Easterbrook, Gregg, Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed, Random House: 2009, 243pp.
Sonic Boom falls within the genre of the quick-reading airport business book. Using a series of places as exemplars (Shenzhen, Waltham MA, Yakutsk, Erie PA, etc.), the author shows how a globalized economy can create prosperity from swampland, and restore prosperity to Rust-Belt and 19th century industrial hubs. The writing is crisp and smooth. The manner is often witty, and occasionally wise-ass. It’s anything but turgid … which is a great relief from many of the “big think” books which come and go on the bestseller lists.
Easterbrook’s central theme is that globalization is a net plus for the world, but it also creates accelerating levels of change and uncertainty for all participants. And he feels that both trends will continue. He makes the effort (in distinction to the MSM) to uncover the positive changes to mortality, health, and prosperity for the world’s people in the past century and even more in the past two decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The case for “uncertainty,” on the other hand, could hardly have been made more emphatically than by the economic and political events of the last 18 months. And in line with his earlier book, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, increased quality of life doesn’t necessarily translate to more personal happiness.
For readers of this blog, this may all seem old hat. Free markets, free trade, “Creative destruction,” etc. etc. Readers more interested in the nuts and bolts explanation of globalization’s success might better refer to Martin Wolf’s Why Globalization Works but Easterbrook’s book might be a fine option as a gift for teenagers or for friends whose “to hell in a handbasket” experience of modern life is leaving them at loose ends.
The optimistic (if cautionary) tone of the book is compromised a bit, to my mind, by Mr. Easterbrook’s concluding chapters. His enthusiasm for better health care and education as a foundation for further American prosperity is admirable. Betraying his Brookings Institution background, however, his solutions for more equitable distribution of the benefits of these two industries harken to an earlier era and betray none of the optimism and “silver lining” perspective of earlier chapters.
Education and heath-care costs are increasing at a rate that out-paces inflation. While Easterbrook is methodical in his earlier explanation of how people leave the farms for factories, and then for service industry and white-collar work … he doesn’t seem to spot the same pattern in the allocation of individual or family budgets over the last century.
We are no longer an agricultural society. Nor one based around industrial factories. For a brief shining moment, Western prosperity was so dominant, and medicine’s successes and failures were so starkly drawn (in favour of increased life expectancy at modest cost), that the majority of people could aspire for suburban comfort and prosperity while paying diminishing attention to the costs of all else: Not to food, not to heat, not to clothing, not to tuition or doctor’s bills. They fulfilled their aspirations by dedicating the majority of middle-class family budgets to vehicles, real estate, and vacations. Such priorities may no longer be sustainable. Making an adjustment in 21st century dreams may be far more wrenching than for the generation that moved off the farms or saw the de-industrialization of America.
Health care is becoming increasingly elaborate and increasingly engages the most highly-skilled members of our society. Demand is unlimited (for better, more comprehensive, more insightful care) and supply is necessarily limited. The pressure for cost increases (absolute and relative to other household expenses) is therefore relentless. Similarly with education, elite universities have switched to being prestige engines … effectively a zero-sum game. Frank and Cook’s The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us is a great review of this process in the educational system. As a result, education at the undergraduate level isn’t delivering a knowledge product so much as a social milieu. And that, again, is costed based on highest bidder for service. Even at state schools, the elaborating demands for professional certification necessitate larger budgets and larger fees … not to mention pressure for successful football teams.
Fewer kids, diminished housing and vacation dreams, bigger education and health care bills. I’m not sure how that cycle gets broken at any point in our lifetimes. We no longer dream of forty acres and a mule. Nor of a lush pension after 35 years on the shop floor. We dream nonetheless, and markets respond accordingly. McMansions and tropical beaches are currently a necessity of the good life but “nice-to-haves” and “must-haves” tend to shift over time.
Barring Mr. Easterbrook’s Big Rock Candy Mountain digressions (for which he can’t really be held accountable since they are my hobbyhorses), Sonic Boom is an upbeat, well-written book that explains the impact and trends associated with globalization in plain language. Recommended for readers seeking a quick introduction to the subject.