Globalization and the Tower of Babel
How can a debate on globalization marred by confusion of Babylonic proportions be made more accessable?
November 9, 2003
Globalization is much like the biblical Tower of Babel. The construction of a global economy has begun. Some are for it. Some are against it. Neither group knows exactly what "it'' is.
This economic Tower of Babel is being built without a set of construction plans. The necessary architectural drawings aren't even in the process of being drafted. Governments aren't thinking about the appropriate designs, since the tower is being privately built.
In fact, national governments would rather not think about globalization because it diminishes their role and their powers to control economic events.
The actual builders — private firms that are moving their economic activities around the world — don't think about the design and construction of the global economy, since each is small relative to what is being built.
For those who are true believers in the efficiency of private markets, there is no need to think about the institutions and rules of globalization. Whatever is necessary will simply evolve in the marketplace — without private thought or government action.
Markets will automatically set the necessary construction standards. As in the biblical Tower of Babel, those involved in constructing the global economy are speaking many different languages.
Globalization means many different things to many different people. Arguments for and against it are often self-contradictory.
Perhaps these different languages and the associated disputes will stop a global economy from being built — just as they stopped the biblical tower design to go to heaven from being built.
If so, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Have we prevented ourselves from getting to an economic heaven? Or have we prevented ourselves from over- reaching, trying to play God — and ending up in what will surely be an economic hell?
Anxieties are high. The violent anti-globalization demonstrations that have occurred at both public (WTO, IMF, World Bank, Seattle, Goteborg, Bologna) and private (Davos) global meetings in the last few years have delivered that message.
Although the number of actual demonstrators is few, I suspect that if tomorrow, every newspaper in the world were to have the headline "Globalization Ends," far more than half of humanity would feel relieved.
In global public opinion surveys, less than 20% of the population thinks the world is doing well.
Real disasters are almost never caused by a single factor alone. Investigators start with a jumble of possible causes that have to be sorted out to find the sequence of individual causes that together produced a particular disaster.
In the conflicting babble generated by the construction of our global economic tower, the problem is to distinguish noise from information — truth from fiction. The investigator begins by trying to separate out what is true and false in the different arguments.
Only when truth has been separated from fiction is it possible to add up the pluses and the minuses to determine whether we should accept or reject globalization.
But there is a third choice. The third choice is to build a global economy that eliminates some of the minuses that have been found.
Even if the initial summation indicates the benefits far exceed the minuses, the minuses can be further reduced. The global economy will partially evolve in response to foreseen and unforeseen uncontrollable forces.
But in the end it is a human — not geological — construction and can be built to different specifications. Globalization can be shaped.
In separating the facts from the fiction in all the babble about globalization, it is important to understand that the economic Tower of Babel looks different depending upon where you stand.
The rich and successful at the top of the tower see something quite different than do the poor just starting to climb the stairs at the bottom.
Those standing far away — outside of the global economy — see a tower with very different contours than what is seen by those working inside the tower.
Not surprisingly, the economically, militarily and politically large and powerful fear the construction of the tower much less than do those who are small and weak.
It is not that one of these perspectives is right and the others are wrong. Each focuses on different elements of the tower. All reflect some aspects of the truth.
No one can have all these perspectives simultaneously because no one can see the entire tower or the entire truth.
Globalization also comes in many forms, but the world will have to jointly choose the form of globalization it wants since globalization is a multilateral phenomenon.
Countries will not be able to pick and choose which form of globalization they would like to join.
There will be only one choice. But decisions as to the forms of globalization will be interactive. A country such as China may well end up having more impact on the rules for globalization than a country such as France.
Fifty years from now, few of us will be apt to say we work in the U.S. economy or the Japanese economy. We live in the United States or Japan, but we work in a global economy.
Professor of Management and Economics at MIT Sloan School of Management Lester Thurow has been a professor of management and economics at MIT for more than 30 years, beginning in 1968. He was dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management from 1987 until 1993. His formal academic work focuses on globalization, economic instability and […]