Thursday, March 31, 2016

Our Incredible Shrinking Globe

Jeffrey E. Garten, From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives

It’s exceedingly difficult to separate books about economic forces from one’s opinion about these forces. Yale economist Jeffrey E. Garten has crafted a remarkable book about globalization, anchored not to abstruse mathematics and distant political machinations, but to the biographies of ten exceptional people who pioneered modern transnationalism. This book is readable, informative, and personable. But this old Distributist can’t help thinking Garten has overlooked his most important points.

Most readers understand globalization, if not from high-speed bond trades and massive offshoring of blue-collar jobs, then from election-year stump speeches about trade deficits and the TPP. Garten recasts this debate in personal, humane terms. Enterprising individuals devised ways that goods, populations, and ideas could move freely, unshackled by prior limitations. This ambitious invention puts all human experience within ordinary persons’ grasp, though never without cost.

Garten unpacks ten important lives that, in various ways, made our world smaller and more accessible. Some are world leaders, like Genghis Khan, Margaret Thatcher, and Deng Xiaoping. Some are financiers and business leaders, like banker Mayer Amschel Rothschild, oil baron John D. Rockefeller, and Intel CEO Andrew Grove. And some you’ve never heard of, like communications entrepreneur Cyrus Field and revolutionary statesman Jean Monnet.

To a certain extent, Garten acknowledges globalization’s loaded, explosive implications. He describes “the two sides of globalization—the dislocation and destruction that it can inflict and the peace, modernization, and prosperity that it can create.” Sounds fair-minded, right? But this quote describes Genghis Khan, a name virtually synonymous with violent nationalism and rapacity. Not exactly a name the Trans-Pacific Partnership sponsors want hung on their efforts.

Jeffrey E. Garten
Admittedly, as Garten describes, Genghis standardized commerce along the Silk Road (thus this book’s title), separated governance from religion, and established history’s first trans-continental postal service. He also slaughtered dissidents, starved peasants, and shipped the spoils of war home to Mongolia, which produced nothing besides warriors. That thread, of how globalization concentrates power and its attendant wealth upward, permeates this entire book—though the implicit downsides are often buried.

It’s possible to repeat this critical pattern with nearly every chapter. Yes, Prince Henry the Navigator opened trans-oceanic trade and scientific inquiry. He also quickly jettisoned his putative moral justifications in favor of trade, especially the slave trade, a generation before Columbus. Mayer Rothschild created pan-European banking connections that permitted money to trade as freely as goods. He also funded both sides of the Napoleonic Wars, probably prolonging the violence.

Garten’s first three biographies are of out-and-out imperialists: Genghis Khan, Prince Henry, and Robert Clive, the Englishman who subdued India. Of Garten’s ten biographies, only two don’t require Garten to paper over something completely awful: Cyrus Field, who masterminded the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable, and Jean Monnet, who laid the diplomatic foundations for the EU. And given the ongoing Euro crisis, Garten must acknowledge well-founded, if blinkered, criticisms of Monnet.

I have two favorite quotes. After an entire chapter lavishing praise upon Margaret Thatcher for undoing the postwar welfare state, steamrolling workers’ rights, and glorifying the financial services industry, Garten writes: “Indeed, the very connectedness that Thatcher’s policies encouraged has created a counter-requirement for more cushions, more redundancies, more advance planning to avert catastrophes—in other words, more government involvement.” That feels like the lede, not a summing-up thought.

Shortly thereafter, Garten writes: “Along among the industry leaders, [Andrew] Grove had the courage to respond to industry slumps by cutting budgets, cutting jobs, and forcing staff to work longer for less money.” Wow, that’s courageous. Did workloads and paychecks return to pre-slump levels? Not according to one IT professional I know in California. Grove, alongside Jobs and Gates, engineered what Jill Andresky Fraser calls the White-Collar Sweatshop.

Rereading everything I’ve written, I realize it appears I hate this book. Not so: Garten has crafted an engaging, human-centered history of a force most private citizens probably consider an impersonal mass. He separates globalization’s facts from the slogans which dominate both sides of the debate, and expounds details too difficult to fit on a protester’s placard. He opened this old Distributist’s eyes to implications I’d never considered.

Rather, I mean Garten writes from a particular position, with a particular goal. His writing serves that goal. Smart, critical audiences can profitably read this book, while recognizing the limitations Garten has set himself. By making globalization human, Garten makes its costs humane. I can express my reservations in straight, uncluttered English, as I couldn’t a week ago. I wish more policy debates were as human-scale and flexible as this.

No comments:

Post a Comment