Monday, May 3, 2004


Jagdish Bhagwati

Oxford University Press, $28, 296 pages

Jagdish Bhagwati’s “In Defense of Globalization” is the kind of book that only an economist could love. But then, what’s love got to do with it?

Perhaps a great deal … if you care about the kind of world that globalization is bringing about.

Mr. Bhagwati is university professor of economics at Columbia University. He favors globalization, the process of creating a world in which anything can be made anywhere and sold anywhere, and giga-zillions of dollars can circumnavigate the planet with the merest of clicks.

However, only the first part — the making and selling of products and services — concerns us here. Capital flows, the author suggests, although volatile and capable of occasional tsunami-like destruction, matter less.

Mr. Bhagwati spends relatively little time refuting the usual suspect opponents of globalization, whom he considers to be: 1) overly young; 2) overly idealistic; 3) overly socialistic and 4) all of the above. The majority he dismisses as anarchists, ignoramuses and denizens of an NGO (non-governmental organization) world that, while capable of doing considerable good, usually gets it all mucked up.

This takes a chapter or two. Most of the rest of the book he devotes to proving that, although globalization isn’t perfect, it’s certainly better than the alternatives. To follow his reasoning, it helps to have a Ph.D. in economics (or at least to get somebody to lend you one). Those research studies he favors, and they are many, we non-economists must take on faith.

Likewise, the arguments of globalization’s academic critics he generally dismisses as “unconvincing” or “not persuasive” or words to that effect. Once again, if he says it, then it must be so.

It could be so. Personally, I’m much in agreement with him. But I’m no economist. And I have issues whenever I navigate the usual economics goulash of over-cited, under-explained studies and over-assumed postulates.

But of greater interest than what the author puts in is what he leaves out. He elides three critical items.

The first is economics’ Other Great Axiom. If it’s true that the invisible hand guides self-interested actors to produce the common good, it’s also true that in economics, everything is bad news for somebody. Mortgage rates go up: good for lenders, bad for borrowers. Mortgage rates go down: bad for lenders, good for borrowers.

Much of this endless disruption he dismisses as mere “micro-level” problems that sort themselves out over time. But he never even mentions the absolutely important and non-temporary problem of American job loss and immigrant influx. More people than Pat Buchanan’s Amen Corner are fretting this one.

A second problem is that the world is not filled with free-trading libertarians, and there is such a thing as economic warfare. China comes to mind. And given the desire of much of the world to see America taken down an exponential notch or two, and the potential uses of the euro as an international currency, we would do well to beware of walking into ambushes camouflaged as free trade.

Finally, as Mr. Bhagwati points out, economics deals in value, not values. Things that seem economically unimportant and tangential can be very important in other ways, and it’s not always the misguided idealists and screamers who make them so.

For example, half the species is female. This is not insignificant. Mr. Bhagwati shows genuine sympathy with the plight of the world’s women, but it’s a tangential sympathy here. Global sex trafficking rates barely a page; but this too is part of globalization, and immeasurably corrosive.

The author tends toward the standard argument that child labor for Nike or Gap may be better for the kids than hanging about in the villages and being exploited in more traditional ways. Point well taken. But the kids still belong in school, regardless of how firmly he asserts that education is no economic panacea.

Finally, he argues that multinationals should, as a matter of self-interest, show greater care regarding labor and environmental practices because the world is watching. But who got the world to watch? All those NGOs he finds so ignorant.

In sum, globalization is neither sin nor salvation. It’s a fact of life, a movement, a tool. And its potential is best realized, as Mr. Bhagwati argues, by not defining it too closely, regulating it too rigidly or expecting too much uniformity. Let the micro-aspect — real people — tend to the differences. In the end, all globalization, like all politics, is local.

And that’s grounds for hope.

Philip Gold is president of Aretea, a public and cultural affairs center, and author of the forthcoming book “Take Back the Right.”

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