer countries against the often too expensive domestic labor. They also benefit through inflows of unskilled foreign labor that keep the costs of the services they consume low. Thus rich Americans are made better off by the key forces of globalization: migration, outsourcing, cheap imports, which have also been responsible for the major reduction of worldwide poverty. Perhaps in a somewhat crude materialist fashion I think that their sudden interest in reducing worldwide poverty is just an ethical sugar-coating over their economic interests which are perfectly well served by globalization. Like every dominant class, or every beneficiary of an economic or political regime, they feel the need to situate their success within some larger whole and to explain that it is a by-product of a much grander betterment of human condition.
A new alliance, based on the coincidence of interests, is thus formed between some of the richest people in the world and poor people of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Those who are left out in the cold are the domestic lower-middle and middle classes squeezed between the competition from foreign labor and indifference of national ruling classes. ...
The idea that globalization is a force that is good and beneficial for all is an illusion. Tectonic economic changes such as those brought by globalization always have winners and losers. (The first sentence of my forthcoming book “Global inequality”, Harvard University Press, April 2016, says exactly that.) Even if globalization is, as I believe, a positive phenomenon overall, both economically ... and ethically because it allows for the creation of something akin to community of all humankind, it is, and will remain, a deeply contradictory and disruptive force that would leave, at times significant groups of people, worse off. Refusing to see that is possible only if one is blinded by ideology of universal harmonies or by own economic interests.