October 29, 2006 6:48 pm

The global middle cries out for reassurance

Against all odds, we are living in a time of plenty. Neither the after-effects of September 11 2001 nor a tripling in oil prices has prevented the world’s economy from growing faster in the past five years than in any five-year period in recorded economic history.

Given this recent performance and the pricing-in by world markets of an optimistic outlook, one might have expected this to be a moment of particularly great enthusiasm for the market system and for global integration.

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Yet in many corners of the globe there is growing disillusionment. From the failure to complete the Doha trade round to pervasive Wal-Mart-bashing, from massive renationalisation in Russia to the success of populists in Latin America and eastern Europe, we see a degree of anxiety about the market system that is unmatched since the fall of the Berlin Wall and probably well before.

Why is there such disillusionment? Some anti-globalisation sentiment can be seen as a manifestation of resistance to the US arising from the Bush administration’s foreign policy misadventures. But there is a much more troubling source: the growing recognition that the vast global middle is not sharing the benefits of the current period of economic growth – and that its share of the pie may even be shrinking.

Two groups have found themselves in the right place at the right time to benefit from globalisation and technological change. First, those in low-income countries, principally in Asia and especially in China, who are able to plug into the global system. The combination of low wages, diffusible technology and the ability to access global product and financial markets has fuelled an economic explosion.

It is important to remember that the period between the late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain and continental Europe was called the Industrial Revolution for a reason. For the first time in human history, the standard of living of one generation was demonstrably better than the one before: in a single lifespan, real per capita incomes doubled and then doubled again. If one looks at the growth rate of China during the past 30 years, living standards are increasing at a rate that will lead to a hundred-fold improvement over a single human lifespan. The impact cannot be overstated.

Second, it has been a golden age for those who already own valuable assets. Owners of scarce commodities have seen their returns rise prodigiously. People running businesses that can take advantage of globalisation to source labour less expensively and sell to larger markets have seen their incomes rise far faster than incomes generally. Certainly those in the financial sector in a position to benefit from the asset revaluations associated with globalisation have prospered.

Everyone else has not fared nearly as well. As the great corporate engines of efficiency succeed by using cutting-edge technology with low-cost labour, ordinary, middle-class workers and their employers – whether they live in the American midwest, the Ruhr valley, Latin America or eastern Europe – are left out. This is the essential reason why median family incomes lag far behind productivity growth in the US, why average family incomes in Mexico have barely grown in the 13 years since the North American Free Trade Agreement passed, and why middle-income countries without natural resources struggle to define an area of comparative advantage.

It is this vast group that lacks the capital to benefit from globalisation and is desperately seeking either reassurance or a change in course. Yet without its support it is very doubtful that the existing global economic order can be maintained.

Let us be frank. What the anxious global middle is told often feels like pretty thin gruel. The twin arguments that globalisation is inevitable and protectionism is counterproductive have the great virtue of being correct, but do not provide much consolation for the losers. Nor can they rally support for policies that maintain, let alone promote, international integration.

Economists rightly emphasise that trade, like other forms of progress, makes everyone richer by enabling them to buy goods at lower prices. But this offers small solace to those who fear their jobs will vanish.

Education is central to any economic strategy, but there is a limit to what it can do for workers in their 40s and beyond. Nor can education be a complete answer at a time when skilled computer programmers in India are paid less than $2,000 a month.

John Kenneth Galbraith was right when he observed: “All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.” Meeting the needs of the anxious global middle is the economic challenge of our time.

In the US, the political pendulum is swinging left. The best parts of the progressive tradition do not oppose the market system; they improve on the outcomes it naturally produces. That is what we need today.

There are no easy answers. The economic logic of free, globalised, technologically sophisticated capitalism may well be to shift more wealth to the very richest and some of the very poorest in the world, while squeezing people in the middle.

Just as the Federal Housing Administration’s effort to make owner-occupied housing more available after the second world war was a crucial part of the policy approach that permitted the Marshall Plan to go forward, so also our success in advancing international integration will depend on what can be done for the great global middle.

Our response will affect not just the livelihoods of millions of our fellow citizens but also the prospects for continuing global integration, with all the prosperity and stability it has the potential to bring.

The writer is former US Treasury secretary

This column will appear monthly

A panel of some of the world’s top economists discusses Larry Summers’ article online. Go to www.ft.com/forumwolf

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