Sunday, December 29, 2002

By Tyler Cowen
Princeton University Press, $27.95, 178 pages

What with the trashed McDonald’s eateries, the serial streets riots at international gatherings, and the confusion of voices ranging from the anti-fluoridation right to the anarchist left, the vehemence of the modern anti-globalization movement has been matched only by its incoherence.
So it is one of the many virtues of Tyler Cowen’s mostly pro-globalization “Creative Destruction” that the author gives some of the most lucid explanations to date of the double-edged impact of markets on culture, even if in the end he finds that most of the anti-globalization critique falls short.
Subtitled “How Globalization is Changing the World’s Cultures,” Mr. Cowen’s short but rich study focuses on one area where even the most ardent internationalists feel a certain unease the impact the global market and the imperatives of supply and demand have on some of the world’s more distinctive and vulnerable cultures, cuisines, crafts and artists.
A Pizza Hut franchise does booming business in the heart of Florence. Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger dominate in Canadian and Belgian multiplexes. Michael Jackson and Brittney Spears hog the playlists on Middle East and Japanese radios.
Are we as Americans supposed to be proud or appalled?
Mr. Cowen, who heads the free-market Buchanan Center for Political Economy at Fairfax’s George Mason University, freely admits the dismal science can’t make ultimate aesthetic judgments on the way trade shapes artistic activity. But the author does use insights drawn from classical economics to expose some of the shallower anti-globalization critiques and skewer the hidden, often inconsistent agenda behind much of the criticism of American cultural hegemony.
The book’s basic point is that cultural globalization can increase the diversity of choices for the individual while reducing the diversity between societies across the globe. I can sip Turkish coffee while listening to Haitian compas music on my Japanese CD player, but the fact that I can makes Turkey, Haiti and Japan all a little less distinctive, a little less special.
“It is misleading to speak of diversity as a single concept, as societies exhibit many kinds of diversity,” writes Mr. Cowen. “For instance, diversity within society refers to the richness of the menu of choice in that society. Many critics of globalization, however, focus on diversity across societies. This concept refers to whether each society offers the same menu, and whether societies are becoming more similar.”
“These two kinds of diversity often move in opposite directions.”
It is in the case studies that “Creative Destruction” really takes off, and in example after example, Mr. Cowen demonstrates that the anti-globalization critique is either overstated or misguided.
Indian handwoven textiles the centerpiece of Gandhi’s cultural fight against British imperialism in fact received a massive boost from Western technology and the links to international markets provided by Queen Victoria’s agents. Mill-made yarn, railroads, and international capital support “have done more to boost Indian handweaving than to destroy it,” Mr. Cowen writes.
Even seemingly distinct native cultures have their roots in unexpected cross-fertilizations provided by trade and international markets.
The serrated, zig-zag patterns of popular Navajo blankets actually borrow heavily from Islamic designs transmitted through Spanish traders in the early centuries of contact between European and Native American cultures. The great Trinidadian steel drum ensembles were influenced by Indian tassa drum techniques brought by the island’s South Asian immigrants and obtained their first instruments 50-gallon oil drums built by multinational energy conglomerates and left behind by U.S. troops after World War II.
Mr. Cowen’s chapter on “Why Hollywood Rules the World, and Whether We Should Care” is alone worth the price of the book. Cinema, the author admits, is “one of the hard cases for globalization,” particularly in light of endless European complaints about the dominance of U.S. movies to the detriment of native filmmakers.
In this case, Mr. Cowen’s economic background proves valuable in skewering the anti-globalization argument.
For one thing, he notes, American global movie dominance isn’t complete. The vibrantly capitalist film industries in India and Hong Kong, for instance, have won paying customers far beyond their borders. American television exports have not been nearly as successful, and the major U.S. Spanish-language channels actually import most of their programming from Mexican and other Latin American producers.
Hollywood has been able to assemble a cluster of box-office stars, top-line directors, deep-pocket producers, and technical experts that no competitor can match. But Mr. Cowen notes that complaints that U.S. producers can thus “dump” their product on helpless Belgian and Canadian moviegoers actually makes no sense in classical economic terms.
“If the critics are correct that Hollywood’s fundamental advantage is on the cost side for film rentals, we should observe relatively empty theaters for American films in Europe,” Mr. Cowen notes, since “those films would be carried primarily for their cheapness, not for their popularity.”
But “when American movies are shown in Europe, the critics complain that the theaters are full.”
The real culprit is the subsidized nature of many European film markets, Mr. Cowen argues, which “encourages producers to serve domestic demand and the wishes of politicians and cinematic bureaucrats, rather than produce movies for international export.”
Mr. Cowen underscores that cultural globalization is and always has been a dynamic process. Astonishing nodes of cultural genius can flourish and then flare out in the most unlikely places, from Pericles’ Athens to Bob Marley’s Jamaica. It can be an unsettling, disruptive process, but Mr. Cowen’s book argues persuasively that it is a more creative way to go than the misguided cultural nostalgia peddled by the anti-globalization crowd.

David Sands is diplomatic correspondent on the foregn desk of The Washington Times.

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