Monday, January 06, 2014

Atlantic column: Were the Seattle protesters right?

I have a new column in The Atlantic, remembering the Seattle protests of 1999, and arguing that the vast majority of their concerns were well-founded. Excerpts:
In the decade that followed, the Seattle protests came to seem as not only silly, but also misguided. After all, what were the excesses of globalization compared to the travesty of the Iraq War, or the disaster of the financial crisis? America seemed to decide that we had much more important things to protest about, and the Seattle protesters have been largely forgotten in our pop media culture. 
It is a shame, because the worries of the Seattle protesters have been proven right on nearly every count... 
The clearest example is competition from foreign workers, which really has slammed the American working class... 
Next, take unsafe imports...Chinese toys still contain large amounts of heavy metals, including lead... 
How about environmental destruction?...Chinese people are literally choking to death by coal smoke...Economists find that globalization does increase carbon emissions at first, and then decreases emissions as our trading partners get richer and more urbanized. But the increase probably already happened in China, while the decrease has yet to manifest... 
Whether you think globalization’s various effects are worth worrying about depends on how much you care about people in other countries. China [has] managed to pull literally hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty. [G]lobal inequality has declined. The industrialization of China and (to a lesser degree) India has been the biggest and most effective anti-poverty program the world has ever seen. Capitalism has its flaws, but it works...[But a] WTO-led globalization could have been implemented a lot better [than it was].
Read the whole thing here!


  1. Bill Ellis1:50 PM

    I agree completely that "WTO-led globalization could have been implemented a lot better." But my memory of the protests was that they were calling for globalization to stop. I do not remember any prominent calls for better implementation. (that was pre-internet for me, so maybe that was just the impression I got from the MSM )

    I remember it well because at the time the public debate about globalization seemed to be very all or nothing and it bummed me out. To my eye Economists and politicians were almost all giddy Laissez-faire Neo Liberals. Prominent among them was Paul Krugman. None of them took seriously any counterfactuals that we could possibly put even minor controls or regs on globalization without killing the golden goose.

    On the other hand all I recall from the anti globalisation movement was STOP !

    In Overton Window terms it is too bad there was not any significant establishment "Smart Globalization" movement that could have benefited from the extremist on the left.

    1. But my memory of the protests was that they were calling for globalization to stop.

      Yes, this. This was not a group interested in constructive dialogue and I am glad they were not listened to given that the last 15 years has been a net gain for humanity.

    2. the last 15 years has been a net gain for humanity

      Globalization is probably one of the big reasons the European periphery is suffering as badly as it is.

    3. Bill Ellis11:47 AM

      @ Colin, I believe that globalization could have preceded, creating a net gain for humanity, while at the same time avoiding some of the worst effects if we had listened to the complaints of the protesters.

    4. Bill Ellis11:55 AM

      @ Absaion, If by globalization you mean adopting the Euro, I agree.

      Europe's problem is that it has one monetary policy, but a different fiscal policy for every member nation. One size can't fit all.

  2. Reading the comments on The Atlantic website under your article was pretty depressing. Not exactly a wealth of thoughtfulness and nuance. Thankfully the quality of response is generally much higher here (myself excluded obviously!).

  3. If American voters had been given an informed vote on a policy that would:
    1) make the top 5% of Americans much richer
    2) make the bottom 60% of Americans poorer and lead to attacks on Medicare and Social Security by the rich and their lackeys
    3) lift a lot of foreigners out of poverty
    4) damage the global environment
    5) create a new super power to threaten American allies and require the maintenance of a large and expensive military

    American voters would have voted no.

  4. Bill Ellis6:20 PM

    All the economic benefits for America of globalization did not have to be captured by the top. They could have been equitably distributed. They could have been payed out to match the increases in the American worker's productivity.

    Or maybe I am wrong. Maybe there was a reason all the benefits had to go to the top?

    What happened?
    Is there a good economic rational. Or was it primarily a change in morality and how that was expressed in our laws ?

  5. Hey Noah, I was there myself in Seattle, and I also gave a number of public talks (as many as I could line up) in advance of the event. My core argument was that forcing lower income countries to become export platforms -- and the US to become what you might call an import platform -- was a recipe for a race to the bottom and financial unsustainability. In retrospect I probably was over-sure of the race to the bottom stuff (that tendency is there but so is the opposite) but right about the unsustainability. My argument for debt relief was consciously drawn from Keynes and Versailles.

    OK, maybe my position was not the dominant one among the protesting horde, but I did try to make the case. Got my share of tear gas too, so no complaints.

  6. Noah,
    You say you care about Chinese welfare, but only seems to do so when the argument goes against globalization. You don't mention how many people in Asia have been lifted out of poverty (real poverty, not relative poverty) because of globalization.
    Saying that globalization could have been better (what couldn't have been better?) does not mean that the market-fearing, anti-innovation, nativist crowd in Seattle got it right. For them to be right the world would have to have become worse because of globalization. I doubt you believe that is true.

  7. For them to be right the world would have to have become worse because of globalization.

    No. For them to be right all that is needed is that the situation of the majority of Americans has become worse.

  8. In terms of overall human prosperity, it was largely a good thing. It may have sucked for certain US industries and industrial areas, but I'm skeptical that they wouldn't have been displaced without trade liberalization with China - many of them would have ended up in the South or Mexico instead, or wiped out with greater automation and business.

    And in the mean-time, hundreds of millions of Chinese got lifted out of poverty, and (probably) tens of millions of Latin American folk got higher incomes as an outgrowth from that - ironically not including Mexico, which had some of the slowest growth rates in Latin America.