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Researcher Max Roser tweets, “The world population living in extreme poverty fell from 1.85 billion in 1990 to 0.76 billion in 2013.” And that astonishing stat is depicted in the above chart at his Our World in Data site. And as I have frequently written, you can thank globalization. But trade has trade-offs, even if beneficial in the aggregate and for most Americans. For example: Some American communities suffered loss of industry and jobs from the “China trade shock” and never really recovered.
All of which raises an interesting question. What does America owe Americans vs. people who live elsewhere? One view is a sort of strong cosmopolitanism which treats all as equal and having equal claims, no matter on what side a national border they live. Someone holding such a view might, for instance, be particularly sympathetic to the idea of letting very high numbers of immigrants — no matter their education or skill level or impact — enter the country and work. Or redistributing wealth from rich nations to poor, even if it meant higher taxes on the middle class in that rich nation.
Nobel laureate Angus Deaton recently explored this issue of “cosmopolitan prioritarianism,” in an essay:
The globalization that has rescued so many in poor countries has harmed some people in rich countries, as factories and jobs migrated to where labor is cheaper. This seemed to be an ethically acceptable price to pay, because those who were losing were already so much wealthier (and healthier) than those who were gaining. A long-standing cause of discomfort is that those of us who make these judgments are not exactly well placed to assess the costs. Like many in academia and in the development industry, I am among globalization’s greatest beneficiaries – those who are able to sell our services in markets that are larger and richer than our parents could have dreamed of.
Globalization is less splendid for those who not only don’t reap its benefits, but suffer from its impact. We have long known that less-educated and lower-income Americans, for example, have seen little economic gain for four decades, and that the bottom end of the US labor market can be a brutal environment. But just how badly are these Americans suffering from globalization? Are they much better off than the Asians now working in the factories that used to be in their hometowns?
Citizenship comes with a set of rights and responsibilities that we do not share with those in other countries. Yet the “cosmopolitan” part of the ethical guideline ignores any special obligations we have toward our fellow citizens. We can think about these rights and obligations as a kind of mutual insurance contract: We refuse to tolerate certain kinds of inequality for our fellow citizens, and each of us has a responsibility to help – and a right to expect help – in the face of collective threats. These responsibilities do not invalidate or override our responsibilities to those who are suffering elsewhere in the world, but they do mean that if we judge only by material need, we risk leaving out important considerations.
When citizens believe that the elite care more about those across the ocean than those across the train tracks, insurance has broken down, we divide into factions, and those who are left behind become angry and disillusioned with a politics that no longer serves them. We may not agree with the remedies that they seek, but we ignore their real grievances at their peril and ours.
Deaton expanded on his views in a recent EconTalk podcast.