Thanks to globalization, human beings are wealthier and freer than at any time during our long climb from the top of the evolutionary food chain to the highest rung of the corporate ladder. But are we happier? Put down that cellphone, ignore that incoming e-mail, and consider the evidence.
For all the discord over globalization, virtually everyone agrees on two of its properties. First, globalization is very hard to stop. Ever since card-carrying progressive William Greider titled his 1997 book One World, Ready or Not, even the left has increasingly viewed globalization as something to be tamed, not killed. Second, globalization makes the world—on balance, at least—more prosperous. The critique of globalization isn’t that it fails to churn out ever more stuff, but that churning out more stuff has lots of drawbacks, especially given the way the stuff gets distributed.
These two properties are related: Globalization is almost unstoppable precisely because it is driven by lots of people hellbent on increasing their prosperity. Nike stockholders want to boost profits by holding down production costs, which means manufacturing overseas. Indonesian workers want to elevate their income by moving from farm fields to Nike factories. Nike customers want, well, they want a shoe that has not just the generic “Air Sole” (old hat) but a “Tuned Air unit in the heel and Zoom Air in the forefoot”—not to mention “Optimal Motion flex grooves.”
As all these people try to upgrade their standard of living, the invisible hand obliges by enmeshing them in an ever larger, ever denser web of investment and production. Human nature itself—the deep desire to amass resources, to keep up with the Joneses, and, if possible, to leave them in the dust—drives the engine that is transforming the world.
Unfortunately, human nature has a spotty record in the driver’s seat. The one realm where even a cynic might think human nature excels—helping people selfishly pursue their own well-being—is an area of frequent failure. Humanity is famous for pursuing things, such as power and riches, that don’t bring lasting happiness. Are those Nike stockholders really happier behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz suv than they would be driving a Hyundai Accent? Might some Indonesian factory workers be better off if they had never left the farm and the time-tested folkways that govern life there? Couldn’t a weekend athlete find enduring contentment even without Optimal Motion flex grooves?
This question—Does globalization bring happiness?—is the $64,000 question. Although it underlies much of the globalization debate and is sometimes tossed out rhetorically, it is seldom seriously addressed, perhaps because of its presumed elusiveness. But psychologists actually have amassed a lot of data about what does and doesn’t make people happy. This data doesn’t come just from undergraduate volunteers on U.S. campuses: Several massive cross-cultural surveys have been completed over the past two decades. And it is becoming clearer which economic and political circumstances lead people to feel satisfied with their lot in life.
When you combine this data with what we know about globalization’s economic and political effects, it becomes possible to take a preliminary shot at the big question: Is globalization good or bad? If you were God (and a utilitarian), would you adopt a hands-off policy, leaving transnational capitalism on autopilot, or would you intervene? And what form might intervention take? How, if at all, should globalization be governed? Psychology’s happiness database doesn’t answer these questions, but it helps us ponder them. In the process, it also helps overturn some conventional wisdom about who benefits and who suffers under globalization’s advance.
The Global Pursuit of Happiness
Does money bring happiness? Psychologists have gone to dozens of nations, rich and poor, and asked people how satisfied they are with their lives. The upshot is that, while poor nations seem to breed unhappiness, very rich nations don’t necessarily breed happiness. There is, on the one hand, a clear connection between a nation’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and the average happiness of its citizens. But the strength of that connection—in most studies, at least—comes almost entirely from nations in the bottom three fourths of the income scale. Once your nation attains a fairly comfortable standard of living, more income brings little, if any, additional happiness. In the United States between 1975 and 1995, real per capita GDP grew by 43 percent, but the average happiness of Americans didn’t budge.
The point where more wealth ceases to imply more happiness is around $10,000 per capita annually—roughly where Greece, Portugal, and South Korea are now. Above that point, additional dollars don’t seem to cheer up nations, and national differences in happiness hinge on the intangibles of culture. The Irish are appreciably happier than the Germans, the Japanese, and the British, though less wealthy than all of them. And Scandinavia’s extraordinary happiness (Who would have guessed?) isn’t traceable to any economic edge over other developed countries. (One possible explanation: Nations with high levels of trust tend to be happier, and Scandinavians, according to surveys, are inordinately trusting.)
