I can’t buy gas in Kuwait and The Fable of Unlimited Opportunity

Globalization has cost many Americans their jobs, and under the prevalent ideology, we are to celebrate the increase in corporate efficiency. As for the human costs of compelling American workers to compete with far lower standards and costs of living, this, it is said, is little different from American consumers shopping for the best price, going to another gas station a block further away to save a nickel. By analogy, then, the corporation’s behavior is little different from that of a stereotypical housewife.

But if I want cheap gas, I need to be in Kuwait. If I want cheaper clothing, I need to be in Southeast Asia. If I want cheaper electricity, I need to be in Iceland. If I want a job, I need to be in India. The housewife analogy is a false analogy. While a wealthy person can travel to all these places to obtain these goods, the cost of doing so frequently outweighs the savings incurred, unless one buys in bulk quantities, a behavior available only to multinational corporations. Globalization thus favors multinational corporations at the cost of everyone else, though the return on investment may outweigh that cost to stockholders. Thus globalization also favors large stockholders in multinational corporations.

Under the prevalent ideology, we are to believe that America is a land of unlimited opportunity, in a lesson John Roberts recounted from the “endless fields of Indiana, stretching to the horizon … with their promise of infinite possibilities” in his opening remarks at the Senate confirmation hearings for his nomination as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And capitalism promises a reward for individual initiative.

But individual initiative is limited by a competition that rewards efficiency, the very efficiency that is a product of globalization, a globalization that, as illustrated, is not available to individuals. Globalization thus secures a place for the incumbent elite, and restrains those who would displace them. We are to celebrate competition, even when it is unfair, even when a nation’s people can only raise their own standards of living at the risk of losing their jobs to still other nations, with yet lower standards of living, just as we have lost those jobs here. This competition is the “race to the bottom” described by Floyd McKay, where “operations like Wal-Mart feed off the impoverishment of America.”

It is claimed that this “negative view of free trade ignores the wealth-creating nature of free trade. With freedom to trade, all workers in all countries are able to use their labor to create the most valuable output possible in their situation. Less efficient workers might have to change jobs, possibly accepting lower earnings. And those individuals might have to upgrade their labor skills to raise their earnings. But the need to improve holds true for businesses as well as individuals facing competition. They must offer better products and services at prices acceptable to consumers if they are to continue in business. That is the natural course of market change whether the competition comes from domestic or foreign sources.” And yet the off-shoring of a succession of jobs, first in manufacturing and textiles, more recently in high technology, gives the lie to this claim. For now, any “real” work can be exported someplace else. Any “real” skills are obsolete within 10-15 years.

American then becomes an unskilled nation only for stockholders and Wal-Mart workers, people who either profit from the means of production in other countries, or are at the bottom of the economic ladder, providing services at low wages to the wealthy. It becomes a country where innovation is lost to a widening divide between gluttony and starvation. It becomes a country where people either need only to preserve their present position or must work multiple jobs to pay the rent. We will become a country that services only leeches.

Globalization can only widen the gap between rich and poor; it is an inescapable consequence of the tools that technological improvement has made available to capitalism. This ideology, like so many others, no longer serves Americans; yet so many of us cling to it. Our connection with reality is thus further diminished; and the only remaining question is how long it will be, before reality delivers a hard cold slap.

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