Globalization still works for companies and the rich, no longer for ordinary individuals.

Posted By on May 31, 2023 in Columns, Globalization |

Globalization is a broad concept, but let me try to pin it down to a few essential characteristics: it involves high levels of geographical mobility; it is a vehicle for wealth creation and career advancement; it enable you to keep your options open; and it enables “arbitrage”. Arbitrage is the alchemical process where you take something humdrum and quotidian in one environment but discover you can generate enormous value in another environment (open a factory in China, teach English in Japan, escape a massacre or war with a second passport etc).

Globalization has been a feature of the rich and powerful both as a lifestyle (travel and cosmopolitanism) and as a vehicle for enrichment. Post WW2 globalization trickled down to the upper middle and even middle and lower middle classes. My conclusion is that this period of accessible globalization, which smart but non-elite individuals could leverage to improve their lives, is ending. It is once more becoming a high cost lifestyle affordable to the wealthy – or the childless – where arbitrage opportunities have shrunk drastically.

I will use examples from my father’s life to illustrate the “bonus” of globalization and from my own life to illustrate the “malus”.

Globalization began gradually after WW2, along with a general relaxation of culture in general.My father came from an ordinary (non-university educated) family, but made it to Oxford University via the meritocratic “grammar school” system, rather than the posh public schools – whose boys often got in as part of their birthright.

Going to grammar school helped, but was not the deciding factor in my father becoming comfortably off, professionally successful, being able to live in a sophisticated and cosmopolitan environment, and passing on elements of that lifestyle to his five children.

What really helped on the next leg of his journey was globalization, or initially “europeanization”. Having made it through Oxford and joined an obscure but influential propaganda department of the Foreign Office, my father encountered the common and vexing problem many grammar school boys faced in a system still rigged for southern Public School boys. Eventually fed up with poorly paid jobs (“what do you mean you don’t have a private income?”) in government, however prestigious, my father boldly applied to the OECD in Paris. Thanks to his excellent Russian, learnt in an arduous language course during his stint in the Royal Navy, as well as French and German) he was offered a job, at a salary twice as high as he was getting in the UK. Note the role of the armed forces here in helping my father learn a key language – and paying him for it.

Once he had started on this road, his life just kept getting better. France has (or had) excellent public services. I remember French hospitals in the 1980s, and they were like 5 star hotels compared to the dingy UK hospitals. The food was obviously far better, as was the weather, and he could travel anywhere on the continent by car or rail easily.

He then decided to send his children to a German international school, the “Deutsche Schule Paris”, followed by a sister school in Geneva, after he moved from the OECD in Paris to the UN in Geneva. These schools were funded by the German government, open to non-Germans in the spirit of international amity, and were virtually free. These schools were intended for the children of the German elite working in Paris, diplomats, business people, etc but also local elites too. My sister attended an elite state “lycee”, also for free.

We thus grew up trilingual, which made admission to a British university a formality. It’s true we topped up our education at a decent English boarding school. Our school was really quite normal, appealing to the sons of local farmers, provincial lawyers and accountants as well as the occasional entrepreneur.

For our next step, university, my father would have been delighted to report that UK universities in those days were completely free, and most students got a grant as well. My subsequent Masters at the London School of Economics in 1992/3 cost just 2000 pounds.

Today (ie my generation), it looks rather different. Governments no longer feel they need to provide free schooling for their citizens (and friendly foreigners) in foreign countries, leaving it to expensive and often mediocre private “international schools” to fill the gap. It is no longer possible to get a high-end foreign education for free, like we did.

Boarding schools in the UK are no longer an alternative, although they appear to be better than most international schools. My old school is now 40,000 pounds per year, compared to 9,000 pounds in the early 1980s. 40,000 pounds after tax is not something most international civil servants like my father could afford, even at the UN.

UK universities now charge Brits the same as foreigners, if those Brits have lived abroad. Again, a big change on the zero tuition fees charged for all Brits, whether or not they lived abroad, in my father’s day. Countries, like universities, have grown wise to “fake citizens” who don’t pay tax but still want the same rights as citizens who have paid tax and never left.

It’s not just these financial practicalities that have changed. I am more skeptical of the whole concept of globalization, and I believe this is shared by many other parents, who took the maxim that if “globalization is good” then “more globalization is better”.

My parents shared a common language and culture. Communication in the home was free-flowing and educational. In contrast, many modern globalists have married local partners – after all, “loves triumphs over all”, and no doubt parents and grandparents were careful not to express doubts about long-term compatibility, sheer distance, cost of travel and language issues.

This is indeed the logical next step of globalization, but at this point I feel globalization has become a “malus” rather than a “bonus”. The children will be fluent in the mother tongue, but not the father tongue. The family will often be unable to afford international schools like Harrow and Rugby in Japan, which charge 10M yen per child, per year from out of tax income. Flight costs have soared post-covid and may well stay there. The non-Japanese partner may also be in Japan after stints in other countries, and may have exhausted his/her capacity to learn foreign languages, especially as s/he gets older. Yes, this is admittedly a self-portrait 🙂 Returning to the mother country is difficult, as governments have turned xenophobic and suspicious. Passport applications are vetted more rigorously. Children and spouses may not get naturalized for years. Many countries have slashed police, education and medical budgets in any case, making a return less attractive.

Psychologically, there is also a sense that globalized kids struggle to find an environment they can commit to. Believe it or not, lots of people don’t thrive under the freedom of speaking several languages and being geographically mobile. Some historically mobile communities have long-established support mechanisms, focussing on strong family ties, religious institutions,education, and a cultural tradition of instinctive loyalty to unknown relatives, which helps deal with dislocation. But many ordinary kids end up speaking no language perfectly, and alienated from one half of their extended family, with lack of access to grandparents a particularly sad loss. This is caused by distance, language and the trend to late marriages, by which time the poor grandparents already have one food in the grave!

A couple of other points to note. Foreign languages seem less useful and prestigious than they were. There is almost a sense that speaking foreign languages is a reflection that you have not made it into the anglophone and anglo-saxon Ivy-league or Oxbridge elite. Non-anglo media often runs stories originating (or copied from) in the anglo media. Newspapers like Le Monde and Handelsblatt talk about obscure domestic personalities and global US-dominated issues, but not (surely more interesting and relevant) regional issues. Novels and music are also often imported wholesale, as global culture gets Americanized. Excellent research from foreign universities goes unnoticed in the anglo media.

In short, globalization has gone back to being a feature of powerful entities like governments, the armed forces, multilateral organizations, huge global corporations, or of the rich. For the rest of us, it has become a much harder arbitrage. In some ways, “globalization” has reverted to “emigration”, with all the frequently painful tradeoffs that implies.