This fact alone—that making poor nations less poor seems to raise the level of happiness, but making rich nations richer doesn’t—is worth contemplating in light of globalization. Before contemplating it, we have to ask whether this fact is really as methodologically sturdy as it sounds.
First, all these studies rely on self-reported satisfaction with life. You could debate for weeks whether that is a reliable index of true happiness without exhausting all related psychological, sociological, and epistemological conundrums. Is there any other kind of evidence that lends credence to these reports?
Yes. Consider, for example, the extraordinary gloom pervading the former Soviet bloc. In 1994, when the World Values Study Group published a ranking of 41 nations’ self-reported “life satisfaction,” the least satisfied nations were, in order: Bulgaria, Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, and Hungary. But couldn’t this just be a Communist-induced measurement error? Could decades of official denunciations of selfishness have discouraged people from admitting to being happy?
As it happens, psychologists Martin Seligman and Gabriele Oettingen shed light on this question during the 1980s. They observed West and East Berliners as they went about their everyday lives. West Berliners smiled and laughed more often than East Berliners and had more upright and open postures. Clearly, East Germans didn’t suffer merely from a culturally ingrained reluctance to admit their gaiety to pollsters. What’s more, studies in various nations have shown that self-reported happiness correlates well not just with this objectively observed demeanor, but with the evaluations of friends and relatives and with survey questions that get at happiness more obliquely (for example, by determining how many pleasant memories a person can summon).
The second big methodological question is whether economic output masks other variables that are the real source of happiness. Are the keys to happiness really just things that money can buy—more food, cleaner drinking water, better healthcare, more comfortable housing? As William Easterly of the World Bank showed in a study published last year, richer nations, compared to poor ones, tend to have “more democracy, less corruption. . . more rule of law, and higher bureaucratic quality. . . more civil liberties, less abuse of human rights.” Indeed, if you just forget about GDP and plot national happiness levels against various indexes of freedom, you’ll see a clear relationship. Ed Diener, one of psychology’s leading happiness researchers, notes that it will take further, more focused study to separate the effect of wealth from the effect of human rights and democracy. The correlation between economic and political variables is so strong, and the number of data points so small, that statistically disentangling the influences isn’t yet possible.
Then again, the very strength of this correlation may render the question moot. If, indeed, economic development not only improves diet, medicine, and shelter, but also goes hand in hand with more democracy and human rights, then one way or another, economic development will probably make people in poor nations happier. And judging by recent anecdotal evidence from Mexico, South Korea, and Taiwan, economic development does indeed improve political life. (Although, as Easterly notes, the end of the Cold War has also seen democracy come to poorer nations.)
The Rich (and the Poor) Get Richer
The potential for prosperity—one way or another—to markedly increase the happiness of poor nations may seem to cast the current era in an ironic light. After all, according to one common view, globalization showers prosperity on rich nations, often at the expense of poor nations. Union leader Jay Mazur has written that “globalization has dramatically increased inequality between and within nations,” and Lori Wallach, the oft-quoted antiglobalization activist, concurs. Even Laura D’Andrea Tyson, former national economic adviser to President Bill Clinton, wrote recently that “as globalization has intensified, the gap between per capita incomes in rich and poor countries has widened.”
These observations are misleading at best. First, in absolute terms, poor nations have become less poor. Even if some of them have shown alarming stagnation, the economic output of the average poor nation has grown in recent decades. Of course, Mazur and Wallach and Tyson are talking about relative income—and it’s true that the gap between the richest and poorest nations has grown. But it’s hard to argue that globalization is the problem. As economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner showed years ago, and as other economists have since confirmed, developing nations with the most open economies—the nations most thoroughly plugged into the global market system—grow the fastest. The most stubbornly poor nations, it seems, are so poor because they are underglobalized. This theory helps explain why East and Southeast Asia, with their embrace of global markets, have massively reduced poverty, while sub-Saharan Africa, featuring more statist economies and an unappetizing political environment for foreign investment, has been less successful.
