SYNOPSIS: Restates position that globalization is a positive force.
This week the Swiss ski resort of Davos, once the home of a sanitarium, will play host once again to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum -- a unique gathering of the world's business and political elite. I last attended five years ago, even though the forum has officially declared me a G.L.T. (that's Global Leader of Tomorrow -- hold the mayo), which I think means that I have a standing invitation. But I'm sure that my first impression will be similar. After all, the sight of all those wealthy and important people in the same place, with scores of famous intellectuals in attendance, surely inspires the same thought in even the most cynical of observers:
Come the revolution, we shoot these people first.
O.K., not really. But the scene at Davos -- the superrich and their trophy wives schmoozing with officials elected and appointed, the lavish parties thrown by third-world nations, and so on -- represents a sort of distilled essence of everything that people love to hate about the New World Order. Those on both left and right who view globalization as a sort of conspiracy by rootless cosmopolitans against the rest of us could hardly have asked for a better spectacle.
As it happens, I am one of those who believe that globalization is overwhelmingly, though not entirely, a good thing. So the instinctive negative reaction that even someone like me feels toward "Davos Man" (a phrase coined by the political scientist Samuel Huntington) suggests just how serious a public relations problem now faces the global economy in which Davos Man flourishes.
The reality is that globalization makes the world a richer place, but the wealth it creates goes disproportionately to two sorts of people. On one side are those who benefit from vastly improved access to technology and capital -- which is to say, workers in developing countries. On the other are those in advanced countries who, directly or indirectly, have technology and capital to sell -- which means the rich and the highly educated. Largely left out of the party, possibly even made worse off, are those who fall into neither category. Most conspicuously, competition from those newly productive third-world workers is one, though probably not the most important, of the reasons that real wages of many American workers have stagnated or even declined over the last 25 years.
It is, to be honest, a picture that contains some shadows. Still, if you ask about the overall effect on the human condition, globalization has been a huge force for good. Just ask the South Koreans, who have telescoped three centuries of European progress into the last 40 years; or even ask the Bangladeshis, who remain desperately poor but whose export industries have kept them from sliding into Malthusian catastrophe. You could say -- and I would -- that globalization, driven not by human goodness but by the profit motive, has done far more good for far more people than all the foreign aid and soft loans ever provided by well-intentioned governments and international agencies.
But in saying this, I know from experience that I have guaranteed myself a barrage of hate mail. For there is another kind of person -- Seattle Man? -- who is passionately committed to a simpler view, without any ambiguities. Seattle Man believes that globalization is purely and simply a way for capitalists to exploit the world's workers. He contrasts the wealth and privilege of global movers and shakers with the poverty of sweatshop workers, and gets angry if you try to suggest that those sweatshops are better than the alternative (let alone that they might, as in South Korea, be the first step on the way to first-world living standards). Seattle Man, in short, does not believe that most of the world is still poor because development is hard to do; he is looking for villains. And in places like Davos he has found putative villains who might have been chosen by Central Casting.
Now with some exceptions the people who will be at Davos aren't really villains: they are no worse, though a lot richer, than the rest of us. But they have an image problem, one that threatens the process of the globalization for which they stand. Will the great and (in some cases) good who meet this week find answers to that problem? Stay tuned.
Originally published in The New York Times, 1.23.00