Shadows and Lights of Globalization
The rebound brings the Eurasian continent (which we can “extend” to include North America) in terms of relative incomes and distribution of economic activity to the situation that existed prior to the Industrial Revolution, when parts of Asia (mostly in China and India) had approximately the same income levels as the more advanced parts of Western Europe. When Marco Polo travelled to China in the 13th century he admired canals, bridges and markets of Hangzhou; there was no marked difference in income or technological know-how between Venice and Hangzhou. All of that changed in the next several centuries as the West pulled ahead of everybody else. But it is now in the process of changing again, and bringing the world to the income relativities of the past—of course at much higher level of absolute income.
How can we then judge the shadows and lights of globalization? In relative geo-economic terms, by noting that it is a gain for Asia, and a relative loss for the West. It is thus exactly the mirror-image of the first globalization. But, perhaps more importantly we can look at shadows and lights of globalization by realizing that many highly desirable features of globalization: increased average real income, significant reduction in global poverty, extended life expectancy, higher average level of education, better access to electricity, sewage and potable water, are being accompanied—like in all great transformations—by some undesirable features: environmental destruction, commodification of activities that have hitherto been provided by family and friends, stress and loneliness and even numerous social pathologies (drug abuse, corruption, terrorism).
Even such a listing of “positives” and “negatives” is not merely incomplete; it compares the averages: the average life expectancy, the average income level etc. which may not be very relevant. With rising inequalities in most countries in the world, such averages carry less and less meaning. In an unequal or polarized society, the fact that the mean income is up, may not be at all reflective of the changes experienced by the rich (whose real incomes might have increased by much more), or by the poor (whose real incomes might have stagnated).
This is why we often feel a strong tension between what supporters of globalization tell us are its unambiguous favorable effects and frequent disappointment or unhappiness voiced by many. The average numbers, even when accurate, mean less in an unequal world, where additionally globalization allows us to compare our incomes, access to public services, hours of leisure, stability of friendships, happiness etc. across national borders. Even when doing “objectively” well, we are bound to find many people among the 7.4 billion in the world who are richer or happier than us. In that way, objective advances of globalization are, almost by definition, accompanied by subjective feeling of unfulfillment. If we understand the process whereby this occurs, it might make it easier to accept this fundamental duality---in-built perhaps in human condition.