Some would claim that the rising level of prosperity among the more open developing nations is misleading because their poorer citizens are being left behind. Certainly, nations sometimes do grow more economically stratified as they get richer. But notwithstanding the confident assertions of Mazur and Wallach, economists have found no general tendency for economic growth to exacerbate income inequality. And this past spring, World Bank economists David Dollar and Aart Kraay released a study that looked not just at the effects of economic growth but specifically at the impact of globalization. Tracking nations with the most open, most globalized economies over the last several decades, they found that, as national income grew, the fraction of the economic pie going to the bottom fifth of the income scale didn’t shrink. The rising tide indeed seemed to lift all boats.
There is one final reason that plaints about growing income inequality among nations are misleading. Nations differ in size, and those stubbornly poor, underglobalized nations that account for the growing gap between rich and poor nations tend to be small, while some of the poor nations that are getting richer (such as China) are quite large. If you look at the world as a utilitarian God would—just ignore political boundaries and focus on the total number of souls—the picture looks brighter. Bernard Wasow of the Century Foundation has calculated that between 1965 and 1997, the poorest 10 percent of the world’s population increased its share of world income from 0.3 percent to 0.5 percent. Of course, 0.5 percent seems pathetically low—especially given that the richest 10 percent meanwhile expanded its share from 50.6 percent to 59.6 percent. Still, the fact remains that in 1965 the average income of the top 10 percent was 160 times the average income of the bottom 10 percent, and by 1997 that ratio had fallen to 127 times. And that calculation includes those poor nations with closed, underglobalized economies.
To put the progress against poverty in slightly less abstract terms, according to a report issued in June by a squadron of multilateral agencies—the United Nations, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the International Monetary Fund—the number of people who live on less than a dollar a day dropped by 100 million between 1990 and 1998. The number remains astoundingly high—1.2 billion—but bear in mind that the drop came even as the population of poor nations grew by hundreds of millions.
In short, the rule of thumb for the world’s poor people seems to be that they’re getting less poor in absolute terms and, by some measures, less poor in relative terms. And the more globalized that poor nations become, the better their people do in both absolute and relative terms.
If you put these findings together with the happiness data, the implication is a bit perverse. A common stereotype of globalization is that it’s something done by the rich, for the rich, and to the poor. It’s certainly true that the world’s affluent peoples make the big decisions about how capital is deployed and make lots of money off globalization. Yet, in terms of psychological payoff—in terms of actual happiness—the benefits of globalization would seem to go overwhelmingly to the world’s lower classes, to nations with a per capita annual income under $10,000. Only at that level of national income does money reliably bring happiness. Indeed, richer nations not only fail to get happier as national income grows; even as their average level of happiness stays constant, the small fraction of the population suffering from serious psychopathology expands. More people become chronically depressed, and the suicide rate often rises.
Thus, it appears that what is now a major chunk of conventional wisdom in some political circles—that globalization is good for the rich, bad for the poor—is not just wrong, but wrong by 180 degrees. Globalization, at least to judge by its effect on income and the effect of income on happiness, is good for the poor and, if anything, bad for the rich.
Faster, John Q. Public—Consume! Consume! Consume!
It makes you wonder: Why do the rich work so hard at getting richer if it isn’t making them any happier and is making a few of them crazier? In a sense, their behavior is not as irrational as it sounds. Understanding this fact is the first step to fathoming the paradoxical engine that drives globalization. It is also the first step to deciding whether globalization, given its manifest benefits to the poor, should simply be left on autopilot.
