Think of the world as a human head.
If that makes your own head hurt, then perhaps a little nostalgia on my part may help. When I was a boy, I was an avid reader of a weekly comic called "The Beezer." My favorite cartoon strip was "The Numskulls."
Most of the action in "The Numskulls" took place within a human head operated by a small team of homunculi. Blinky controlled his eyes; Brainy controlled his brain; Cruncher, his mouth; Luggy, his ears; and Snitch, his nose.
The setting being 1970s Britain, the five Numskulls did their jobs with all the energy and efficiency we then associated with unionized employees in a nationalized public utility. There was chronic absenteeism, slacking and a total absence of cooperative teamwork. As a result, Our Man — as the owner of the head was invariably known — suffered humiliating mishaps on a weekly basis.
Now translate this metaphor into our own times. Think, as I said, of the entire world as a human head populated and run by Numskulls. There are many more of them than there were in "The Beezer." Indeed, the head has never been more crowded.
Yet compared with his British counterpart in the '70s, this global version of Our Man is amazingly well run.
Cooperation among the different faculties has never been so smooth. The Numskulls who operate the brain are busily exchanging ideas. Those whose job it is to send sensory information to the brain are working even harder. Above all, Cruncher is setting records for productivity. For this global head is consuming resources insatiably. Our Man was a relatively thin chap. But the body underneath this global head must be truly huge. This is not a bad metaphor for globalization — that remarkable process of international integration that policy wonks and finance geeks love to discuss.
Globalization is good. That is to say that by knitting together global markets for goods, capital, labor and knowledge, we have significantly raised the material standard of living for a majority of the world's population. Globalization also has reduced inflation and long-term interest rates. And, just as important, it has reduced volatility, so that the world economy seems to suffer fewer painful recessions.
Now let's ask what could go wrong. After all, globalization Part I fell apart disastrously in the mid-20th century. The Numskulls fell to fighting among themselves. They ceased to cooperate. Ideological fevers like fascism infected the global brain. Then, after 1945, the world was afflicted by a split personality, as one "lobe" went communist while the other stayed capitalist.
Could globalization break down again? History suggests it faces two kinds of threat: the natural and the man-made.
The most obvious natural threat is that the world could be swept by a pandemic. True, the World Health Organization has thus far confirmed only 176 cases of avian flu in humans. But more than half of those people died. And the virus has been spreading rapidly from East Asia as far as Western Europe. A small genetic mutation could greatly facilitate its transmission from birds to humans and among humans.
To understand just what could happen, consider the effect of the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19, which killed about 40 million people worldwide, including one in every 100 American males between the ages of 25 and 34. A pandemic of comparable magnitude would kill globalization, not least because of the panic it would unleash.
Yet it is just as possible that we might wreck globalization ourselves. After all, the end of the first age of globalization predated the flu pandemic by some years. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 led to an immediate breakdown in international trade. Even before that, a backlash against free trade and migration had already begun as states moved to raise tariffs or restrict immigration — trends that reached their disastrous nadir in the 1930s.
Call it a globotomy. For it was deliberate action by the Numskulls themselves that severed the world's neural pathways.
Today, the Numskulls doing the most to lobotomize the global mind are to be found (not for the first time in history) in Congress. Earlier this month, senators effectively blocked a company based in the United Arab Emirates from acquiring facilities in American ports on the ground that its employees might help Islamist terrorists. Not content with this insult to foreign investors, the same body last week came within a hair's breadth of defaulting on the federal debt, voting by just four votes to increase the debt ceiling. Given that about half of that debt is held abroad, this was playing with financial fire.
Never in the history of the world economy has one advanced economy been as reliant on inflows of foreign capital as the United States is today. It's that international overdraft that allows Our Man to keep sucking in and consuming foreign goodies. Unfortunately, the Numskulls in Congress seem more worried about impending midterm elections than the global economy.
Yes, globalization is good, but that doesn't make it irreversible. My fear is that if the flu doesn't get Our Man, the political Numskulls will.