CAMBRIDGE – The world economy has seen globalization collapse once already. The gold standard era – with its free capital mobility and open trade – came to an abrupt end in 1914 and could not be resuscitated after World War I. Are we about to witness a similar global economic breakdown?
The question is not fanciful. Although economic globalization has enabled unprecedented levels of prosperity in advanced countries and has been a boon to hundreds of millions of poor workers in China and elsewhere in Asia, it rests on shaky pillars. Unlike national markets, which tend to be supported by domestic regulatory and political institutions, global markets are only “weakly embedded.” There is no global anti-trust authority, no global lender of last resort, no global regulator, no global safety nets, and, of course, no global democracy. In other words, global markets suffer from weak governance, and therefore from weak popular legitimacy.
Recent events have heightened the urgency with which these issues are discussed. The presidential electoral campaign in the United States has highlighted the frailty of the support for open trade in the world’s most powerful nation. The sub-prime mortgage crisis has shown how lack of international coordination and regulation can exacerbate the inherent fragility of financial markets. The rise in food prices has exposed the downside of economic interdependence without global transfer and compensation schemes.
Meanwhile, rising oil prices have increased transport costs, leading analysts to wonder whether the outsourcing era is coming to an end. And there is always the looming disaster of climate change, which may well be the most serious threat the world has ever faced.