In the second season of HBO’s acclaimed series “The Wire,” viewers learned about life on the Baltimore docks. Things are difficult for longshoremen these days, and we can blame globalization.
It wasn’t long ago that freighters had to be loaded and unloaded mostly by hand. It took hundreds of men several days to load a ship’s hold. “While the work was often hard, dangerous and dirty, it also required ingenuity, experience, brawn and teamwork,” explains an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.
But these days almost everything moves in containers. Goods are loaded in and they’re stacked on ships, making it simple to unload. A handful of longshoremen can do the work it once required scores of men to do, and they can do it in hours, not days.
The containers are then loaded on trucks or trains and delivered to stores. That cuts down on labor costs, and it cuts down on transportation costs. It’s a success of globalization, and it’s a big reason why the price of just about everything is lower these days.
Lower prices are good news for anyone who wants to buy food, electronics, or clothing. In other words, almost all of us. But, of course, the good news of cheaper imported goods comes with bad news for longshoremen, who are mostly out of work.
And that, in a nutshell, is globalization. Good for the vast majority, harmful to a handful.
In a recent Newsweek article, columnist Daniel Gross noted that “Americans are now more inclined to see themselves as victims of globalization -- rather than as beneficiaries of it.” He cited a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll that showed half the respondents think free trade hurts the economy, while only a quarter say it helps.
Why is that? Human nature.
People “enjoy pursuing goals, like a higher income, a promotion or a new house,” according to the publication “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” from the Acton Foundation. “Inevitably though, once you obtain something, you rapidly will become accustomed to the new reality, and it will cease to provide much pleasure.”
It’s the same with globalization. Sure, it’s brought prices down. We should be celebrating that we can buy $15 sneakers or a $400 personal computer -- and we should be thanking globalization.
Yet it’s natural to assume prices were going to come down, anyway. Instead of rejoicing in free trade we focus on the negative -- on the handful of longshoremen who’ve lost their jobs instead of the millions of Americans who’ve benefited.