BOOKSHELF : Globalisation and the Wealth of Nations

By: Brian Easton
Publisher: Auckland University
Price: $49.99
Reviewer: Bryan Gould

Books on globalisation are coming thick and fast – not surprisingly, in view of the immense impact of the global economy on so much of modern life. Most reflect particular view – favourable or hostile – of its operations, and invite us either to celebrate or condemn its consequences.
Brian Easton, however, deliberately refrains in his new book from telling us what to think. His approach is, as evidenced by the broad ambit of his title, consciously broad-brush. He deals with themes and contributory factors. His object is to broaden our understanding of the global phenomenon, by exploring where it has come from, what trends and influences shape its development and what we might legitimately expect from it.
But, at another level, he looks constantly to the specific in order to illustrate those broad themes. He takes particular instances or individual events to illustrate – or at least to allow the reader to illuminate – broad trends and influences. So, he looks at Samoa or Hawaii to show the importance of location; he chooses the worldwide common calendar to make point about the limitations of national sovereignty. He invites us to draw our own conclusions as he guides us through his chosen examples.
The global economy has, arguably, had greater impact in New Zealand than almost anywhere else, by virtue of the wholehearted commitment we have made to it – commitment which, unlike similar commitments made by larger and much more powerful economies, brings with it little ability to influence the forces it unleashes but requires us simply to accept what we believe we cannot change. Because it impacts us so strongly, we need to know as much as we can about it and our place in it. Brian Easton – as befits New Zealand’s most influential economist – recognises this in the sense that he discusses the New Zealand experience as constant reference point in trying to place globalisation in recognisable context.
His major thesis is that globalisation is to be defined in terms of diminishing distance. He argues that the huge advances in the ease and speed of both physical travel and transport, and electronic communication, have led to an inevitable integration of regional and national economies. Using this definition, he is able to argue that there is nothing very new or remarkable about globalisation. It has, he says, been with us for good or ill for very long time. It is akin to natural phenomenon, to which the correct response is neither endorsement nor resistance, but rather an acceptance and commitment to make it work.
Not everyone will be convinced by this apparent detachment. To some, it will seem that Easton’s approach defines away the real difficulties thrown up by this most recent, global manifestation of “free-market” economics. There is little recognition here that today’s global economy – while owing much to earlier stages in its development – now operates in qualitatively different way, and that, by virtue of the power and reach of its major players, it now represents huge swing in the balance of power between global capital on the one hand and those other forces – such as democracy – that have historically been brought into play in order to counteract it on the other.
Brian Easton is, however, far from an unreserved apologist for rampant global economy. He identifies many of the downsides and the threats that are implicit in its untrammelled operation. But his advice, so far as he offers any, is little like that offered by Otago University’s television advertising campaign – “Get over it!” He counsels us to accept that the global economy is here to stay, and that we must learn to make the best of it.
Whether that means that we must take whatever comes, however, is open to further debate. We should have little problem in accepting his basic advice, but we might still look to applying more effective regulation of global market forces, so that they better serve the wider interest. The real question about the global economy is not so much what it is or where it came from but whether we can make it work fairly and productively for all of us.

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