Is globalization over?
Plus: The incoherence of the anti-China left; Does the universe have a purpose? Etc.
In this issue of NZN, I (1) sing the (qualified) praises of globalization, which is under serious attack because of the pandemic; (2) rebut arguments in favor of starting a cold war with China (one form the attack is taking); (3) talk with philosopher Gideon Rosen about whether it’s intellectually respectable to believe that our universe has a purpose; (4) steer you to readings on things ranging from a real-life Lord of the Flies to Buddhist chaplains amid the pandemic to a Bay-of-Pigs-esque fiasco in Venezuela that may have been backed by the Trump administration.
How will the coronavirus pandemic look in the rear view mirror? When, 30 years from now, high school students study for a test on early-21st-century history, what three or four Covid-19 bullet points will they memorize?
A leading candidate, to judge by the number of articles about it, is “ended a period of sustained globalization and ushered in an era of deglobalization.”
One interesting thing about this bullet point is that it represents a choice. Not all Covid bullet points do. This one, for example, seems pretty much guaranteed to be true: “accelerated the adoption of telemedicine, telecommuting, e-commerce, and other practices that save money by replacing in-person interaction with remote interaction.”
And, for that matter, certain aspects of a “deglobalization” bullet point are pretty much inevitable. There’s little doubt, for example, that the US and some other countries will make themselves less exclusively dependent on foreign suppliers—especially Chinese suppliers—for some pharmaceuticals and medical supplies.
But deglobalization writ large—sharply reducing international trade, even systematically disengaging from China’s economy—is no foregone conclusion; it depends on how the politics play out, which in turn depends on choices that politicians and voters make.
The two pieces below are meant to help inform those choices. Actually, that’s misleading. These two pieces are meant to get you to agree with me that trying to reverse globalization—and disengaging with China in particular—would be a bad idea (even if, as I’ve argued for two decades now, slowing globalization down a bit might be a good idea). But I try to present my arguments honestly, and I link to arguments by people who disagree.
As you’ll see, I think this is more than a choice about economics and politics. It’s a choice about the future of humanity in a deeper sense—not just an ideological choice, but a moral, maybe even in some sense a spiritual, choice.
The source of globalization’s strength and of its weakness is its non-zero-sum nature.
Fans of globalization tend to emphasize one side of this non-zero-sumness: the “win-win” side. When I buy a smartphone, I’m helping to pay the wages of workers in various Asian countries, and those workers, in exchange, are building me an affordable smartphone. Win-win!
This win-win dynamic is real. (Which doesn’t mean that no Asian workers are in any sense exploited but does mean that global supply chains have tended to raise wages in low-wage countries and save money for American consumers.) And this dynamic is a basic source of globalization’s stubborn power—one of the main reasons globalization is hard to stop. But to appreciate why globalization isn’t impossible to stop—and why it’s in some ways fragile—you have to appreciate two other game-theoretical things:
1) The flip side of win-win is lose-lose. The typical non-zero-sum game isn’t a game that always comes out win-win. It’s a game that can come out win-win but may come out lose-lose. And globalization, as it proceeds, makes these lose-lose outcomes possible on a larger and larger scale.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a good example—as was the 2008 American financial crisis and the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In different senses, these three international contagions spread through an infrastructure that had been built so that people in distant regions could play win-win games.
To put it another way, the “interdependence” that globalization famously fosters boils down to a correlation of fortunes: good news for someone halfway around the world can be good news for me, but bad news for someone halfway around the world can be bad news for me. Win-win or lose-lose—but, either way, non-zero-sum.
It’s when the infrastructure of globalization starts carrying waves of bad news that globalization is most vulnerable to political backlash. And Covid-19 has brought two waves of very bad news—first the viral contagion itself and, second, a contagion of economic contraction.