Within nations, as among them, there is a link between income and happiness. The link is not terribly strong—and certainly not as strong as we make ourselves believe. Most if not all of the thrill of a pay raise we worked hard for wears off quickly, leaving us hungry for more. What’s more, as with national happiness, there is a per capita income level beyond which more money brings declining utilitarian bang per buck. (In the United States, the point is a bit shy of $20,000.) Still, the bang per buck doesn’t quite level off to zero. Affluent Americans are a bit happier than their middle-class compatriots, and much happier than the poor. Of course, this link between money and happiness could just mean that upbeat people are more likely to make money than perennially sad people. But almost no one who has studied the question thinks that the causality works only in that direction. Making more money stands a good chance of making people at least somewhat happier.
So if individual Americans get happier as they get richer, why doesn’t the United States collectively get happier as it gets richer? The answer favored by some psychologists and championed by the economist Robert Frank in his book Luxury Fever is simple: Much of what gratifies people about higher income is that it boosts their relative standing in society. To the extent that this is true—that our happiness comes from comparing our station in life with that of other people—then within a society, one person’s gain is another person’s loss.
Consider the late Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who insisted that the faucets on his yacht be made of solid gold, and that the yacht’s bar stools be covered with the ultrasoft foreskin of a whale’s penis (I’m not making this up). Let us stipulate, for thought-experiment purposes, that Onassis impressed people enough to raise his social status, his serotonin level, and his sense of well-being. To the extent that he succeeded, he lowered the relative social standing of rival shipping magnate and yachtsman Stavros Niarchos. (And, needless to say, the whale’s well-being suffered, too.) In Greek society as a whole, there was no net utilitarian gain.
This theory makes sense in light of evolutionary psychology. As Frank notes, the human mind was designed by natural selection in the context of small hunter-gatherer societies back when social status was correlated with reproductive success. One’s goal, in Darwinian terms, was to be higher on the totem pole than one’s competitors—that is, one’s neighbors. Of course, there is only one top spot on the totem pole, and one number two spot, and so on; social status is a finite resource, and anyone’s gain must come at someone else’s expense. The modern legacy of our brains’ having been built to play this game is that, within the United States or Japan or France, pursuing happiness through monetary gain is essentially a zero-sum game. That’s why riches can elevate the level of happiness for a given American while failing to do so for the United States as a whole.
Within poor nations, by contrast, this game is partly non-zero-sum. To be sure, the link between individual income and individual happiness that is found in rich nations also holds within poor nations—if anything, it is stronger there. And no doubt some of that happiness comes from one-upmanship. Still, because a poor nation’s growing GDP does bring markedly more happiness, the game among citizens is not entirely zero-sum. As people struggle to raise their standard of living, they are attaining things—decent nutrition, healthcare—that raise their happiness level without reducing anyone else’s. Moreover, these upwardly mobile citizens are moving the nation as a whole toward more human rights, more political freedom, even more democracy—the political ingredients of national happiness.
For that matter, the relationship between the poor nations and the rich nations is non-zero-sum. Upper-middle-class Americans, in scrapping for income and status, in working overtime to afford that forest-green Ford Explorer, may be jostling for pieces of a more-or-less finite happiness pie. But at least some of that car was built in a developing country, so some of the dollars they paid for it went to a place where money actually can buy more national happiness. Net happiness is created by U.S. status seeking—even if none of the happiness winds up in the United States. A utilitarian God, indifferent to national boundaries, would be pleased.
Or would he (or she)? It is wonderful that globalization brings happiness by reducing poverty. But reducing poverty isn’t all that globalization does, and income isn’t the only ingredient of happiness. Globalization also affects the texture of life, sometimes the very structure of life, and on these things much of our happiness depends.
Bear in mind that those cross-national correlations between happiness and GDP tell us nothing about the “real-time” effects of modernization. The nations at the high-income, high-happiness end of the spectrum are mostly nations—in North America and Western Europe—that underwent the transition from agrarian to industrial society long ago and have had time to catch their breath. To be sure, it’s auspicious that more recent modernizers, such as South Korea and Taiwan, show pretty high levels of happiness, too. Still, for all we know, the current pace of transition may give many modernizing nations a degree of disorientation that neutralizes much of the happiness brought by growing income.
