A new economic and political challenge is haunting Western democracies: managing the discontents created by globalization.
Elites continue to advocate movement toward a more globalized world. International trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership enjoy support from many economists, business leaders, and government officials. To the affluent or politically connected, the increasingly swift pace of the movement of people and goods seems both inevitable and desirable.
Popular opinion, however, has turned against globalization. Both major U.S. political parties currently feature presidential candidates who support relatively protectionist trade policy. British citizens voted to leave the European Union, citing a need for political and economic autonomy and the reassertion of UK sovereignty. A wide variety of nationalist parties in Europe, like National Front in France and Jobbik in Hungary, support stronger states, weaker EU institutions, and the protection of traditional values.
This disconnect between elites and the masses arose in part from the basic reality of globalization: its benefits are not equally distributed, and the most obvious winners tend to be those who were economically and politically privileged in the first place.
To a business executive, increasing profits by automating jobs, hiring low-skilled immigrants, or moving manufacturing overseas is a positive opportunity—and one that benefits society by providing cheaper goods to consumers. To the worker unemployed as a result, the global movement of people, technology, and capital has just claimed a way of making a living. The secondary effects of globalization, such as cheaper goods and the lifting of millions out of poverty, are not immediately clear and are of little consolation to the individual casualties of globalization’s advance. In this way, a complex phenomenon is reduced to a blanket positive by those it helps and a blanket negative by those it hurts.
This oversimplification of globalization’s effects limits the debate around its benefits and drawbacks, causing political polarization around the issue. It is clear leaders must address the globalization disconnect. But how? Do advanced democracies simply need to “re-narrate” globalization—that is, draw more attention to its positives that otherwise might go unnoticed? Or must they enact policy solutions to make globalization’s advance more inclusive, so that, in addition to its traditional beneficiaries, it lifts up a larger percentage of the population in the process?
Re-narration might involve a concentrated effort by public officials, educational institutions, and media to promote the positive effects of globalization on people who believe it to have none. In a world where supermarkets seem perpetually stocked and the source of products is never considered, many people are oblivious to the role free trade agreements and cheap manufacturing overseas play in ensuring low-priced, readily available goods. Politicians can work to create a culture of public discourse in which objectivity is respected over partisanship—though it remains unclear how to move in this direction.
“In a world where supermarkets seem perpetually stocked and the source of products is never considered, many people are oblivious to the role free trade agreements and cheap manufacturing overseas play in ensuring low-priced, readily available goods.”
But re-narration alone is likely not enough. There are real economic costs to globalization, and clarifying its benefits without proposing solutions for these costs would not address the root cause of public opposition. Income inequality is higher than it has been in decades and continues to rise. Though unemployment in the United States is approaching pre-recession levels, many people counted as employed have jobs that do not pay a living wage. Certain jobs—as anti-globalization groups maintain—have indeed moved to developing countries, and many service industry workers hold two or more jobs in order to make ends meet.
This brings policymakers to a new question: What exactly is “inclusive globalization,” and how can we create it? In a 2002 address at Yale University, then Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan discussed the concept, saying, “One way to address this new division—between those who are benefiting from globalization, and those who simply see it as one more manifestation of the inequity of the world—is to pursue an inclusive globalization whose purpose lies not only in opening markets, but in expanding opportunity and promoting cooperation.”
His framing of the divide, and the solution to it, has interesting implications. Annan suggests “opening markets” alone is not enough to make globalization inclusive—yet the opening of markets and expansion of global access to capital are key principles of economic globalization. Even as he attempts to bridge the divide between both sides of the globalization debate, he understands the phenomenon is, in some ways, a “manifestation of inequity,” and that the societies it affects must be made more equitable.
Policymakers in Western democracies grappling with anti-globalization movements must confront the realities of the modern economy. They should work to make their societies more equitable in an effort to counter the inequality that globalization has facilitated. A more progressive tax system and a stronger social safety net would help workers affected by low-skilled immigration and outsourcing. A higher minimum wage will assuage problems caused by underemployment, ensuring that workers do not have to work multiple jobs to get by.
More government support for educational programs targeting the groups most negatively affected by globalization would help workers whose skills are no longer needed transition to new careers. The New America Foundation’s Opportunity@Work program is an example of an innovative approach to this problem: it links driven individuals with non-traditional technical education programs and companies willing to hire graduates of these programs. Through solutions like Opportunity@Work, governments can help displaced workers learn 21st century skills without paying thousands in educational costs.
“A more progressive tax system and a stronger social safety net would help workers affected by low-skilled immigration and outsourcing. A higher minimum wage will assuage problems caused by underemployment, ensuring that workers do not have to work multiple jobs to get by.”
Along with economic inclusion, policymakers must address social challenges. As the growth of anti-immigrant and right-wing nationalist sentiment in many European countries shows, more equitable economic policy does not make populations less hostile to cultural differences. Racial and religious discrimination make societies less cohesive and create obstacles to socioeconomic progress for entire demographic groups. Policies meant to help working people who have been “left behind” by globalization often implicitly focus on the white working class and ignore the intersection of racial and economic challenges faced by low-income minorities.
Strengthening community organizations may also prove a solution to the political disconnect felt by many opponents of globalization. Religious groups, unions, local advocacy groups, and other non-governmental organizations that help members engage with their communities give people a sense of dignity and agency, and allow them to communicate policy preferences in an organized manner.
It will not be easy to make globalization more inclusive. Equity and inclusivity are difficult to legislate, especially in societies subjected to forces that pull them toward inequality and discrimination. Neither the loudest proponents nor the loudest opponents of globalization will find themselves fully blameless for the current state of inequality. Yet it is possible to create more inclusive societies and a world where the benefits of economic trends are spread more reasonably. Through top-down policy changes and bottom-up community efforts, globalization’s advocates and detractors should be able to meet in the middle.
Image: Cumbre de Líderes de América del Norte 2016 (Flickr, Presidencia de la República Mexicana)
Meghan Bodette is a student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service studying international politics and the former Finance Director for a campaign for State Representative in Massachusetts. She is interested in international relations theory and foreign policy, is studying Spanish and Russian, and has volunteered with a presidential campaign. Follow her on Twitter and Medium.