What heightens the political vulnerability of globalization, especially at times like this, is the second game-theoretical thing:
2. Non-zero-sum games are often intertwined with zero-sum games. Because of globalization, some American workers—especially in the manufacturing sector—have been playing a zero-sum game with low-wage Asian workers. And a lot of those games have been won by Asian workers and lost by American workers. Of course, when these American workers put on their consumer hat and go buy a smartphone, they become winners. But if you lose your union job at GM and wind up doing nighttime custodial work in a Detroit office building, you don’t put your consumer hat on as often as you used to.
That Donald Trump got elected president is among the signs that America has failed these workers. There are various ways it could have served them better: provided support and retraining after they lost their jobs; struck bilateral trade deals that reduced the exposure of these workers to foreign competition; or (my personal favorite) tried to achieve that reduced exposure via multilateral trade rules that, among other things, elevate labor and environmental standards in low-wage countries.
A more radical approach would have been to not just lessen exposure to foreign competition—not just give workers more time to adapt their skills to the new world, not just reduce the pay cut they had to take to stay competitive—but to deeply insulate them from that competition. You could do that with super steep and non-negotiable tariffs or even by flat-out banning imports of cars and other products. These are the kinds of proposals favored by people who want to stop globalization in its tracks, even reverse it.
Amid the pandemic, with anti-China sentiment growing, we’re starting to see proposals roughly this radical. I discuss a couple of pretty radical proposals—one from the right and one from the left—in the piece below.
There are various reasons I oppose such extreme approaches to protecting workers, some of them economic (steep and enduring tariffs can undermine a country’s industrial base), and some of them having to do with other policy areas. (See piece below.) But what I want to focus on now is what you might call a moral reason to oppose such extreme approaches—or, to turn it around, a moral argument in favor of globalization.
Since humans started producing chronicles of their exploits five millennia ago, one consistent motif has been large numbers of people killing large numbers of other people. Wars have been fought along ethnic lines, along national lines, along lines of empire, fought by patriots, by proxies, by mercenaries—but they’ve always been fought. In fact, so chronic have they been that the post-World-War-II era, for all the conflict and death it has seen, stands out as strangely peaceful. There has been no direct military conflict between great powers, and the number of people killed in war—as a percentage of the world’s population—is way, way lower than in the preceding 75 years and also lower than in the 75 years before that.
Why? Theories differ. Nuclear weapons, especially during the Cold War, may have played a role by making war among great powers drastically lose-lose. But I think the growing economic entanglement of nations brought by globalization has also played a big role.
One reason is that economic interdependence, like nuclear weapons, makes war more lose-lose. If you think the pandemic’s early shutdown of Chinese factories created supply-chain problems for US companies, imagine if America spent a year or two bombing those factories!
But I think globalization’s pacifying tendencies go beyond just changing the formal calculus behind war. I think they rest not only on the fact of globalization but on the fabric of globalization. The number of Americans who personally know Europeans and Asians and other foreigners is way higher today than it was forty, sixty, eighty years ago. And many of these relationships are about business—whether it’s people on different continents doing some deal, or working together on some ongoing project, or just communicating in mundane ways that help sustain a commercial relationship between two companies.
These relationships are by and large non-zero-sum, but putting it that way makes it sound misleadingly clinical. A non-zero-sum relationship doesn’t just create the abstract logic behind cooperation; it can also activate the part of human psychology designed (by natural selection) to foster cooperation—the part that makes us want to like people, to be open to things about them that may be different from us and may have at first seemed strange. It leads us to forgive them for little slights, to give them the benefit of the doubt. Globalization can strengthen the fabric of good will.
Of course, the aforementioned, more problematic aspects of globalization—the lose-lose aspect, the win-lose aspect—can, as they’re doing now, test that fabric. Just as win-win games can bring out the best in human nature, other kinds of games can bring out the worst—especially when politicians find the worst part of human nature useful.
So globalization isn’t anywhere near a moral panacea. But it’s a force that challenges us to evolve morally, to broaden our horizons, to join a tribe that’s not defined by national, ethnic, or religious bounds. The logic behind globalization doesn’t guarantee that we’ll meet this moral challenge, but at least it gives us a powerful reason to try.
