Thursday, November 29, 2012

The 'Inside Economy': Recovering From Rhetoric

Joshua Cooper Ramo somewhat spills the beans in his latest article in Fortune (read here) and says a thing that everyone knew but was afraid of saying: That, to quote Ramo, "globalisation has a reverse gear". Citing arguments that would be familiar to those who followed Pankaj Ghemawat's work (see his TED presentation here), Ramo makes the case for the "inside economy", one made of local consumers and producers, that is fast filling the gap left by the receding global trade.

The point is - we know this already. India, as I have argued before, rode through the tides of global recession looking inward: While its outwardly-orientated industries, IT and Aviation for example, took a beating, the ones serving domestic demand, manufacturing, retail and financial services delivered steady growth and jobs. China turned its economy slowly from an export-driven one to one aligned to local consumption - the slowing of Chinese growth, in my view, is an indicator of this change, rather than its fallibility - and, as Ramo argues, America is doing the same.

However, while the facts are quite clear, the interpretation of it begs a debate. In Ramo's view, this somewhat means we have overdone globalisation, moved too far too fast. However, in reality, we actually never got started. Indeed, the rhetoric - of 'flat world' - and its messiahs, such as Tom Friedman, overtook the reality; this, coupled with neo-liberal conquest of the world, made us, at least those of us who read English language news, believe that globalisation is complete, irreversible and a natural next step in history. This is 'globalony', as Pankaj Ghemawat calls it, a sensationalism that may sell books but eventually leads to reactions such as Ramo's, which denounces the effects of something that never happened. This is where the 'inside economy' argument starts getting problematic.

The 'inside economy' isn't a new reality, but one that was always there: Just that it was unexciting and didn't get the share of the rhetoric. Let's consider India: The middle class boy who huddled through a newly formed Engineering College and suddenly is sent abroad, may be making it his first Aeroplane trip, made a much better story than those village boys who goes to the city and sets up a small shop, but the latter is both more numerous and had more impact, in relative terms, among people around them. The Chinese trinkets, flooding its own market and Asia, were not hailed as the coming of the great power, but the produces of its slave labour, our shiny new iPads, certainly were. And, the worst kept secret of American business was its 'inside economy' - only 1% of any American company had any operation abroad - and the reason American businesses do well is because they could tap into a ready market of consumers who were willing to take risks.

So, in the end, Mr Ramo's presentation isn't in line with Mr Ghemawat's, but its opposite. Mr Ramo seemed to have bought into the flat world exuberance, only to suffer disillusionment as he discovered the twists and turns. His conclusions, in retrospective, are dangerous: We did not do Globalisation too fast, we never did it. We mixed up globalisation with the movements of global capital, which surely moved faster than ever, but that makes no difference to people and lives and even real businesses. And, besides, if we have to get out of this recession, what we need is more globalisation, not less.

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