Wednesday, February 10

Is this the end of globalization? The Chopsticks Manifesto


Recently John Batchelor began worrying aloud on his radio show about whether the new nuclear arms race between Russia and the USA portended the end of globalization. Well, yeah, if we nuke each other probably that would do it for globalized trade. 

But then John wanted to ruminate on whether increased nationalism spelled the end of globalization, so a couple weeks ago he put the question to Michael Vlahos and Gregory Copley, with inconclusive conclusions to my ears.

Gregory sounded more worried about the end of civilization than globalization, and Vlahos (I always refer to Vlahos as Vlahos) seemed more interested in how very rich elites were reacting to the sound of guillotines being wheeled into their neighborhoods.      

But to my mind John got his answer last night during Stephen Cohen's latest discussion with him about Russia. Steve mentioned that when Russian farmers noticed there was no cheese in Moscow they said, 'Hey, there's no cheese in Moscow! Let's make cheese!'

The backstory is that President Putin got upset about the ongoing sanctions imposed on Russia by Europe so finally he said, 'Okay, no more French cheese.' 

This was devastating to French cheese exporters and Muscovite lovers of French-made cheese, but as Steve pointed out cheese is cheese to most Russians.

He added that Russia's pre-sanction import situation was nuts; the nation, the largest territorial one in the world, imported 90 percent of its food.

The IMF would snap, 'What's nuts about that?' and certainly from the viewpoint of Worldbankia Civilization a nation importing 90 percent of its food makes perfect sense. But the wild-eyed revolutionaries -- and our ranks have swelled since the 2008 financial crash -- do consider it a nutty measure of economic success when a nation gets so tangled up with imports it loses the ability to feed itself. Or so tangled with exports that a suspension of trade in a single commodity or product can spell doom for the exporting nation.

Gregory Copley put it well a few weeks ago on John's show -- in fact, he nailed it -- when he spoke about the critical importance of a nation mustering "strategic self-sufficiency." The point was made by Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej when he noted during a talk about his Sufficiency Philosophy that sometimes it's necessary for a society to take a careful step back.

There's nothing wrong with globalization but globalization isn't the issue when global trade is carried to insane lengths. The issue is abuse of the efficiency principle to the detriment of entire societies and civilization itself. 

Modern globalized trade was made possible by the integration of a wide range of technologies, from containerized shipping to electronic funds transfer. But only in the smallest frame is it efficient for a few retail giants to destroy hundreds of millions of livelihoods and local industries and the diverse communities, craft skills, and ways of thinking the industries represent. The diversity is humanity's only edge against new or unexpected catastrophes and it's what nurtures experimentation and the independence of thought that goes with it.

Taking a careful step back is easier said than done, however. King Bhumibol's ideas got a hearing in Thailand only at the point of a severe economic contraction related to a global downturn. Just so, Russians are waking up only because of very hard economic times. 

It was the same in Iran, I might add. If some readers are suddenly sitting up straight -- it so happens President Obama's big effort to bring Tehran back to the bosom of the International Community coincided with a change of thinking in Iran. Many Iranians, after staying in the fetal position for years because of economic sanctions, started saying, 'Hey, we can make a lot of the stuff we need to import!'

Gee no kidding.

It also so happens that no sooner did Russian dairy farmers start talking about making cheese for domestic use that several EU leaders, including French ones, began saying, 'Maybe these sanctions against Russia aren't such a good idea.'

Actually it's never a good idea to fire economic bullets because you just never know if they'll ricochet. 

It turns out that Russia's counter-sanctions against the European Union are revitalizing the country's agriculture sector, so it's not just about cheese. As a matter of fact, Russia has overtaken the USA and Canada in wheat exports. And the EU export sanctions and Putin's counter-sanctions have led to a revival in Russia of Russian traditional cuisine.

It's not yet strategic self-sufficiency but they're on their way, if they stay on track. And they're getting there without shutting themselves off from the rest of the world.           

Deviant Globalization

Nils Gilman (Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America) coined the term "Deviant Globalization," or at least he was the first person I know about who used it to describe what's generally called Black Globalization. It refers to criminals using all the technologies that make the modern era in globalized trade possible so they can vastly increase their consumer bases.   

