Globalization has been hugely beneficial to Asia. Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, and China have reaped lasting benefits from worldwide investment flows, knowledge exchanges, and rapid economic growth. And while globalization undoubtedly made the rich even richer, the poor also benefitted.
Several Asian economies saw the emergence of a large middle class and the virtual elimination of poverty. The rural poor received higher wages after finding better quality manufacturing jobs in urban centers. And with improvements in technology and expanded trade, there was optimism about job prospects. In ethnically diverse societies such as Malaysia, globalization contributed significantly to the reduction of racial tensions rather than exacerbate them, contrary to what is happening in the West.
There is no question that the West has also benefited from globalization. The United Kingdom and the United States have seen huge gains in the services sector, especially in financial services. However, the accompanying income inequality is of a different hue than in Asia. Younger, better educated workers located in cosmopolitan urban centers such as New York and London have seen a phenomenal increase in their income. On the other hand, older, less educated workers in the rusting industrial belts of northern England and America have lost their jobs to manufacturers overseas. Instead of jobs with good growth prospects enjoyed by several generations in the past, the quality of jobs has deteriorated and there is little hope among the rust belt’s working class that this situation can be turned around. Worst, there is a perception that politicians don’t care. The recent voting patterns in the U.S. and the U.K. are a clear reflection of this despondence.
How did Asia achieve a shared prosperity from globalization with consistent domestic political support while the rich countries have struggled and are suffering the political blowback?
The answer may lie in the heavy investment made by Asian governments in human capital (education and health) to prepare the workforce to take advantage of the high wage manufacturing jobs created by globalized investment. This was complemented by public investment in infrastructure to continue to attract foreign investment. The fiscal deficits associated with large public investment in human capital and physical infrastructure were tolerated because the political and economic benefits of preparing the workforce for new jobs were considered worthwhile objectives.
Both the U.S. and the U.K, in contrast, have underinvested in infrastructure and in “skilling up” the labor force to make the transition to new and better jobs from the ones lost to lower wage workers in Asia. In the U.K, it happened under the watch of the incumbent conservative government. While presenting to Parliament the result of the recent referendum to the European Union, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke proudly of leaving behind a sound economy resting on the pillar of a sharp fiscal retrenchment—low taxes and even lower public expenditure. One result of this “sound” economy is that a large number of people are stuck in dead-end jobs and are looking for opportunities to vent their frustration.
In the U.S., the Obama administration has been hemmed in by the recalcitrant Republican Congress. Badly needed public investment in health and education to prepare workers and an overdue upgrade of infrastructure to attract investment have been thwarted by a Congress wedded to fiscal austerity. This has prolonged the pain of transition to new jobs.
The long and painful transition to productive jobs has resulted in the clamor for reneging on globalization commitments. This is misplaced because protecting jobs that are best done elsewhere is not possible without putting curbs on investment. That would be moving towards a world that globalizes misery. There is thus no alternative to a proactive government that eases the transition to new jobs in rich countries.
Of course, Asia had the advantage of preparing its work force for known job streams. Rich countries, on the other hand, have to discover new productive jobs. However, we do know that discovery is more likely if education standards improve, physical infrastructure is cutting edge, and science and research are well-funded.
Rich countries don’t have to give up on manufacturing as a source of employment. Germany has shown the way to creating high-end manufacturing jobs in a rich-country setting. It has a highly skilled work force that produces technology-intensive products which generate a large trade surplus. There is little support in Germany for reneging on global commitments.
Dying cities, dead-end jobs, and a seemingly uncaring government feed into the perception that living standards will continue to fall. Demagogues exploiting ethnicity point the finger at immigrants and have succeeded in directing rich-country worker ire at them. This is a far cry from the democratic vision rich democracies should aspire to and is not in any away a solution to these problems. The protest should be aimed, instead, at elected governments to play their role in facilitating the transition to the next generation of jobs.
The world has paid heavily for Europe’s nationalistic ambitions—colonial subjugation of Africa and Asia and the two world wars are the most egregious examples. The EU is an attempt to tame those impulses by seeking to cooperatively address common challenges instead of competing for narrower nationalistic objectives. The dissolution of the EU and the weakening of other multilateral institutions because of rich countries’ failure to rise up to the globalization challenge would be truly retrogressive.