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The Gift and the Curse of Economic Globalization

By Anum Yoon

In 2016, the global community finds itself on the brink of great and terrible changes. Great and terrible for the same reasons, because after this point, life as we know it could be fundamentally different.

The word on everybody’s lips is globalization. It’s the reason the Trans-Pacific Partnership has emerged as one of the most divisive — and potentially disastrous — trade agreements in the modern history of the United States. Globalization also has a habit of being spoken in the same breath as the word authoritarianism.

But while a certain golden-haired businessman and presidential hopeful might get some of the credit for hastening authoritarianism here in the States, the truth is that it’s been thriving for a great deal longer than his tilt at the presidency.

No. Multinational corporations are the face of both globalization and authoritarianism. They rule over our lives more completely than any U.S. president ever could.

What globalization is supposed to look like

It’s not all bad, of course. The realization that we’re a part of a larger, global economy has led to the democratization of our responses to threats, such as staving off catastrophic climate change and doing battle with the Islamic State. History will tell us decades from now which of these two threats posed an existential threat to the United States’ hegemony and which did not, but for the time being, they both function as rallying issues for both sides of America’s deep partisan divide.

What does the democratization of the world’s threat-response look like? It looks like the nearly 200-nation commitment to climate change action that was signed last year in Paris. It looks like the multinational coalition built in the Middle East to put the Islamic State in its place.

In short, it looks like the nations of the world are having a watershed moment -- coming together in common cause at the moment we need it most.

Unfortunately, non-state actors are also sensing the winds of opportunity. As the nations of the world become ever-more entwined and interconnected, multinational corporations have seen fit to write agreements behind closed doors that would grant them power that eclipses the sovereign governments of the world’s developed countries.

In other words, two steps forward, one giant step back.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is not yet a household name, it soon will be, as excitement — and fatigue — over our ongoing presidential election reaches a crescendo this summer. Unlikely as it seems, democratic candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders — the standard bearer for true American progressivism — has one thing in common with Donald Trump. They both agree that multinational trade deals have been a disaster for the average American and grant too much power to corporations.

Pick up any random object in your house. It could be a shoe, a frying pan or a set of kitchen cutlery. There’s an extremely good chance most or all of these objects bear a label that reads Made in China or Made in Vietnam. Even the chocolate in your Nestle bar comes from farms thousands of miles away from your home — and may even have been cultivated by child slaves, if recent allegations prove true.

It wasn’t always this way — so what happened?

Trade deals happened. Lots of them — from NAFTA and CAFTA to the normalization of trade relations with China. Each of these agreements made it legally, but not morally, defensible to shut down factories on American soil and move them to countries with lower or non-existent minimum wages, in order to cut costs and maximize profit.

Retail juggernaut Walmart has been exploiting this type of trade agreement for a very long time — and it’s hardly alone.

The point is: Globalization has introduced the potential for American workers, who rightly expect a living wage in the year 2016, to be forced to compete with workers in foreign, developing countries — workers who are paid, in some cases, just pennies a day for long hours of backbreaking labor. The so-called ideal of unfettered “free trade” has turned out to be an unmitigated disaster.

The squandered opportunity of globalization

And this reveals a disturbing paradox: Multinational corporations are becoming harder — not easier — to regulate as globalization takes hold. This is a gigantic problem, and it threatens to destroy the already precarious balance of power in the world today.

Language in the Trans-Pacific Partnership would make it possible for multinational corporations to sue the governments of participating nations if those nations attempt to pass laws that would threaten that company’s revenue. The TPP would also dramatically lengthen the time it takes for creative works to enter the public domain, and would make it increasingly difficult for citizens of the world to buy pharmaceuticals at prices that won’t drive them into bankruptcy.

At a time when it’s more important than ever for the world’s governments to stand together in solidarity and in support of average citizens everywhere, we find instead that the power of assembly itself is under assault by entities that answer -- first, foremost and, in some cases, exclusively -- to the pursuit of profit.

Politically-savvy right-wingers have their constituents jumping at the ghost of governmental authoritarianism, but the truth is: Oppression of that scale is already happening — and it begins in corporate board rooms. And for what? So that the U.S. economy can inch ever closer to yet another recession?

Missed opportunities

Globalization should have been a golden opportunity to strive for oneness — or at least a common global cause. Instead, it hangs now like a threat over all of the progress the global economy has made over the last several generations.

There’s no simple solution to this problem. It certainly goes beyond voting for a particular U.S. presidential candidate, although in my opinion a vote for true progressivism is always a step in the right direction. The truth is more complicated, and it demands more of us than just one vote every four years.

It requires us to acknowledge that the people of the world have never had less control over their destinies than they do today. This includes the unemployed factory worker in the United States’ Rust Belt, and it includes the underage cocoa farmer on the Ivory Coast.

Globalization is an opportunity as well as a threat to both of these people. We just have to decide which we’d like it to be.

Image via: IM Creator/ Mugley

Anum Yoon is a writer who is passionate about personal finance and sustainability. She often looks for ways she can incorporate money management with environmental awareness. You can read her updates on <a href="http://www.currentoncurrency.com>Current on Currency</a>.

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