In fact, as technology progresses, that logic piles reason on reason. Climate change, cybercrime, the proliferation of nuclear weapons and biological weapons—all these and many more such challenges are non-zero-sum problems, problems that can best, and maybe only, be solved via international cooperation. So they add to the argument for nurturing the non-zero-sum part of human psychology, the part that reaches out across chasms of cultural, ethnic, or national difference and explores the possibility of peace, even fellowship, with the Other.
In the Koran, God tells humankind that he “made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another.” In the 14 centuries that followed Muhammad’s uttering of these words, the evolution of technology—transportation and communication technology especially—allowed, and sometimes encouraged, tribes and nations to do exactly that.
In the early twentieth century, reflecting on the resulting infrastructure of information technology, the mystical Catholic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote presciently, "Humanity... is building its composite brain beneath our eyes.” He added, “May it not be that tomorrow, through the logical and biological deepening of the movement drawing it together, it will find its heart, without which the ultimate wholeness of its power of unification can never be achieved?" I wish I could say confidently that the answer is yes. What I feel more confident of is that, thanks to the logic of globalization, this may indeed be the ultimate question.
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Two people have recently made arguments for starting a new cold war with China—one of them a right-wing Trump supporter (Republican Senator Josh Hawley) and one of them a left-wing Trump opponent (journalist Matt Stoller). I’m not in the habit of complimenting Trump supporters, but I have to say that, of the two arguments, Hawley’s was more coherent. It was internally consistent in the sense that its logic meshed with Hawley’s Trumpist values.
Which was OK with me. I’m against a cold war with China, and I’m against Trumpism. Seeing the two fit naturally together somehow reaffirmed my faith in both positions.
I was also happy to see that Stoller’s argument wasn’t so coherent. Though I’m not a true leftist, I’m left of center, and I share many of the values that inspire people further to the left, including Stoller. I would have felt some cognitive dissonance if he had managed to reconcile a position on China that I disdain with political aspirations I respect.
Hawley’s argument came in a New York Times op-ed titled “Abolish the World Trade Organization,” and Stoller’s came in a conversation on the Glenn Greenwald podcast System Update. The two arguments have a lot in common.
For starters, both seem a bit overwrought. Hawley says that “Chinese imperialism” is “the single greatest threat to American security in the 21st century.” Stoller says China’s goal is “to subvert the current international global order.” (Exploit? Yes. But subvert? Why would you subvert something you’re successfully exploiting?)
And both Hawley and Stoller want not just to “decouple” (as Stoller puts it) our economy from China’s but to bind our economy more tightly with the economies of kindred nations. Hawley says we should build a new trading network “in concert with other free nations,” and Stoller wants us to “move production to democracies” and “create some level of self-sufficiency among democracies.” Both men want to see global commerce divided along ideological lines, just like in the good old days that neither is old enough to remember.
One difference between the two is in exactly how cold they want their wars to be. Hawley seems happy with something close to a complete rupture of relations with China, but Stoller wants to stop short of that.
On the one hand, Stoller says, we would “decouple our economy from China to get rid of our dependencies on Chinese supply chains and move production back to the US” and to other democracies. We would “try as best as possible to get rid of the integrated globalized world order.”
On the other hand, we would “work with China where we need to on things like climate change or managing oceans or other common collective problems.”
Run that by me again? We launch all-out economic war against China—and try to get all the world’s democracies to join us—and then instruct China to cheerfully cooperate with us in all areas that we deem important? Sure, that oughta work.
It’s of course possible for two nations waging cold war to reach agreements in non-economic areas. The US and the Soviet Union repeatedly agreed to limit their nuclear arsenals. But none of those agreements happened within the first two decades of the Cold War—which were, as you would expect of a cold war’s formative years, consumed mainly by the symmetrical amassing of grievances and recriminations.
