Globalization's steep downside

September 03, 2007|By CYNTHIA TUCKER

ATLANTA -- Despite the harsh partisanship that had begun to infect politics by the 1990s, there was at least one tenet about which mainstream Democrats and Republicans agreed: Globalization is good.

The wonders of free markets have been touted by Democrats Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence Summers as well as Republicans Carlos Gutierrez and Henry M. Paulson Jr.

Belief in the glories of global markets is widely shared - a civic religion, especially among the chattering classes.

As with most religions, however, its miracles are exaggerated.

Global forces have already decimated the American manufacturing sector, destroying the path that led generations into a comfortable existence, with health care and a secure old age. The cities of the Rust Belt testify to the harsh reality of outsourcing and offshoring.

Now the fierce winds of free trade are beginning to be felt a little further up the economic ladder, battering college-educated workers, too.

(Journalists, already bruised by the decline of traditional news media, learned a hard lesson about the reach of globalization last May when a small news Web site in California announced that it had hired two reporters in India to cover meetings of the local Pasadena City Council.)

Finally, some of the apostles of free trade are beginning to admit its rather steep downside. Princeton economist Alan S. Blinder, a former Clinton administration official and a longtime advocate of globalization, still abhors protectionism, but he now believes the social and economic upheavals created by free trade will be much more severe than he once thought.

In an essay published last year in Foreign Affairs magazine, Mr. Blinder wrote: "The old assumption that if you cannot put it in a box, you cannot trade it is ... hopelessly obsolete. Because packets of digitized information play the role that boxes used to play, many more services are now tradable and many more will surely become so."

Already, such highly skilled medical jobs as radiology are being outsourced. Mr. Blinder predicts that between 30 million and 40 million American jobs are likely to be shipped overseas in the next 10 to 20 years. Vulnerable occupations include graphic designer, film and video editor, financial analyst, microbiologist and, interestingly enough, economist, he says.

That's enough to create anxiety among parents who recently sent their children off to exclusive, high-priced colleges, convinced that a prestigious degree will protect them from the threat of globalization.

Many of the jobs that will stay behind are service jobs; you can't very well get a massage or a haircut or a manicure via fiber-optic cables. There will still be great demand for child care workers and Pilates teachers, grass-mowers and hotel maids. But those jobs offer low pay and zero medical or retirement benefits, generally speaking.

Mr. Blinder is probably right about the futility of trade barriers. Globalization will continue to push labor to its cheapest locations; any effort to change that outcome will likely create more problems than it solves.

He is absolutely right to point out that this country needs to do much more to build up its social safety net and protect workers from the economic instability that will likely speed up in the next decade or so.

"At present," he notes, "the United States has one of the thinnest social safety nets in the industrialized world, and there seems to be little if any political force seeking to improve it."

Our political rhetoric is hopelessly outdated - conservatives dismiss attempts to broaden access to health insurance as "socialized medicine" - and our prejudices consume too much of our energy. The overheated rhetoric about illegal immigrant workers is just a distraction. They didn't kill the American industrial base, and they didn't cause the squeeze on the American middle class. They're just scapegoats - an easier target than the vast and amorphous forces eating away at our way of life.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is cynthia@ajc.com.

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