The pompous and the powerful are wrapping up their annual get-together in Davos, the Swiss alpine village made famous in recent years by the World Economic Forum. This year, there were as many police and security officials as attendees, an indication of the real dangers that threaten the global economy. Politicians and corporate officials may worry about the slowdown in the United States and its implications, but the real threat to long-term growth and prosperity stems from the growing perception that globalization’s benefits are not being shared by all.
Many, if not most, of the discussions in the arenas, halls and bars of the resort are focusing on the U.S. After a historic period of growth, America’s economy is slowing down. That the U.S. will experience a recession is now accepted; the only questions are how long and how severe it will be. Since the U.S. appetite for goods powered the world economy through the Asian crisis, there are worries that a U.S. slowdown will trigger a global recession as well.
Uncertainties about the U.S. are compounded by doubts about the economic expertise of the new Bush administration. While the Cabinet has its worthies, none of the senior economic officials has the experience of Mr. Robert Rubin, the former Treasury secretary. Wall Street has expressed concern over just that fact. The absence of any senior U.S. official at the Davos forum is understandable — the administration is just getting settled in — but much of the work in a crisis concerns personal relationships, and those are established or reinforced at get-togethers like the WEF meeting.
Japan sent its own contingent this year, led by Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Mr. Mori did his best to show the Japanese economy in a brighter light, pledging that in the next fiscal year “the economic growth rate will rise to a point just short of full recovery of potential growth ability.” Unfortunately, government figures released on the eve of Mr. Mori’s departure painted a different picture. They show consumer prices sliding 0.7 percent in 2000, their biggest decline on record; December retail sales fell for the 45th month in a row.
The prospect of stagnation or recession in the world’s two largest economies is sobering. But those are expected to be temporary phases, products of the business cycle, even though Japan’s prolonged slump is the result of more profound structural problems.
For much of the rest of the world, the outlook is not so rosy. According to a report released by the International Labor Organization last week, one-third of the world’s workforce — about 1 billion people — was unemployed or underemployed at the end of 2000. The annual report estimates that approximately 160 million people were out of work last year, an increase of 20 million since the Asian financial crisis hit in 1998.
The globalist mantra is that growth will cure those ills. The ILO is not so sure. Its experts conclude that growth alone will not create the more than 500 million new jobs that are needed by 2010 to accommodate new workers and halve current unemployment levels. In many countries, a new class — the underemployed — has emerged. These people work, but their jobs are not sufficient to keep them and their families above the poverty line.
This is the dark underbelly of globalization, a phenomenon that provides employment but fails to make lives better. Stratification within and between societies — created by education, infrastructure and access to new technologies — has meant that the benefits of globalization are not being shared. The most glaring sign of the imbalance is the fact that the world’s 200 richest people control more wealth than does the poorest third — 2 billion people. Anger will mount as long as developed nations demand access to developing economies while denying those same countries’ agricultural products similar access.
The future is now at Davos. The police contingent deployed to protect attendees from antiglobalization protesters is the same size as, if not larger than, the number of guests. The security operation is the largest Switzerland has mounted in decades.
That, then, is the future of globalization, as it is now practiced: enclaves of capitalists barricaded behind walls of security, protected from the people upon whom they depend for survival. If the darkness of the vision does not leave an imprint on the proponents of globalization, then perhaps the economics of it will: It is surely more efficient to stop spending that money on police and create new, wealthier consumers so that we can all enjoy prosperity together.
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