Essay 33: How to Jump From a Field to a Larger Understanding: The Example of Globalization

In a university, one is trained to “inspect” fields. That produces what might be called a “monographic” intelligence.

Our purpose is to show and promote something ancillary to this, what might be called a “circum-spective” intelligence (i.e., using the specialized knowledge as one “brick” in a larger structure of understanding).

Let’s do an example:

Think of all the descriptions and analyses of something called globalization. An objective evaluation of the literature on this show two analyses that stand out and tower above the rest:

  1. Prof. Jeffrey Williamson and Kevin O’Rourke, Globalization and History, MIT, 1999 (this is a “quantitative history” or “cliometric” study and a classic).
  2. Elhanan Helpman, Understanding Global Trade, Harvard, 2011 (a masterpiece of trade-based analysis)

Both of these authors are Harvard professors in economics and deserve the high regard that such books have won them. In these two books, there are several technical disagreements of which the deepest is that Williamson focuses on the emergence of one world market price (say for wheat) and argues that this “price convergence” is the best measure of globalization. Thus at a certain point wheat of a certain kind (hard, durum, etc.) was price at the same world rate whether the wheat came from Kansas, Canada, Argentina or Ukraine. The world is then a global price-making market mechanism. This price convergence then extends to their kinds of prices as globalization processes deepen. Williamson explicitly considers other approaches to globalization such as trade share of GDP as confusing.

Helpman, on the other hand, uses export plus imports/over GDP as his measure, clearly disagreeing with the Williamson approach of prices and not trade shares.

Interestingly, both scholars conclude that something we call globalization begins to “show up in the data” in the 1820s. Thus, Marco Polo-type stories are colorful and “multinational” but have little to do with actual (i.e., data based) globalization as we see it, looking backwards from 2020.

Both of these books are classic works and show the intricacies and utility of the “cliometric” approach (i.e., explaining the past quantitatively, using data from economics).

However, there’s a deep perspectival omission in both works:

As the novels of Balzac (1799-1850) show there begins to “co-evolve” with this globalization story a parallel story of global colonization and empire-building by the European powers. Algeria is seized in 1830 and culminates in the brutal Algerian War of 1954-1962. Without de Gaulle‘s supreme prestige as the savior of France, the French would have gone to a destructive civil war and the defeat in French Indochina at Dien Ben Phu. 1954 almost lead to endless strife based on events on the other side of the world.  Balzac’s novels are often set in the 1820s and mention a deepening involvement of France with North African empire-building.

This culminates in Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami from 1885, which centers on the inexorable rise of an unethical “manipulation machine,” who returns from North Africa as a penniless soldier and after many twists and turns makes several killings in North Africa in various shady schemes which he gets wind off via his journalism contacts.  In other words, the rise of Western industrial technology (from railroads to cars to planes) conquers the world one way while the European colonial armies conquer the world another way.

The peoples like the Vietnamese and Algerians “see” the world in colonial terms with colonialism backstopped by industrial technology. Their quest for dignity begins with this analysis and not with the analysis which says industry and science are primary and colonialism a footnote.

It is this fundamental clash of historical interpretations on a worldwide scale which bedevils the changing relationship between the West and the non-West and is more profound than the econometric differences between a Prof. Williamson and a Professor Helpman.

By seeing how these layers and stories are “entwined” gives you a deeper and wide-angle vision which one field—economics or cliometrics—can’t offer because it is one brick or building block in a larger story. Fields have to be “opened up” in this way, which is the mission of this book.