But in the eight or so years since Nils lectured on the topic the gray aspects of globalization have become very evident. While there's still a sharp distinction between legal and illegal trade, a huge ambiguous aspect has emerged, whether it's trade in machine parts with dual uses, legit tourist companies that arrange passage for illegal migrants, investment funds that while technically legal facilitate land grabs in poorer countries, the export of stolen oil, and so on.  

Because virtually all these quasi-illegal schemes depend not simply on the help of corrupt officials but entire governments, one could say that localized corruption has gone global. From this perspective "deviant" fits the bill better than trying to label according to shades of a spectrum.  

However, if the situation is viewed through a wide-angle lens we see that deviancy in global trade has begotten deviancy; success with manipulating the mechanisms of global trade in one area inspires criminality in another area. Deviancy has become the norm. The upshot is a wholly corrupted system of trade that's even generated its own form of terrorism.  

To say that one has to take the bad with the good in globalized business misses the point. When the bad gobbles up so much of the good that governments have to spend mind-boggling amounts of revenue in the attempt to police the very worst offenders, that doesn't leave authorities much time or money to closely inspect, say, imported chopsticks. But believe you me, you will never again use Made in China disposable chopsticks from your favorite Chinese food takeout once you read this article at Epoch Times.

So where are we headed?         


I've told the story before in a different context but this is a good place to tell it again -- only now I'll include a part of the anecdote I omitted from the earlier version.

A few years ago I saw a reality TV show called "Guyana Gold." It was about two American amateur gold-dredgers who joined the gold rush in Guyana, which saw thousands of adventurers and rascals from around the world converged on the jungles to strike it rich.

The foreigners aren't happy unless they dredge with humongous imported machines that first of all amateurs don't know how to maintain; second don't know how to repair; third push far beyond the warranty; and four each of these machines, often stories high, has 10 million parts.

This situation spawned an open-air market run by locals that sells parts from broken-down machines foreigners abandon or sell to finance their plane ticket home. The market takes up something like two square miles. But unlike the hardware items in Home Depot none of the parts in the market are labeled. To shop there you seriously have to know what you're looking for, and the merchandise doesn't come with warranties. 

The American protagonists had hired an American Iraq War veteran to maintain their hideously expensive dredging machine. The vet had been specially trained (naturally at considerable cost) by the U.S. military to repair all kinds of machines that break down out in the field. But the open-air market in Guyana proved to be his Waterloo when the dredging machine broke down. He could not find the parts he was looking for in the market.  

The day was saved when an Indian who was an old hand at the gold digs repaired the broken machine by using a length of cotton thread and aerosol spray from a mosquito repellent can. 

The Chopsticks Manifesto

So it's our choice where we're headed: to a future where we are overwhelmed by the complex detritus of globalized trade, or one in which we have command of our stuff.

Which is to say if you're living in Peoria, Illinois and have to use chopsticks made all the way over in China, what's wrong with you? Can't you make your own chopsticks?

Look around you. Can you make anything you use? Can you repair anything? Or do you just throw it away and buy another when it breaks down? If that's what you do, if that's how you live your life, all you command is plastic debit and credit cards. Try eating moo shu chicken with those.  

Global trade was never meant to be a substitute for the responsibilities of living, which demand at least some basic skills at maintaining oneself and one's personal environment. If you can't manage that much, then you are at the mercy of a vast collection of strangers who don't care whether you live, or whether you die from chopsticks poisoning. 

That leaves you no choice but to demand more rules, more regulations, more policing, and to pay more and more taxes and give up more and more of your freedom in a vain attempt to control the uncontrollable.

What's the tiebreaker? Not the end of globalized trade. A careful step back.    



bdoran said...

Better yet - Thanks to the commodification and democratization of computing power and networks to everyone combined with 3D Printing and even manufacturing the common craftsman is primed to explode as never before.

In fact the stars are literally within reach of his children - we are at last going into space to stay, even if it's for the wealth.

Yes it is madness to recreate the Palatial Trade system of 1200 BC - in which disruptions anywhere lead to cascading systems failure and the collapse and Dark Age that followed the end of the second bronze age.

Further -sensing their doom the managerial and essentially parasitic intellectual classes create global economies that are hyper-optimized and prone to catastrophic cascading systems failure. They.Mean.Harm.

So the choice is stark: The Stars or another global Dark Age.

Pundita said...

Nupe. We're staying right here. We're sending them to the stars. Trust me, this will work. As to the earlier eras of globalization -- even they weren't so wacky as to import chopsticks.