A qualified defence of economic complexity

The Butterfly Defect: How Globalization Creates Systemic Risks, and What to do About It, by Ian Goldin and Mike Mariathasan, Princeton University Press, RRP$35/£24.95

Let’s be blunt. Books about globalisation tend to come in two categories. They are either vast, often earnest, works on the economic benefits of an increasingly interconnected world. Or they take the form of ideological reportage from the front lines of disruption; heart-wrenching portraits of idled factory workers in America’s industrial heartland juxtaposed against those of sweatshop pieceworkers in Bangladesh.

Of course, the realities are far more complex.

Millions around the developing world have been lifted out of poverty. Viewed broadly, the US and other advanced economies also look more innovative and dynamic than they did a decade ago as businesses embrace the power of new technologies such as 3D printing and our lives become entwined with the “sharing economy”.

Yet these advances have come with huge costs attached. Take the cities of Detroit and Beijing. The residents who remain in bankrupt Detroit, where more than a quarter of the housing stock has been abandoned and demolished, are trying to emerge from what is often called a post-industrial apocalypse left behind by a disappeared manufacturing sector. Those crowding into boomtown Beijing, where the municipal government in June gave approval for a 1,000km seventh ring road, are often preoccupied simply with trying to breathe clean air.

Ian Goldin and Mike Mariathasan’s new book, The Butterfly Defect, is therefore a rare beast. It both advances the case for globalisation and warns of what it argues are daunting “systemic” risks that come with it. “Globalisation is worth defending because it is the source of the greatest progress the world has known,” they conclude. “But it needs to be carefully managed if it is not to be overwhelmed by the forces of systemic risk that it has unleashed.”

The title is derived from the “butterfly effect”, a term coined by Edward Lorenz, the American father of chaos theory. Lorenz used it to describe the potential link between tiny disturbances such as a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil and much bigger weather events, such as a tornado in Texas. Goldin and Mariathasan use it to argue that globalisation is now so complex – and stretched so thin in some cases – that it is extremely vulnerable to relatively small events that pose much larger risks.

To build their case they use examples such as the financial crisis of 2008, the shocks to the global supply chain brought about in 2011 by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and flooding in Thailand, and the threat of pandemic posed by illnesses such as severe acute respiratory syndrome earlier this century.

All were big global events set off, Goldin and Mariathasan argue, by relatively small incidents that were amplified as a result of the interconnected world in which we live. They all illustrate the increased vulnerability we face as a result of the “hyperglobalisation” of the past two decades; and, furthermore, as a result of what the authors call an MBA monoculture in business thinking.

The case is largely convincing, as is the authors’ argument that governments need to focus on building a “resilient globalisation” that is better managed and more able to withstand shocks.

The book also fits well with the previous three on development, migration and global governance that Goldin, a former World Bank vice-president who is now a professor of globalisation and development at Oxford, has co-written with fellow academics from the multidisciplinary Oxford Martin School, which he heads. Indeed, The Butterfly Defect was written while Mariathasan, who teaches finance at the University of Vienna, was at the Oxford Martin School’s Institute for New Economic Thinking.

There are wrinkles. The book sometimes reads like a survey of the academic literature. It is, moreover, occasionally hard to dissect the new in what Goldin and Mariathasan argue. But that is usually because they know their history. The global threat of pandemics and connectivity, they point out, is not a wholly modern phenomenon. The first recorded transnational epidemic – the plague of Athens – dates to 430BC and was the result of troop movements during the Peloponnesian war.

There is also the slight problem that, for all the devastating case
studies they mention, the world – and globalisation – has endured. Policy makers, businesses and healthcare systems around the world all scrambled and found a way through. Perhaps we already have a resilient globalisation?

But to point those wrinkles out is to be ungenerous. This is an important and thought-provoking book.

The writer is the FT’s world trade editor

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