August 17, 2019 | 84° F

O'BRIEN: Attacks on globalism are clearly misguided

Opinions Column: Taming Tribalism


Renowned Psychologist Steven Pinker brought a message of unrelenting optimism to Rutgers last week as he lectured from his new book, "Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress." In an age of pessimism in Western culture and politics, Pinker argues that by nearly every metric — from income, health and happiness to literacy, nutrition and violent conflict — the world is far better off than at any point in human history, particularly for the globe’s poorest people. 

The scope of Pinker’s thesis is far too broad to address in a short column, but there is one aspect of his case that is particularly relevant given President Donald J. Trump’s escalation of various trade disputes in recent months. The most striking statistics from Pinker’s argument are those measuring the decline in global poverty caused by the expansion of free trade and capitalism. Little-noticed by populations in the developing world, the economic status of the global poor has monumentally improved just in our lifetimes.

Since 1990, roughly 1.1 billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, a number that would likely astound most Americans. In 1990, approximately 43 percent of the planet’s population was classified by the World Bank as extremely poor, but today that number stands at less than 9 percent. It is not very surprising, Pinker points out, that most of us in developed countries are unaware of the incredible benefits the expansion of global trade has brought to the world’s poorest workers. Humans, he says, are by nature far more engrossed by stories of tragedy and crisis than by a steady drumbeat of good news. To paraphrase Pinker, if the evening news ran stories every night about the hundred thousand people who escaped from extreme poverty that day, no one would watch. 

Despite this incredible progress, nationalist political forces have risen on the Right and Left across the Western world to challenge the process of globalization and threaten the gains made by the world’s most desperate people. On the Right, Trump has explicitly rejected the philosophy of globalization, while on the Left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has argued the United States should reverse economic integration with poor countries. 

Both men — and fellow populists — are concerned with the struggles of lower-middle class workers in developed countries, particularly those formerly employed in manufacturing. It is true that this group has seen stagnant wages over the last few decades, although this is much more due to automation and changes in technology than competition from cheap labor abroad. A World Bank paper found that from 1988 to 2008, inflation-adjusted incomes dramatically rose for the overwhelming majority of the planet, with the exception being workers between the 75th and 90th percentiles in the global income distribution, roughly corresponding to the developed world’s lower-middle class.

Even if you accept the dubious premise that this segment’s sluggish wage growth was caused by the expansion of trade, does that provide a ready-made solution to address it? Trump and Sanders both argue the U.S. should protect some of its workers from competition through tariffs and trade barriers, but research shows these measures are terrible at protecting jobs in the industries they are supposed to help while imposing large costs on the rest of us. 

Instead of generous handouts to special interests, we can help those Americans who have been displaced by trade far more effectively and cheaply without waging economic warfare on poor families in Asia and Africa. Rather than wasting money on corporate welfare, middle America should take a lesson from cities that have successfully adapted to economic change. These places have made much larger investments in education and infrastructure than their stagnant counterparts, focusing on protecting workers rather than protecting specific jobs. In other words, redistributing the gains from globalization to help those who have been displaced is far more efficient than halting the process altogether.

But, the dilemma here is not just about efficiency, but morality as well. It is fair and reasonable to be concerned with the erosion of America’s manufacturing belt. But considering the fact that redistribution and increased public investments provide an effective way to deal with some of globalization’s negative side effects without upending it, Trump and Sanders’s position are outright immoral. 

The reality is, globalization has been one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. Pound-for-pound, it has done far more to alleviate poverty and suffering more than any foreign aid program or charity ever has or ever could. To turn back now would mean subjecting perhaps a billion people to a level of destitution we cannot even fathom. If you truly care about addressing poverty and inequality here and elsewhere, you should oppose this destructive, dangerous and unjust attack on trade and globalization. 

Connor O'Brien is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics. His column, "Taming Tribalism," runs on alternate Thursdays. 


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Connor O'Brien

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