Substitution vs complement
Fifteen years ago, American workers were worried about competition from cheaper Mexican substitutes. And that made sense, because humans really can substitute for each other. Today people think they can hear Ross Perot’s “giant sucking sound” once more, but they trace it back to server farms somewhere in Texas instead of cut-rate factories in Tijuana. Americans fear technology in the near future because they see it as a replay of the globalization of the near past. But the situations are very different: people compete for jobs and for resources; computers compete for neither. Globalization Means Substitution When Perot warned about foreign competition, both George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton preached the gospel of free trade: since every person has a relative strength at some particular job, in theory the economy maximizes wealth when people specialize according to their advantages and then trade with each other. In practice, it’s not unambiguously clear how well free trade has worked, for many workers at least. Gains from trade are greatest when there’s a big discrepancy in comparative advantage, but the global supply of workers willing to do repetitive tasks for an extremely small wage is extremely large. People don’t just compete to supply labor; they also demand the same resources. While American consumers have benefited from access to cheap toys and textiles from China, they’ve had to pay higher prices for the gasoline newly desired by millions of Chinese motorists. Whether people eat shark fins in Shanghai or fish tacos in San Diego, they all need food and they all need shelter. And desire doesn’t stop at subsistence—people will demand ever more as globalization continues. Now that millions of Chinese peasants can finally enjoy a secure supply of basic calories, they want more of them to come from pork instead of just grain. The convergence of desire is even more obvious at the top: all oligarchs have the same taste in Cristal, from Petersburg to Pyongyang.
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