Where Is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz?

“Globalization” is no longer the warm and fuzzy buzzword it was in the ’90s. By the early 2000s, the novelty and luster had rubbed off the optimistic, corporate and neoliberal visions of the world that dominated the closing decade of the 20th century. This shift in perception is the jumping off point for Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz?, a DVD series featuring Nobel Prize winning economist and author of Globalization and Its Discontents (W.W. Norton, 2002), Joseph Stiglitz.

After the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas, the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, the attacks of September 11, 2001 and subsequent downturn in the global economy, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain the argument that globalization, shaped as open, unregulated trade and investment, is creating a rising tide to lift all boats. Growing attention to issues such as the outsourcing of higher end service jobs from the US to India, economic migration from Mexico to the US, which has only increased under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the persistence of crushing poverty in most of sub-Saharan Africa has only served to buoy globalization skeptics.

Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz? attempts to provide answers to what went wrong: why have the promises of prosperity for all gone unrealized and what might be done to remake globalization so that its benefits are, in fact, spread more evenly around the world? Those looking for a primer on key issues related to economic globalization will find this series informative, while those already steeped in the globalization debates may find it to be a useful companion to Stiglitz’s book.

As with George Soros, the allure and mainstrean credibility of Joseph Stiglitz’s skepticism towards maket-led globalization stems from his position as a consummate insider. While more of a career academic than Soros, Stiglitz has also worked as Chief Economist at the World Bank and Chair of Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, and he’s served a number of appointments at a variety of elite institutions, including Yale, Stanford, and, currently, Columbia University. Looking very much the jocular professor with his round face, graying beard, thinning hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, Stiglitz is accessible not only for his reformist content and professional vita, but also his persona. This no doubt played a role in motivating the production of Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz?.

The video series is organized into five parts: Where is Globalization Going, The Global Economy, The Global Financial System, Globalization and the Environment, and Globalization and Developing Nations. The first part lays out Stiglitz’s central argument and previews the sections that follow.

Stiglitz’s thesis rests on the idea that economic globalization, that is, the integration of the world into a single market for goods, services, and investments, is more or less inevitable and could be the boon that its most ardent defenders suggest it is, but thus far the process has been hampered by mismanagement. Specifically, Stiglitz argues that advocates of market liberalization, most of whom are in position to benefit quite directly from such measures, conveniently misunderstand and underestimate the social and economic unevenness of the world. Simply put, not all places are ready to participate in a fully “open” economy.

Rules promulgated through institutions such as the WTO and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are designed with advanced industrial / post-industrial economies in mind. So, for example, within the WTO much attention is paid to preserving the rights of corporate owners of intellectual property, but the rights of countries to manage the import and export of physical goods in ways that are supportive of local enterprises and protective of local resources are effectively erased. Countries that lack goods to trade or the infrastructure to get goods to market and attract investment are not only not in a position to benefit from a free trade / free investment regime, but will only fall further behind those places that are positioned to benefit from such arrangements. Pressure placed on governments to stay out of the economy and reduce public spending compounds these problems by actively preventing the development of the kinds of infrastructure that might boost a country’s ability to participate more equally in the emerging global economy.

For Stiglitz, the unevenness of the world’s political economy is not a necessary feature of capitalism, but the result of what he calls a “democratic deficit” within the institutions that operate on a global scale. Not only are the proceedings of organizations like the WTO and NAFTA held in secret, but those who get to participate in shaping the rules that govern such transnational regimes are an elite group drawn from the highest levels of the world’s public and private sectors. According to Stiglitz, financiers are disproportionately represented in the governance of these institutions. In most cases, the dominance of wealthier peoples and places stems from the informal exercise of power over agendas and rule making. In other cases, notably at the IMF, the world’s wealthiest countries actually get more votes within the organization as a result of their wealth (as measured by their financial contributions to the Fund).

In sum, globalization has been shaped by a highly circumscribed deliberative process, one that skews in favor of peoples and places already positioned to compete effectively in a global market economy. The particular circumstances of the world’s poorest peoples and places are marginalized not only by the formal and informal norms that govern decision-making at the WTO et al, but also because such peoples and places simply lack the resources to effectively participate in those organizations or to avail themselves of what protections institutional rules do offer countries faced with corporate challenges to local rules and regulations. The bias in these institutions towards market liberalization also helps explain why globalization has come to be associated with privatization and the devaluation of noneconomic values, such as the environment.

Stiglitz’s conclusion is that globalization could in fact work for more of the world’s peoples and places if organizations like the IMF and the WTO operated according to the same norms of openness and participation that people in the US, and in other representative democracies, take for granted when it comes to domestic politics. He calls for those organizations to become “truly deliberative”, meaning that the processes for coming up with global rules for the world economy entail a discussion of all of the ramifications of different proposals, and not just whether a rule will make trade and investment more “open” or not, which is to say more profitable for large corporations and investors.

Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz? is, essentially, a lecture series. Each episode features Stiglitz talking to the camera in a different pleasant and, usually, homey setting (part four on the environment was shot outdoors). No audience. No graphics or illustrations. No images of any of the peoples or places that Stiglitz references in his discussion.

On the one hand, one can admire the choice to simply let Stiglitz’s arguments stand on their own, without adornment. On the other, it is worth asking, Why bother with the video component at all? The power of a medium like film or video lies in the ability to combine images with the purpose of more effectively communicating an idea or message. As much as An Inconvenient Truth (2006) gets derided as being nothing more than a slide show, Al Gore’s graphics, images, and animations help to make his arguments memorable and give them a weight and persuasiveness that would be lost if all the audience had was his words.

What visual interest there is in Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz? is provided by alternating shots of Stiglitz at medium and close angles. There are even occasional extreme close-ups wherein his eyes, nose, and mouth fill up the screen. Given the otherwise stripped down and conventional nature of the series’ visual style, these shots are jarring, but generally brief. Far more distracting is the moments where the camera or zoom is abruptly, albeit slowly, set in motion. These seem to serve no purpose, and are more irritating than enlivening. One of the best decisions made by the producers of the DVD was to include mp3 audio versions of the lectures. Downloading those and treating Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz? as an audio podcast series might be the best way to get the most out of its content. While the audio does sound as if it is more or less the raw sound recorded on location, the quality is generally fine.

True believers in neoliberal globalization are unlikely to be moved by Stiglitz’s arguments in Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz?. Anyone already engaged in anti-globalization politics and activism will likely have a mixed reaction to the series. Stiglitz’s values, democracy, equity, the environment, are common to most in the anti-globalization movement, and his critique of dominant institutions is informed and insightful, but for many the very idea of “democratizing” the WTO, the IMF, etc. will seem to fall laughably short of sufficient. The more one sees globalization’s problems as being rooted in the very nature of capitalism, the less one will find Stiglitz’s reformism persuasive.

It is also the case that Stiglitz’s view of globalization is highly economistic. The economy clearly frames his discussions of politics and the environment. Cultural globalization barely merits a mention. Of course, given the contested nature of globalization, one should not expect everyone in the potential audience for this series to agree with its analysis or conclusions. Where is the World Going, Mr. Stiglitz? does provide a cogent discussion of many of the key issues that have turned globalization into a controversial concept / process. Those looking for an entry point into those debates will get the most value from the series.

RATING 7 / 10