And the arms control measures that finally did win mutual assent offered big near-term payoffs: they saved both sides money and also brought security benefits via stable deterrence. Agreements to mutually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in contrast, cost money in the short run and bring benefits only much later. So it’s not like Xi Jinping faces powerful short-term incentives to stay on the climate change bandwagon.
Stoller’s hope of reconciling a brutal economic offensive against China with mellifluous Sino-American cooperation isn’t the only reason to wonder about his grasp of human psychology and of politics. His plan to bring out the best in China while gravely damaging it has a second part.
Namely: He hopes to see the forces of liberalization within China get stronger.
Stoller is right to think that there’s raw material to work with here—that, though many Chinese are firmly supportive of the ruling regime, there’s a segment of the population that would like more freedom of speech. But here’s the problem: if you’re an authoritarian leader trying to keep the ratio of domestic opponents to domestic supporters from rising, your most powerful asset is nationalism—and nothing inflames nationalism quite like the perception of persecution by foreigners. So if I were assembling a Powerpoint presentation on how to liberalize China, my first slide wouldn’t feature Stoller’s plan to assemble a league of China persecutors.
None of the internal contradictions that beset Stoller’s argument beset Hawley’s. Being a good Trumpist, Hawley loses no sleep over climate change. And he has no deep desire to build instruments of international cooperation that address other transnational problems: an arms race in space, the proliferation of bioweapons, whatever. Any thoroughgoing Trumpist hates global governance and so needn’t worry about preserving the foundation of economic interdependence on which institutionalized international cooperation is most easily built. So Hawley’s focus can be narrow: “resist Chinese economic imperialism.”
And if that confrontation strengthens the hand of authoritarianism and weakens pro-democracy agitators, well, Hawley can live with that. He’s a Trumpist conservative, not a neoconservative. “The quest to turn the world into a liberal order of democracies was always misguided,” he writes.
So a new cold war makes perfect sense if you’re a Trumpist—and all the more so, of course, because it’s partly designed to divert blame for America’s coronavirus epidemic from the Trump administration to the Chinese government.
I’m happy to report that most leftists seem not to share Stoller’s enthusiasm for joining the many Trump supporters who want to declare economic war on China. And I don’t think that’s just because China is run by the Communist Party—which, after all, isn’t communist in the traditional sense of the term anyway.
I think it’s largely because leftists, being conversant in America’s long history of trying to undermine regimes that don’t fit into its geopolitical game plan, have developed a healthy aversion to the various tactics this involves: exaggerating the threat posed by the regime in question (wake me up when China’s “belt and road initiative” starts to imperil my freedom or security), exaggerating the magnitude of the regime’s various sins (the Covid “cover up,” for example), questioning the patriotism of Americans who question these exaggerations, and so on.
Building support for a cold war with China—like building support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, or for such acts of aggression as strangling the economies of Iran and Venezuela—involves activating some of the worst parts of human psychology and stoking the American exceptionalism that has brought mainly trouble in the past. Any good leftist should recoil in response.
Any good leftist should also, of course, complain about the terms of trade that allowed so many American jobs to move so rapidly to Asia. There are various approaches to revising those terms (including my own hobby horse of using multilateral trade bodies to elevate working standards in China). But if you choose an approach that leads to the kind of world Josh Hawley dreams of, maybe the left isn’t where you belong.
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The previous issue of NZN featured Part I of my conversation with Princeton philosopher Gideon Rosen, in which we pondered this question: What does it mean to call yourself a “materialist” or “physicalist,” given that modern physics makes it hard to think of the world as consisting ultimately of solid particles or solid anything else. The difficulty of defining these labels leads to another question: Might they be a way of signaling not what you believe about reality but what you don’t believe—namely that you don’t believe the universe has a purpose (a “telos”) or comes with built-in moral truths? That’s where we pick up the conversation, which eventually leads to such topics as whether we live in a simulation, how we would know if we did, and whether the directionality of evolution (its tendency to lead to more complex and intelligent structures) could be evidence of a larger purpose unfolding on Earth.
