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How globalization works

Jan 18, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 17 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Sonic Boom

Globalization at Mach Speed
by Gregg Easterbrook
Random House, 272 pp., $26

I didn’t realize I was a worrywart until I read Sonic Boom.

Gregg Easterbrook is unique among journalists because his writing highlights the positive trends you never hear about on the nightly news. He’s forever telling us to look on the bright side. His 1995 A Moment on Earth argued that environmental pollution was a solvable problem. Beside Still Waters (1998) attempted to reconcile rationalism with faith. Progress Paradox (2003) tried to figure out why, if almost everything is getting better all the time, we feel so miserable.

In Sonic Boom, Easterbrook argues that despite the recession, globalization is about to go into overdrive. The results will be greater worldwide prosperity and innovation, but also social dislocation and constant stress. What’s more, “the main forces involved cannot be brought to a halt.” I love good news as much as the next guy, but I couldn’t help feeling the trends Easterbrook describes are a little more fragile than he lets on. Encountering a cockeyed optimist forces you to think pessimistically.

Which isn’t to say Easterbrook is incorrect. To the contrary: His thesis is compelling. “Before the downturn that became apparent in 2008,” he writes,

the larger global economic trend for three decades was rising prosperity for almost everyone, accelerating growth, higher living standards for average people, better education, increased ease of communication, low inflation, few shortages, and more personal freedom across most of the family of nations.

Jihadism notwithstanding, the last generation has seen the greatest advances in the human condition, ever. We are richer, we live longer, we are smarter (IQs appear to rise over time in a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect), we are safer, we are more productive, and we are freer. Leave Boomer nostalgia to shows like Mad Men, where it belongs. The recession is bad, but like all recessions it will come to an end. Quite frankly, there has never been a better time to be alive.

Why? Globalization. Easterbrook begins his narrative in the late 1970s, when China’s Deng Xiaoping declared the small fishing village of Shenzhen a “special economic zone” where markets could operate more or less freely. Today, Shenzhen is a city of nine million and one of the busiest ports in the world. The market revolution of the late 1970s and early ’80s, in Deng’s China but also in Margaret Thatcher’s U.K. and Ronald Reagan’s USA, set into motion a period of global economic integration, technological innovation, and almost uninterrupted prosperity. Between 1982 and 2007, America experienced only two recessions, and they were among the shortest and shallowest on record. Beginning in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet empire freed markets, liberated peoples, and seriously diminished the incidence of military conflict. All of this coincided with a revolution in electronics that dramatically lowered the cost of information, ramped up productivity, allowed practically instantaneous communication with anyone, anywhere on the globe, and created whole new economies on the Internet.

Laptops, cellphones, iPods, Facebook, and Google are important, but the greatest achievement of the age has been the reduction in global poverty. “Of the nearly 2.4 billion men and women who have joined the world’s population in the last three decades—itself an amazing number—only one in nine has been born into terrible conditions,” Easterbrook writes, “while conditions for the other eight fall somewhere on the spectrum of okay to really nice.” Easterbrook illustrates his point well when he points out that, “since beginning to liberalize, China has pulled up out of deep poverty a number almost equivalent to the entire population of Brazil.” If present trends continue—this might not happen—in another 30 years there will be hardly any Chinese living in extreme poverty. India has joined in the game as well, enriching her economy and thereby strengthening her democracy. Nor is the progress limited to the rising powers. In a recent New York Times column, George Mason economist Tyler Cowen pointed out that Indonesia, Brazil, Colombia, and Peru have all made great strides over the last decade. Chile, once an autocratic backwater, is a prosperous market democracy.

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