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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Summers: The Global Middle Cries Out for Reassurance

Because of the problems globalization and technological change have created for middle class workers, Larry Summers believes that the advancement of global integration will depend upon "what can be done for the great global middle" through policies enacted by the "best parts of the progressive tradition." He has in mind progressives who "do not oppose the market system," instead "they improve on the outcomes it naturally produces":

The global middle cries out for reassurance, by Larry Summers, Commentary, Financial Times (free): ...Neither the after-effects of September 11 2001 nor a tripling in oil prices has prevented the world’s economy from growing faster in the past five years than in any five-year period in recorded economic history. Given this recent performance and the ... optimistic outlook, one might have expected this to be a moment of particularly great enthusiasm for the market system and for global integration.

Yet in many corners of the globe there is growing disillusionment. From the failure to complete the Doha trade round to pervasive Wal-Mart-bashing, from massive renationalisation in Russia to the success of populists in Latin America and eastern Europe, we see a [growing] degree of anxiety about the market system...

Why is there such disillusionment? Some anti-globalisation sentiment can be seen as ... arising from the Bush administration’s foreign policy misadventures. But there is a much more troubling source: the growing recognition that the vast global middle is not sharing the benefits... – and that its share of the pie may even be shrinking.

Two groups have found themselves in the right place at the right time to benefit from globalisation and technological change. First, those in low-income countries, principally in Asia and especially in China, who are able to plug into the global system. ... If one looks at the growth rate of China during the past 30 years, living standards are increasing at a rate that will lead to a hundred-fold improvement over a single human lifespan. The impact cannot be overstated.

Second, it has been a golden age for those who already own valuable assets. Owners of scarce commodities... People running businesses that can take advantage of globalisation to source labour ... and sell to larger markets have seen their incomes rise far faster than incomes generally. Certainly those in the financial sector in a position to benefit from the asset revaluations associated with globalisation have prospered.

Everyone else has not fared nearly as well. As the great corporate engines of efficiency succeed by using cutting-edge technology with low-cost labour, ordinary, middle-class workers and their employers – whether they live in the American midwest, the Ruhr valley, Latin America or eastern Europe – are left out. This is the essential reason why median family incomes lag far behind productivity growth in the US, why average family incomes in Mexico have barely grown in the 13 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, and why middle-income countries without natural resources struggle to define an area of comparative advantage.

It is this vast group that lacks the capital to benefit from globalisation and is desperately seeking either reassurance or a change in course. Yet without its support it is very doubtful that the existing global economic order can be maintained.

Let us be frank. What the anxious global middle is told often feels like pretty thin gruel. The twin arguments that globalisation is inevitable and protectionism is counterproductive have the great virtue of being correct, but do not provide much consolation for the losers. ... Economists rightly emphasise that trade ... makes everyone richer by enabling them to buy goods at lower prices. But this offers small solace to those who fear their jobs will vanish.

Education is central to any economic strategy, but there is a limit to what it can do for workers in their 40s and beyond. Nor can education be a complete answer at a time when skilled computer programmers in India are paid less than $2,000 a month. ...

In the US, the political pendulum is swinging left. The best parts of the progressive tradition do not oppose the market system; they improve on the outcomes it naturally produces. That is what we need today.

There are no easy answers. The economic logic of free, globalised, technologically sophisticated capitalism may well be to shift more wealth to the very richest and some of the very poorest in the world, while squeezing people in the middle. ...

[O]ur success in advancing international integration will depend on what can be done for the great global middle. Our response will affect not just the livelihoods of millions of our fellow citizens but also the prospects for continuing global integration, with all the prosperity and stability it has the potential to bring.

Though I believe some redistribution of the gains is justified by market failures and differential power relationships, I am not generally a fan of redistributive polices unless they are clearly justified by equity or other considerations. So if someone can figure out how to share the gains more equally and prevent a political backlash in the short and medium-run without redistributive policies, I'm listening. But for now, unless we accept the necessity of redistributing some of the gains to middle and low income workers for maintaining political support for further global integration, these workers will continue to struggle and further global integration will, as Summers points out, be harder to achieve.

I don't like calling for the redistribution of income rather than a solution that fixes the flaw in the market producing the undesirable outcome, or equalizes the opportunity to participate in the market and share in the gains. Anyone have a better answer?

    Posted by on Sunday, October 29, 2006 at 11:23 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, International Trade | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (16)

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