Economist Jeffrey Garten has focused his life work on the ever-spreading force of globalization. So you would expect that today's politics, spilling out uncaring isolationism and attacks on the political status quo, would have shaken his view of the world.
Garten, however, seems unfazed.
Garten has stated that the need for connection and exchange is just as elemental as any human urge. Globalization is an inevitable force intangible to what it means to be human. It's a force, Garten adds, that will exist as long as technological society does.
"The trend that cannot be stopped by anything is the urge for people to get closer and closer together,” Garten said recently at Mercy Corps’ international headquarters in Portland, Ore. The presentation was sponsored by Global Envision.
Garten has studied the global economy from all angles: as a managing director of Lehman Brothers, in three presidential administrations and, now, as Dean Emeritus at the Yale School of Management.
The panoramic vantage point he takes might lend him this calm—Garten suggests that globalization is best looked at in the big picture. His 2016 book, “From Silk to Silicon: The Story of Globalization Through Ten Extraordinary Lives,” covers a massive time frame. While some historians identify the birth of globalization with the maritime European empires in the 16th century, Garten starts out with the conquests of Genghis Khan.
"The things we hear about—that trade slows down, international banking has taken a plunge—these are just little pieces of a much bigger mosaic,” Garten said. “Globalization is getting faster, getting wider, becoming deeper and there's no way to stop it."
Despite the positive light Garten sheds on globalism, recent waves of nationalist politics have challenged his position. During the last U.S. election, Garten and other mainstream economists found their free trade stance either criticized or ignored. However, he’s still fairly certain that the momentum behind the machine of globalization can only be slowed, never stopped.
What’s notable about Garten's central stance on foreign aid is that isolationism is not only an unwise policy, it's for all intents and purposes impossible.
"If Trump says, 'I'm not going to deal with NAFTA' and people say that globalization is going away, then they are looking through a tiny lens,” Garten said. “You can't equate that with putting a monkey wrench in the wheels of globalization. It's not going anywhere."
Garten seemed well aware that while economics might be abstract in nature, its impact isn’t. It’s a force that contracts out people’s livelihood, and fuels wealth inequality—though Garten pointed out that it’s actually improved equality on a global scale. But a more gentle form of capitalism could be healthy and sustainably protect a planet with limited resource.
“Capitalism has been a motor for globalization,” Garten said. “But if we have a kind of capitalism that focuses more on sustainability, I don't think it should interfere with globalization at all. Whether it's sustainability or climate change, there are a lot of things we need to focus on closer to home so our societies are in better shape to engage with other societies."
Throughout the evening, Garten portrayed globalization as a constant in a shifting political landscape. Globalization will continue its inexhaustible expansion, but it might be under a different geopolitical context than the world today. Garten says he prefers a liberal capitalist form of government but recognized that may not be sustainable in an era of intensifying globalization. Authoritarian governments could sprout up. We could see the regional merger of countries. Garten said that he’d place good money that North America becomes much more integrated and entwined.
Economics can be an overly computational subject, but Garten talks about globalization almost existentially, pointing out the human need for connection and exchange. Despite the difficulty of bringing human warmth to the subject, Garten’s talk was positive in nature, albeit a notional one.
“It's possible that globalization will slow”, he said. “It's not possible that anything we see will stop globalization. I feel very certain that whoever writes this book in 50 years will write the same book, only with different people. But it will not be about how globalization collapsed."