Will global losers turn on the US?
Sunday 05 December 1999
"Where the hell are you?"
"I'm in the queue at McDonald's."
"Yeah - in Shanghai, China. It's the only food I like here."
This exchange, unthinkable only a few years ago, encapsulates both the rise of global brands and the reach of global communication. Concepts like the "global village" refer to the increasing similarity of life wherever you are on the globe. Globalisation is in the ascendancy, powered by the expansion of the internet and the supremacy of English as the world language. It is being accelerated by the end of the Cold War, and is increasingly aided by the fast movements of international capital and the strengthening of global institutions such as the IMF. The violent demonstrations this week in Seattle and London were directed at such institutions. Why?
A banker friend describes a scene last week. In a room filled with the stench of desperation and hot air, a young man in a white shirt and Bloomingdale's tie engages his audience through steel-rimmed glasses. His harsh MBA accent grates on the Slavonic ears that strain to understand his English. He is not talking to them. He is lecturing them. They hold the begging bowl in the game of global finance. He is the one who is making the handouts.
Do the commissars of the IMF enjoy their missions? They sweep up the debris left by capitalism. Real power in the world today is increasingly being taken out of the hands of politicians. It resides, instead, with brokers, bankers and investors who sweep into a country and its currency. Play the game right and they will bring you prosperity. Play the game wrong, and you'll be listening to the man with the steel-rimmed glasses.
What concerns some observers most, however, is that globalisation is becoming a hideous proxy for Americanisation. Discussion of the conflict between Vodafone AirTouch and Mannesmann is a perfect example. The wicked continentals are once more caricatured for their failure to accept the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon model.
To America the merger mania gripping Europe is as much a consequence of the fat many European companies carry as the breaking down of national barriers post the euro. Wall Street financiers look at the euro nifty fifty and they slaver.
As America triumphs in the world of business, what comes next? David Rothkopf, a former US Under Secretary of State, is clear. He says: "Americans should not deny the fact that, of all the nations in the history of the world, theirs is the best model for the future." There is an increasing debate about whether the success of the American business model is telling us something about the superiority of their political systems.
The UK government is in the middle of this debate. A few weeks ago Gordon Brown called in Jonathan Freedland, the author of Bring Home the Revolution, for a chat. This persuasive book argues that Britain should look again at what we can learn about the American concept of liberty and the way this helps them build their economic miracle. Mr Freedland takes pride in the inextricable link between liberty and capitalism and argues that the high degree of local democracy fosters a successful business climate. He particularly cites the election of local officials.
But do we want this model of society? Increased local democracy can have adverse consequences of the "not in our back yard" variety. I was in Florida earlier this year. The local populace of a town stretching over 20 miles had just voted to continue a ban on public transport! They did this "to keep out undesirables".
Equally we would have to be prepared for what electing officials can mean. A Southern wife came upon her husband in bed with his mistress. Enraged, she took her gun and shot them both dead. A local wave of sympathy saw the jury acquit her. She then proceeded to stand for local judge. She won. This kind of system can mean killers as judges.
Surely, it is time for us all to take a good look at all of the models on offer. The US model may be in the ascendancy, but is this not a consequence of the particular technological changes of the Nineties being American. In the 1980s, talk was of the Japanese economic miracle and of German super-efficiency. Where is such talk now?
Globalisation is a game that every country can play - but only one can win. If we allow that victory to take place without rules, and to be too complete, we may have cause for regret. The losers may just up-end the monopoly board.
Christopher Walker is a director of Hill Samuel: christopher.walker @hsam.co.uk
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