The World Economic Forum this year feels like an exercise in ritual self-flagellation, which — as with the old Christian practice of fasting and whipping one’s own body — is supposed to purify the sinful nature of man. The sin, of course, is globalization, which everyone now seems to agree has been lopsided, inequitable and dangerous. In fact, most of the flaws attributed to globalization are actually mistakes in national policy that can be corrected.
It took a Chinese billionaire to speak frankly on this topic. Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce giant Alibaba, estimated that over the past three decades the U.S. government spent $14.2 trillion fighting 13 wars. That money could have been invested in America, building infrastructure and creating jobs. “You’re supposed to spend money on your own people,” he said. He pointed out that globalization produced massive profits for the U.S. economy but much of that money ended up on Wall Street. “And what happened? Year 2008. The financial crisis wiped out $19.2 trillion [in the] U.S.A. alone. . . . What if the money [had been] spent on the Midwest of the United States developing the industry there?” he asked. “It’s not [that] the other countries steal jobs from you guys — it is your strategy,” he concluded.
You don’t have to accept Ma’s specifics and statistics to recognize the validity of his general point. Globalization created huge opportunities for growth, many of which were taken by U.S. companies. The global economy is still dominated by large American firms; 134 of Fortune’s Global 500 are American. And if you look at those in cutting-edge industries, the vast majority are American. These companies have benefited enormously by having global supply chains that can source goods and services around the world, either to lower labor costs or to be close to the markets in which they sell. Since 95 percent of the world’s potential consumers live outside the United States, finding ways to sell to them will have to be a core strategy for growth, even for a country with a large domestic economy such as the United States.