The early 20th century American sociologist William Ogburn had this type of problem in mind when he coined the term “cultural lag.” Cultural lag happens when material culture changes so fast that immaterial culture (government, social norms, moral strictures) falls dangerously behind. Some of globalization’s examples of cultural lag are vivid and much discussed. For example, the pollution that envelops a Mexico City or a Bangkok can race ahead of the government’s capacity or will to solve the problem. Other aspects of “cultural lag” are less tangible, but at least as important.
Take family and friends. Strong and intimate social bonds are deeply conducive to happiness. In a U.S. survey, respondents who could list at least five people with whom they had discussed matters of personal significance within the last six months were 60 percent more likely to say they felt “very happy” than people who could list none. People with close friends and kin also handle stress, illness, and career setbacks better.
Moving from an agrarian to an industrial society can upset the social structures in which social bonds are embedded, a fact now evident across the developing world. In Brazil, a worker in the “informal sector” gets up each day, takes a bus out to an industrial area, then starts walking back toward his slum, stopping at work sites along the way in hopes of landing a few hours of labor. If he succeeds, he may spend the day among strangers; if he fails, he spends it alone. In India, journalist Robert Kaplan writes of “polluted, grimy factory encampments” where tens of millions of migrants, no longer tethered to the norms of the rural village, are “assaulted by the temptations of the pseudo-Western city—luxury cars, night clubs, gangs, pornographic movies.”
Of course, the modernized nations underwent a roughly comparable transition—and lived to tell about it. In the United States at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, as young men and women moved from farm to city and workplaces became larger and more impersonal, there was a palpable sense of social crisis. The examples from Brazil and India are reminiscent of the United States’ turn-of-the-century working-class slums, where rural migrants, remote from their families, tried to scratch out a living amid disease, corruption, and new forms of temptation. Yet by World War II, Americans had at least partly succeeded in weaving a new social fabric—building stable urban neighborhoods and founding social clubs and civic groups.
Still, today’s developing nations are facing this adjustment in fast forward: Some are starting out more agrarian than the United States was in the late 19th century and are being asked to move not just into the industrial age, but into the electronic age—an age that even “modern” nations are struggling to cope with. In the United States, television has been famously blamed by political scientist Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone) for helping to fray that recently woven industrial-age social fabric and eroding everything from civic participation to picnic attendance. (People who watch lots of TV, by the way, are unusually unhappy, though that could be because unhappiness leads people to watch TV.)
On paper, the newer electronic technologies—microcomputers, modems—might seem just what the doctor ordered. Unlike TV, they are tools of communication, even long-distance friendship. But there are reasons to doubt that they will bring widespread bliss to any part of the world at any time soon.
One reason is that cybercafes were not part of the environment in which Homo sapiens evolved. We most naturally get social gratification from face-to-face contact, not from sentences on a computer screen. What’s more, we seem to have evolved in a context of small and intimate communities that offered the chance for long-term social bonds; what we need isn’t just “friends” in the sense of “acquaintances” or even “colleagues,” but actual friends. (To an evolutionary psychologist, it is no surprise that U.S. soldiers placed in 12-person teams with stable membership wind up mentally healthier and happier about their jobs than soldiers assigned to large groups with fluid membership.) And information technology, while offering the potential for intimate communication, often fails to deliver.
Just look at all the names in your e-mail address book. My, but you’re well connected! But “well connected” doesn’t mean “deeply connected.” It means widely and shallowly connected. You communicate with many people along narrow channels of common interest, and you get to know few of them well. Of course, different people use technology differently, and your mileage may vary. But for many people, at least, e-mail only sustains the trend—which David Riesman described in his 1950 book The Lonely Crowd—away from a solid grounding in kin and trusted friends and toward the superficiality of broad and efficient social networks. It is in the world described by Riesman that rates of depression and suicide have grown.
Information technology also abets the much-noted transience of the modern workplace. Deft communication makes it easier for companies to find temporary workers, easier for slightly underpaid executives to find their full market value at another firm—easier, in general, for economic efficiency to trump social stability. According to a study published by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, the number of companies the average executive has worked for grew over the last decade from three to five. And many people don’t work for companies in the traditional sense at all—they just contract with them. The resulting “free-agent” culture has made many people richer (especially people at income levels where money doesn’t make you much happier anyway) by making their social environment less solid.
