Much has been made in these pages (and in just about every journal that covers business, economics or politics) about globalization. One of the best known treatments may be New York Times columnist Tom Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, which examined what he called the "flatteners"—the technological, process, and other developments that have driven and continue to drive the phenomenon.
Globalization has clearly brought great prosperity to some parts of the world and to many businesses. But it has also cost many workers and businesses dearly. As manufacturing, and increasingly, service industries move forward with their searches for the lowest-cost places to do business, many of those who perceive themselves as victims of globalization have begun to push back.
In a report on globalization and its critics in its Jan. 20 issue, The Economist magazine looked at the uneven distribution of benefits and costs that come from globalization and how nations and industries might respond.
As The Economist reports, the ease with which not just industries, but individual jobs can be outsourced has even the gainfully employed feeling insecure about their future. That sense of insecurity is something that business leaders cannot disdain. When factories close or a computer technician's job gets exported, the pain reaches beyond the individuals involved to their families and communities. Although powerful economic forces favor continued globalization, powerful political forces aimed at restraining it are gaining more traction. The instinct to raise barriers to protect jobs and important industries can be a powerful one, but is probably self-defeating in the long run: The pace of technological gain and business innovation, The Economist suggests, would soon overwhelm most trade barriers. And barriers thrown up to protect one industry may end up impeding others, as we saw in the wrong-headed effort to protect the steel industry a few years ago, which drove up production costs for, among others, material handling manufacturers.
The Economist joins others in urging nations instead to take a long view, accede that the laws of economics favor continued globalization, and help their workers with policies and programs that enable them to become more nimble and mobile. That does mean investing money in education and in training and retraining programs. It means facing up to some of the most worrisome issues confronting the nation: health care and pensions, and implementing policies that allow workers to keep their health and pension benefits when they change jobs. Those who support free trade had better find ways like those and others to reassure working people or risk facing the backlash.