Sunday, November 7, 2010

But Dr. Bhagwati, How?

Expanding trade and the increasing inter connectivity of global markets forces questions about the free exchange of goods and labor. It is inevitable that we should hear arguments from both positions, the merits of which are occasionally excellent and occasionally misinformed. Dr. Bhagwati offers a lens to consider these possibilities.

During this reading, I was reminded of an argument I was exposed to two years ago. Please consider: exposure to toxic compounds over a lifetime is likely to reduce the longevity of a population to an average age of 45. In the developed world, these theoretical exposures would cause the average longevity to drop about 35 years. However, if we learn that the average lifespan in Elbonia is 45 years, it would seem that the best location for global stockpiles of hazardous materials would be Elbonia.

It seems theoretically that this "solution" would work. but a theory without evidence is a molecule without elements. One might be frightened to recall the electronics stripping happening at landfills in third world countries. Discarded Walkmans and outdated word processors lie half buried, the heavy rains and acidic conditions promoting dissolution of cadmium, zinc, mercury, selenium and lead into the local water supplies and oceans. Children scavenge for processors and copper to earn enough for part of a meal, all because someone made money by capitalizing on negative externalities. Sounds like a solution from the Third Reich.

The rebuttal provided by Bhagwati offers that this is not a permanent condition. Consider the island of Formosa. Taiwan was ruled by a strict authoritarian regime after WWII, suffering from environmental degradation, and her people were apparently condemned to deplorable conditions for their short lives. The predictions of Bhagwati seem to be a tiny bit more accurate. Increased wealth helps the Taiwanese climb out of poverty. Their immediate needs met, they realize that their air is the wrong color (not clear). Their push for environmental protection foreshadows a general campaign for worker safety, gender equality, child labor laws, medical care, and voting.

Taiwan is not the only example where globalization has brought societal improvement. My trouble with the globalization movement is that we are permanently damaged while we wait for the turnaround. All that mercury seeping into the ocean means that pregnant women and children shouldn't eat tuna. Those child labor laws are put in place after children are sent to factories. It is a value judgment: do the ends justify the means, or is it fundamentally wrong to allow the condition regardless of the outcome?

Bhagwati offers a detour from the ethical question by suggesting "Globalism works; but we can make it work better". How can we create the desired future without the painful process that every developed nation has passed through? My tuna has problems that won't reverse for decades; evidence suggests Pacific salmon is developing the same fate. The anti-globalization types are asking, how? I am asking, how?

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