On the cusp of globalization is the ultimate in high-tech transience—the consultants and lawyers and corporate execs who spread their time among so many nations that they almost cease to have a homeland. This is the class dubbed “the cosmocrats” in A Future Perfect, the recent book on globalization by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. I have always had trouble working up sympathy for people who seldom fly coach, and reading this book’s description of the cosmocrats—“an anxious elite” who face “the perils of placelessness”—failed to wrench a single tear from my eye. Still, it is true that many cosmocrats live in a vast and fluid web of facile connections. We don’t yet know whether this can bring long-term happiness, but we do know that this isn’t the way human beings were designed to live.
It is important to guard against overextrapolating from these information-age trends. In many cases, there is little point in extrapolating at all. The information age and globalization are still young. As the World Wide Web goes broadband, making real-time video more practical, rendering “tele-presence” more and more realistic, the Web could well become a more gratifying medium, allowing even “placeless” elites to stay deeply in touch with a core of intimates. But there is one rule about evolving information technology that is sure to hold, however broad the band—and this rule underscores the perils of “cultural lag.” As more and more powerful means of communication become cheaper and cheaper, groups of people with common interests will find it easier and easier to organize. In most cases this will be wonderful—or, at least, not bad. But in an age when rapid social transformation is giving some groups deep grievances, this new capacity for mobilization will also lead to trouble.
In fact, leave aside the many new and coming grievances. There are enough groups with long-simmering grievances—Kurds, Basques, Chinese Muslims, various Indonesian minorities—for real havoc to ensue, given the growing access to potent technologies of organization and potent munitions. When you add in the backlashes fomented by globalization—among militias in the U.S. heartland, rabid nationalists in Russia and Germany, and alienated religious fundamentalists worldwide—the picture only gets spookier.
To be sure, the threat that information technologies pose to entrenched, centralized powers very often serves just causes, notably freedom and democracy. But even political improvement can be deeply unsettling when it is sudden. The lowest national happiness level ever recorded anywhere was in the Dominican Republic in 1962, not long after the assassination of the dictator Rafael Trujillo—which, in retrospect, was the first in a series of steps toward democracy. And, leaving survey data aside, when political turmoil brings widespread death, as it often does, lots of people forever cease to be happy.
Take It Down a Notch
The author Dorothy Parker, when asked if she enjoyed writing, supposedly replied, “No. I enjoy having written.” So it sometimes is with historical progress. It could well turn out that having globalized is more fun than globalizing. Though the ends of globalization are fundamentally good—reducing poverty, nurturing democracy and freedom—the process of globalizing can be quite costly in human terms, especially when it moves at high velocity. How to proceed when the destination is good but the journey dicey? One approach is to just get it over with. Certainly a good piece of advice to Parker would have been: Sit down and get the thing written and quit wallowing in the agony of creativity! But there is a difference. Writing isn’t massively more painful when fast than when slow. But globalizing can be. With technological and social change, there can be discontinuities of consequence; above a critical velocity, the negative fallout may grow by orders of magnitude.
One reason is the growing access to catastrophic technologies, most notably biological and nuclear weapons. But even past eras with lower-tech forms of slaughter attest to the toll that history can take when it’s on fast forward. As the Industrial Revolution, having matured fairly gradually in westernmost Europe, swept rapidly eastward in the late 19th century, it brought extreme social dislocation to German lands and to Russia. It is not crazy, indeed, to see both the virulent German nationalism of the 20th century and Stalin’s reign of terror as long-run consequences of this disruptive change. By extension, it is not crazy to see the current suffering in the former Soviet bloc—the unhappiest place on Earth—as the stubborn legacy of overly rapid 19th-century globalization.
