Thursday, May 31, 2007

24 Hours (in the global economy)

Daniel Altman, Connected: 24 Hours in the Global Economy. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007.

Most globalization books have some sort of gimmick (think The World is Flat) and this one's angle is to collect 14 news articles (or "snapshots" of the global economy) from June 15, 2005 and to use them as a springboard to discuss some of the larger issues of globalization. The author writes a column on globalization for the International Herald Tribune and he is pretty skillful at moving from micro (first person accounts) to macro (national and global analysis) and back. It's that Thomas Friedman thing.

The stories included here are pretty interesting. One story about Intel's activities in Vietnam, for example, works on two levels. First, as an example of how a particular MNC adapts to what are probably unique local political and economic conditions in Vietnam and, second, as the basis for a brief discussion of the pros and cons of MNC investment generally. I find these stories of "globalization on the ground" fascinating because the real world cases hardly ever conform to the standard models. A story of the acquisition of Maytag by the Chinese appliance maker Haier provides both a good case study of Chinese business strategy and the opportunity for some discussion of China's changing economy. An article about how Alberta, Canada is actively recruiting skilled migrants to fill openings in its oil industry leads to a discussion of immigration issues. You get the idea. It's the sort of thing that good teachers have been doing in class for decades: take a newspaper article about a specific case and then use it to jump to a discussion of larger trends and implications. It works in the classroom and it works here, too.

The stories (about the role of government in global business, intellectual property rights, corruption, the importance of financial systems and so on) are interspersed with "interludes" about key global markets: stocks, currencies and oil. These interludes are not as detailed and informative as I had hoped they would be, but they do supply some useful definitions and institutional background.

On the whole I would say that the strength of this book lies in the analysis of the specific stories; they make this a book worth reading. The linkages to bigger issues are less uniformly successful for an obvious reason: the issues are large and complex and there isn't room here for an appropriately detailed and nuanced discussion. Hopefully this book will interest general readers in the big questions of globalization, inform them of some of the contested issues, and stimulate further reading and research.

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