A poisonous mix of inequality and sluggish wages threatens globalisation Jan 18th 2007
GLUERS and sawyers from the furniture factories in Galax near the mountains of Virginia lost their jobs last year when American retailers decided they could find a better supplier in China. At the other end of the furniture industryRobert Nardelli lost his job this month when Home Depot decided it could find a better chief executive in his deputy. But any likeness ends there. Mr Nardelli's exit was as extravagantly rewarded as his occupation of the corner office had been. Next to his $210m severance pay, the redundant woodworkers' packages were mean to the point of provocation.
That's the way it goes all over the rich world.Since 2001 the pay of the typical worker in the United States has been stuck, with real wages growing less than half as fast as productivity. By contrast, the executive types gathering for the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland next week have enjoyed a Beckhamesque bonanza. If you look back 20 years, the total pay of the typical top American manager has increased from roughly 40 timesthe average—the level for four decades—to 110 times the average now.
These are the glory days of global capitalism. The mix of technology and economic integration transforming the world has created unparalleled prosperity. In the past five years the world has seen faster growth than at any time since the early 1970s. In China each person now produces four times as much as in the early 1990s.Having joined the global labour force, hundreds of millions of people in developing countries have won the chance to escape squalor and poverty. Hundreds of millions more stand to join them.
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That promises to improve the lot of humanity as a whole incalculably. But inthe rich world labour's share of GDP has fallen to historic lows, while profits are soaring. A clamour is abroad that Mr Nardelli and his friends among the top hundredth—or even the top thousandth—of the population are seizing the lion's share of globalisation's gains. Meanwhile everyone else—not just blue-collar factory workers but also the wider office-working middle class—shuffles along, grimlywaiting for the next round of cost-cuts. They are not happy.
Fear and clothing
Signs of a backlash abound. Stephen Roach, the chief economist at Morgan Stanley, has counted 27 pieces of anti-China legislation in Congress since early 2005. The German Marshall Fund found last year that, although most people still say they favour trade, more than half of Americans want to protect companies fromforeign competition even if that slows growth. In a hint of labour's possible resurgence, the House of Representatives has just voted to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in a decade. Even Japan is alarmed about inequality, stagnant wages and jobs going to China. Europe has tied itself in knots trying to “manage” trade in Chinese textiles. The Doha round of trade talks is dying.What is to be done about this poisonous mix? If globalisation depends upon voters who, as workers, no longer think they gain from it, how long before democracies start to put up barriers to trade? If all the riches go to the summit of society and that summit seems beyond everybody else's reach, are the wealth-creators under threat?
Should you blame China or your computer?
The panic comes inpart from a rush to lump all the blame on globalisation. Technology—an even less resistible force—is also destroying white- and blue-collar tasks in a puff of automation and may play a bigger role in explaining rising wage inequality and the sluggish growth of middling wages. The distinctions between technology and globalisation count, if only because people tend to welcome computers but condemn...