2020年12月8日 星期二

The strange death of global shmobal

Not such a small world after all.
Shipping containers at the Port of Seattle in August 2019.Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Author Headshot

By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

Many years ago, when I was still a youngish academic on the make, my late parents gave me a gift — a sweatshirt decorated with the words “global shmobal.” At the time, you see, I was going to many, many international conferences. And when my parents asked what the conference in Milan, or São Paulo or Tokyo was about, I apparently routinely answered “global shmobal.”

And why not? When I decided, in grad school, to specialize in the study of international trade and finance, there were surprisingly few Americans in the field — it didn’t seem all that important to a big country with what was at the time a mainly inward-looking economy. But in the years that followed, as world trade grew by leaps and bounds, global economics began to attract a lot of attention, which among other things meant a lot of conferences.

We’re not just talking about academic attention, either. The broader public was also fascinated by global shmobal. Over the course of my adult life, there have been two blockbuster economics best sellers: Lester Thurow’s 1992 “Head to Head” and my colleague Tom Friedman’s 2005 “The World Is Flat.” Both books saw international economic competition as the central issue of the future, although Thurow thought it would be competition among advanced countries while Friedman, writing during the “China shock,” saw the world as, well, flatter, with almost every country in the fight to attract business and capital.

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But a funny thing happened just a few years after “The World Is Flat” came out — or so it seems to me. I can’t quantify this, but my sense is that the issue-engaged public — the kind of people who probably bought Thurow’s and Friedman’s books, who take an interest in world affairs — got a lot less interested in global shmobal.

Oddly, one of the few influential people who stayed obsessed with international trade and investment flows, at least until he shifted his focus to trying to overturn the election he lost, was President Donald Trump. But Trump’s trade wars were very much his own idea; they never had much of a constituency (and business, of course, hated them). Trump tried to portray President-elect Joe Biden as a patsy for China, but it never really stuck.

Why did global competition fade from prominence in the public mind? Part of the answer is that the great surge in world trade from the mid-1980s until around 2008 turns out to have been a one-time event. We haven’t seen anything like a collapse in world trade, but the share of trade in world production has on average been, um, flat since 2008. The Economist has labeled this condition, where international linkages are stagnating, “slowbalization.”

This slowdown in globalization isn’t a terrible thing; as I recently tried to explain in a wonkish little paper, there’s no law saying that world trade must grow as a share of the world economy. Globalization is driven by a race between the technology of transportation and the technology of domestic production, and there’s no reason transportation must consistently win. But slowbalization certainly makes global shmobal less sexy, so interest shifts to other issues.

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Beyond that, my sense is that a growing number of people have come to appreciate something that breathless talk about global competition tended to obscure: We have met the enemy, and they are us.

This is very much true when it comes to economic issues: Conflicts of interest within countries are much more important than conflicts of interest between countries. And although it’s a terrible thing to say, recent political events have taught Americans, at least, to fear the rising power of some groups within this country more than we fear some hypothetical threat from abroad.

Obviously the world is still out there, and while world trade may be stagnating, it’s still much bigger than it was a few decades ago. But America’s future will be defined by what we do at home, not on some global playing field.

Quick Hits

Despite the trade war, China’s trade surplus is rising.

Economists don’t think it matters.

Slowbalization or just another phase of globalization?

Was it always just globaloney?

Feedback

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Facing the Music

Well, it has “world” in the titleYouTube

Not exactly about globalization, but whatever.

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