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The Many Tongues of Globalization

Is language responsible for all the controversy surrounding globalization?

May 10, 2002

Is language responsible for all the controversy surrounding globalization?

Globalization, much like “privatization”, is an awkward word — one which no poet would ever dream of using. It is also a word that, thus far, defies any definition.

For instance, when I looked in the online version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for “globalization,” my search turned up 36 suggested articles — ranging from electrical equipment, automobiles, Swiss trade and finance, the Commonwealth summit, Western Europe, to paints and varnishes.

There doesn’t seem to be an entry as yet for the word “globalization” itself. It is, I think, symptomatic of the uncertainty that still surrounds the concept — more than 150 years after Mr. Marx and Mr. Engels took a first stab at it.

Much of the current debate on globalization reminds me of the classic movie “Rashomon.” The film focuses on a party of medieval Japanese travelers who are held up in a forest by savage bandits. Five witnesses explain what they saw — five completely different events.

In a similar way, lawyers, economists and other professionals within the “establishment” each view globalization in totally different terms. Whether it is a hydroelectric dam, an international investment treaty or a shoe factory, their discussions and representations of the pros and cons may not seem part of the same universe.

Much of this is due to different “universes of discourse” — and to each professional’s different set of analytical tools — and incentives.

Economists, for example, are used to comparing both costs and benefits. That approach to issues is likely to be quite alien to environmentalists — who often analyze situations in terms of the threat to bio-diversity.

Likewise, economists are trained to consider trade-offs between alternative “good” or “bad,” while some other social scientists are trained to think in terms of absolute “good” and “bad.”

Economists — like business people — also believe that resources can be mobilized and combined so as to increase wealth. Indeed, “growing the pie” is the very essence of development economics, a discipline grounded in humanism.

Conversely, environmentalists see profit-based economic systems as “zero-sum-games.” They see the “size of the pie” — that is, the amount of real resources available on the planet — as finite. Such a view makes the distribution of these “goodies” among various segments of the population the crucial factor in any discussion.

But it is not only ways of thinking that differ enormously. Evidence, and the rules for what constitute acceptable evidence, are also subject to debate.

The qualitative fieldwork methods commonly used by anthropologists are disparaged by economists or engineers as “anecdotes that don’t prove anything.” Consequently, most professionals who deal with clients on a one-on-one basis (as do doctors or social workers) would not dream of allowing their judgments to be guided by formal mathematical models.

As George Orwell predicted, (interestingly, the word globalization had not been invented when he published “Politics and the English Language” in 1947) the languages used by multiple professional disciplines ultimately result in semantic confusion. Not surprisingly, each discipline claims the high ground.

As an example, let us look at the use of the words “free” and “fair” — as in “free trade” versus “fair trade.” These words are often employed by interested groups (for example, labor unions) in order to advocate certain labor market or trade restrictions which end up benefiting these groups’ members — but are detrimental to those outside that group. From an economist’s viewpoint, such rules are the opposite of “free” or “fair.”

For another example, take the “fair wage” rules which a number of affluent local governments have enacted in the United States. These require that anybody working for a government contractor must be paid at least twice (and sometimes more) the national minimum wage.

The rationale is that these counties should only accept “quality work.” But the real effect may be to drive up costs and taxes — and to exclude workers who are offering their labor at the minimum wage from being employed.

To an economist, the results are clear: Poverty will increase — and inequality will worsen. That is hardly a desirable result, which upsets those advocating balanced social outcomes.

Many of those in other professions, however, will dispute these findings. In such debates, as in many other instances, economists find themselves being castigated for being insensitive to human suffering.

Perhaps that is why there are so many economist jokes. But before other professions start laughing too hard, they should realize that there are also many lawyer jokes, engineer jokes — and so forth.

Evidently, the public-at-large recognizes that these professions have highly idiosyncratic ways of thinking about the world. Not only are these views often at odds with general public perceptions, but also with one another.

I am an economist. Like most of my colleagues I think that when the price of a product goes up, this is likely to be the result of a changing balance between supply and demand. On the other hand, according to a 1996 survey, 70% of Americans believe that when prices go up, it is mainly because companies are trying to manipulate prices to increase profits.

In the same way, 90% of economists surveyed think that trade agreements are good for the economy, but only 55% of the general public agrees. Likewise, economists tend to believe that technological change — rather than imports from developing countries — causes job-destruction and widens wage disparities. Once again, the public believes the opposite.

Such lack of common ground among highly educated professionals (and between those professionals and the general public) makes rational discussion, let alone achieving consensus, extremely difficult. Semantic uncertainty, and the frustrations stemming from a perceived misunderstanding by other parties, tend to charge globalization debates with high degrees of emotion.

That may explain why violence often surrounds these debates. This is especially true when globalization discussions touch on the more intimate aspects of people’s identities — such as food, schools and who shares one’s neighborhood.

Politicians sense, correctly, that the language of economics comes across as being abstract, dry — and to most people unconvincing. In contrast, they have learned that the language used by environmentalists is found by many people to be emotionally, if not always intellectually, appealing.

This is probably why, when politicians speak about globalization, they speak very carefully. The harsh realities of the market are couched in phrases such as “globalization with a human face.” It is an acknowledgement, perhaps, of the gap between languages — and the concepts that underpin it.