So what would a utilitarian God advise? I doubt that the advice would be to systematically slow down globalization. Trying to fine-tune the velocity of history seems beyond our mortal capacity. Still, maybe we should look with increased sympathy on policy ideas that have plausible internal logic and may have the side effect of slightly slowing down globalization. Consider Robert Frank’s plan for dampening luxury fever. By Frank’s analysis, remember, people in affluent nations who pursue happiness via money and status are playing a zero-sum game. But that doesn’t mean that pursuing happiness by any means would be zero-sum; if you spend more time with friends, you and the friends feel better and no one need suffer.
Ah, Frank asks, but where does the ardent happiness maximizer find the time to spend with friends? After all, if you cut back on your work hours, your income and status might slip; you could lose an increment of happiness to a rival. That is the paradox: If everyone in an affluent society cut back on their work so their relative incomes didn’t change, they could all spend more time with friends—and the society’s overall happiness would grow. Yet it may not be in the best interest of any one person to take the initiative. What we need, says Frank, is a way to halt the individually rational but collectively futile status-seeking arms race and use the time to pursue happiness more wisely. He proposes a progressive consumption tax that would, among other virtues, discourage 60-hour workweeks.
No doubt such a tax would cut demand for some products made in the developing world. It would, in that sense, subdue globalization. But when globalization is already moving at a mildly scary pace, this slowdown is not necessarily an indictment of the proposal.
So too with various initiatives that might otherwise be shouted down because they slightly slow the wheels of commerce. If a fossil fuel tax designed to fight global warming has the side effect of dampening demand for cars, that needn’t be considered a flaw. You could say much the same about putting environmental and labor accords in trade agreements. On the one hand, we shouldn’t pretend that such accords won’t slightly reduce the rate at which globalization boosts the standard of living in developing countries. But neither should we ignore the possibility that, given globalization’s eerie velocity, this sedative effect would have an upside. If such accords help solve environmental problems or help soften the resentment toward globalization felt by low-wage workers in affluent nations, so much the better.
If you find yourself losing sleep over the idled Sri Lankan factory workers that a slightly slowed globalization implies, there are ways to ease your anxiety: Donate money to charities that provide food and medicine to the world’s poorest. Unless you are yourself poor, you weren’t getting much joy out of those few dollars anyway. Besides, one psychologist found that performing altruistic acts gives people a psychological lift. And another found that teenagers who were especially concerned with the welfare of others were especially happy. Apparently, giving things to people can be a non-zero-sum game. Human nature is full of ironies.
Globalization, given enough time, could itself bring one final irony. Suppose that, as technology continues to shrink distances, the world truly becomes a “global village,” and a sense of common belonging suffuses all humankind. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Maybe not. To the extent that happiness depends on how your social station compares with that of your neighbors, the happiness of poor nations might suffer. Upon seeing rich nations up close and personal, people in the developing world could start using them as a reference point and then feel deflated by the comparison.
Indeed, one psychologist, Michael Hagerty, has speculated that the global telecommunications web is already becoming dense enough for these “comparison effects” to take a toll. And telecommunications aside, as more cosmocrats conspicuously roam more cities in more developing nations, the toll could grow. The world’s poor may soon acquire a strong—and increasingly collective—sense of envy and resentment toward the world’s collective rich.
On the other hand, as economic development proceeds, and both the poor and the rich in developing nations become better off, this very sort of transnational class consciousness could begin to deter war among nations. One effective antiwar activity is networking among national elites—from the United States to China to Botswana. A similar connectedness among the world’s lower socioeconomic classes could have the same effect; the more people have in common with kindred spirits abroad, and the more conscious of this commonality they become, the less prone they will be to a purely nationalist fervor.
Such a supranational class conflict would always hold the threat of turning violent. But assuming the world’s upper classes have the presence of mind to minimize resentment with ameliorative economic and social policies, any such warfare is unlikely to be as destructive as the 20th century’s wars among nations were. It is also unlikely to match the horrors of current ethnically based civil wars (which, you will note, tend to afflict nations not deeply and richly embedded in the global economy). Given the alternatives, a certain degree of class conflict on a global scale is a problem we should be happy to face.