ROBERT WRIGHT: I wanted to touch on teleology. I think you said [once] that [“physicalist”] is almost like an identifier, a way of saying "I'm not a moral realist,” and “I'm not teleological," meaning, “I don't believe there's purpose in the world, certainly [not] a larger purpose.” Am I misremembering, or would you have said something like that?
GIDEON ROSEN: Yeah, I do think that's part of it.
I mean, a whole bunch of things emerged together at the beginning of the 17th century with the scientific revolution. One was the rise of mechanistic physics as a fundamental theory of reality. Another—and these were not exactly the same thing—was the rejection of teleology in nature, the idea that the apt description of nature is in terms of the purposes of things, the functions of things, or the goods that are to be realized by physical processes. Those two things—the rejection of teleology and the rise of mechanistic physics—happened at the same time, with many of the same people involved…
By the time the scientific revolution was mature, to be a hardheaded, scientifically-minded philosopher or theorist was to hold that fundamental physics involves mathematical properties of extended things spread out in space and time, and not moral properties. Not functions, not purposes, nothing like that. And not, by the way, anything outside of nature that might have endowed physical things with that kind of purpose, like God.
So if you're a materialist or a physicalist now, you reject fundamental teleology and you also reject the supernatural...
It seems to me that one problem with that worldview is… the fact that we speak of a clock as having a purpose.
It is a purely physical system. So certainly you can imagine... a physical system that has a purpose, but we don't have to think of the purpose as residing in the system... We can think of the purpose as almost having to do with the nature of its historical development...
Now, I understand that you could … say, okay, the universe could have a purpose in that sense, but we just don't think that there was some kind of deistic God that imparted [it]. As a matter of belief, I can see that.
Although I would say that I think one current in thought that might lend... legitimacy to the view of this kind of purpose in the universe is all this stuff about living in a simulation, right? There are serious philosophers (plus Elon Musk, for what that's worth) who say: “Hey, we may be living in a simulation.”
And that seems logically possible to me… And if that's the case, then it's an example of something where a system that looks to us like a physical system—functioning regularly, in accordance with laws—clearly does have a purpose that was imparted. Right?
Right. So there are two models for how something gets a purpose.
You can read the rest of this dialogue at nonzero.org.
In the Guardian, Rutger Bregman writes about a real-life version of Lord of the Flies, the William Golding novel about a group of boys who, left to their own devices after being stranded on an island, illustrate a dark view of human nature. But in the real-life story—involving six boys who got stranded on an island in 1966 and spent a year there—human nature comes off looking better. The piece is an excerpt from Bregman’s book Human Kind.
Edward Luce of the Financial Times does a deep dive into Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis.
In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty argues that American attitudes on Covid-19 are less polarized than the lockdown-versus-open-up narrative on social media would have you believe. But he’d like them to become still less polarized: “At the risk of sounding like a total drip, let me just say: People, try to be generous to one another.”
In Lion's Roar, four Buddhist chaplains share stories about providing spiritual counsel to the sick and dying during the pandemic.
Two weeks ago a group of mercenaries staged an invasion of Venezuela so feeble and ill-conceived as to make the Bay of Pigs look like the Normandy invasion. In Vox, Alex Ward tells the remarkable story of the fiasco’s mastermind—an entrepreneurial former US soldier named Jordan Goudreau, whose eccentric security firm once did work for President Trump. Secretary of State Pompeo has denied “direct” US involvement in the escapade.
In the Atlantic, economist Emily Oster argues that "just stay home" coronavirus messaging risks making the perfect the enemy of the good and could lead people to do riskier things than they otherwise would.
The New York Times reveals what doomed a Republican senator’s attempt to stop the flow of US arms that, as deployed by Saudi Arabia, have killed many Yemeni civilians: a memo that Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro sent to Jared Kushner under the title: “Trump Mideast arms sales deal in extreme jeopardy, job losses imminent.”
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Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.