Isolationism, fragmentation, and pessimism always fail. Globalization has been everyone’s favorite punching bag for a while. It is hard to feel optimistic about its prospects. However, globalization has a better future. If you are a fan of globalization, cooperation, and comparative advantage, the last decade has been extremely challenging. Ten years ago was a time of optimism on a global scale. However, economic and geopolitical forces have combined to add friction and fragmentation to global exchange. The benefits are now even greater and with everyone’s self-interest and mutual benefit, this geopolitical stalemate will pass – more quickly than is commonly thought today. Cooperation, integration, and mutual benefit win in the end. It is a time to be optimistic once again.
Zero-sum thinking has begun. Despite comparative advantage, mutual cooperation, and specialization proving indisputably more beneficial than any other approach to economic interaction, this ideal is under threat. Rules and norms for economic integration lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, created an order-of-magnitude increase in the average wealth of the Western population, and benefited countless hundreds of millions enabling a way of life otherwise unimaginable post-World War II. Now that system is under threat as developed countries subsidize alternative energy, attract manufacturing via expensive subsidies, and restrict the flow of goods and capital. Mutual benefit is out; national gain is now the highest priority. In other words, stupidity and zero-sum thinking have taken over. A handful of bureaucrats, regardless of how brilliant each may be, can never equal the mind of the market. Management and control usually spell disaster eventually. Managed focus on technological development for products and services the central government believes have greater substantial benefit to the overall society may not be calamitous, but the law of unintended consequences has not been repealed. It will be inefficient, substandard, and create potentially dangerous side effects. Innovation, creative freedom, and unstructured thought are essential components to the development of any technology of substance and disruptive benefit.
The “Thucydides trap” is where a rising nation-state – for Thucydides it was Athens – must eventually have a violent confrontation with the existing dominant nation-state – Sparta in his time. It is a zero-sum game where there can be only one dominant nation-state as the eventual winner – and it is usually assumed to be the rising nation-state outdoing the dominant nation-state.
Today, many “experts” (and I have great disdain for self-proclaimed experts) believe this is the circumstance between the US and China. We are headed toward violent confrontation where there can be only one winner. I read the book by Thucydides about the conflict between Athens and Sparta (I cannot be dispassionate here about that outcome because my family is from Sparta on my father’s side). But I fundamentally disagree with Thucydides’s historical descriptions being used as analysis by anyone to describe global events, especially those between the US and China.
We are rapidly approaching a zero-interest rate world. Interest rates are being driven to zero (or below zero in many cases) as a first-line tool for central banks to generate economic activity in the face of the dramatic negative impact of the pandemic, as well as existing and lingering economic fallout. This toolbox will be empty soon, and the only remaining weapon will be fiscal policy. Among other things, fiscal policy and domestic financial markets will have an overwhelming influence on global currencies. Capital flows will dramatically impact currency volatility as capital moves to more attractive countries with more liquid and robust asset markets.
A global economic and political chess game is on between the United States and China. There are many moves, defensive and offensive strategies, short- and long-term gains, but, unlike chess, mutual victory is possible. But only if the U.S. and China understand each piece, all the potential moves, what can be sacrificed, and what victory really looks like. But this does not appear to be happening. Instead of working for mutual benefit, regardless of fundamental cultural and political differences, we are now drawing bright lines demarking battle zones. The result will be economic and technical inefficiency and degradation in the quality of life, safety, and prosperity for everyone.