Globalisation's positive power

Nobel Prize winner and former Clinton economic advisor Joseph Stiglitz believes in the positive powe

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Many Americans are counting down the hours until George W. Bush leaves the Oval Office. Joseph Stiglitz, though, has gone further than most. He keeps a special clock at home just so he can see precisely how long there is to go.

The Nobel Prize winner has never been afraid of controversy, but he's not exactly alone when he says in his view things can only get better the second the countdown reaches zero and Bush moves out of the White House.

With his lack of pretensions and easy-going style Stiglitz seems more like a favourite uncle than a world-renowned economist, academic, and former presidential advisor as he chats over a cup of coffee.

His ability to put complicated concepts into easy-to-digest nuggets has endeared him greatly to the media, but also explains why his books on globalisation and economics have a far greater reach than most economists could dream of.

As he whisks around the globe, stopping in Korea and London, before heading back to Columbia University, Stiglitz has plenty to say about what the US needs to do to improve its relationship with the rest of the world and where it has taken wrong turnings. "At the end Americans will look back at a failed presidency that turned its back on the international community."

But Stiglitz is interested in more than critiquing the Bush presidency; he is campaigning for a new type of globalisation, one that puts a more equal and fair global society at its heart, and for less pressure from the US-influenced global development institutions to impose a one-size-fits-all free market, pro-privatisation model.

“The US has pushed a particular model on the rest of the world. It might work for America, but is totally not acceptable in many other parts of the world where a sense of social solidarity is important or need to be important for those societies to function.”

Where developing powers India and China have resisted US-led pressure to move towards instant privatisation of state functions, and refused to swing open their doors to multi-nationals without qualification, they have created much stronger societies, Stiglitz argues.

“These countries managed globalisation: it was their ability to take advantage of globalisation, without being taken advantage of by globalisation, that accounts for much of their success."

More transparency, easier to access information, and stronger civil societies are wearing away some of the power in the relationship between the developing and developed countries, he argues.

"Using the internet … they can see what is going on in a way that we might not like," he says relating a story about the recent US-Korea bi-lateral talks where, after the US negotiators had finished a deal they told the Koreans was good and fair, the write-up on the US government website told a different story. "Basically it said: 'we managed to screw the Koreans'.” Korean access to that information is likely to have a powerful influence on future negotiations.

With the US presidential primaries in full swing, the timing may be right for this man with global stature, and the ear of influential Democrats, to be heard by policy makers back home.

Knowledge of foreign policy and the continuing role of the US in Iraq have both emerged as part of the cut and thrust of debates between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as they tussle for votes. And Stiglitz has a lot of knowledge and experience to offer. He acknowledges that he has regular conversations with the three Democratic front runners, and you can imagine he is likely to be snapped up as an advisor by the Democratic candidate next year.

A long-time critic of the IMF, even in his World Bank days, Stiglitz can help build a wide base of support. He can find common ground with anti-globalisation lobbyists who cluster around Naomi Klein when he speaks of the damage Bush and his acolytes have done to the UN and other multilateral institutions, but the Nobel Laureate has far more than journalistic railing and emotion in his armoury.

Klein would no doubt agree with Stiglitz that: “The damage that has been done by Bush has been huge… the damage to the World Bank is huge, the damage to the UN is huge.”

But Stiglitz is not an anti-globalisation campaigner; just someone who believes it can be done better and to the benefit of the many, not the few. He is busy spreading his message that globalisation is not yet benefiting the world's poorest and then setting out his prescription for how to make it work.

Narrowing the gap between the richest and poorest with a strong state at the core is the only way for globalisation to work in his view. The poorest suffer the most insecurity in a global economy, but if it is to work they too must benefit from opening trade doors and jobs to international competition. In the past, he says, “when people have talked about globalisation they have talked about the impact it has had on GDP but they don’t talk about the impact it has on disparities. The way globalisation has been managed has meant increasing disparities in many parts of the world, both in developed and developing countries.”

Not only does he argue for safety nets of various kinds – medical and educational among them – as essential in creating a more secure and stable society in developing countries, but he applies these principles to the US as well.

These principles – including a centralised national health care system – have always been considered surprisingly radical in the US, but he is not alone when he says the pendulum is swinging towards significant reform.

“All the candidates have been forced to address the questions of what are they going to do about the health care crisis in the US?”

Stiglitz believes that high levels of inequality in the US have started to change people’s views about the role of the state. Inequality has grown under Bush and has even started to undermine that greatest of national myths – the American dream.

He argues plausibly for greater emphasis on equality in development theory and practise. This, he believes, will help create greater stability and security internationally.

“The argument has always been that [if] the country is a whole lot better off…those that have gained could compensate the losers, but the problem is under Bush that hasn’t happened. Rather than trickledown it has been trickle up.”

Inequality, he argues, produces social unrest. “I believe that it is important for countries to focus on equity, on ensuring that the fruits of growth are widely shared,” he says.

"The people at the bottom keep paying the price. We could compensate them, we could help them share more the fruits…by improving education, and having more progressive taxation. Under Bush we have done just the opposite and I think that is part of the social tension in America.”

And who can find fault with his campaign to bring the same kind of democracy and transparency to international development organisations such as the World Bank and IMF? It seems only fair that these international organisations should have a clearer voting structure, and the public should know how they come to decisions, as they would with their own governments.

He argues idealistically for a fairer world built not on the single pillar of the market, but on three more — government, individuals and community. As someone who has worked in the highest levels of both academia and politics, he offers more than just analysis; he provides a set of potential policy solutions - and that is his advantage over other critics of US foreign policy and development theory.

It may be stating the obvious to say that free trade will not bring equal benefits while everyone has different levels of skills, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated and re-stated, until the time is right to hear it. And Stiglitz isn't giving up.

A version of this article was first published in the Fabian Review. Check out the society's website for details of the Fabian Society Change the World conference on 19 January in association with the New Statesman

title="Link to posting">In conversation with Joseph Stiglitz

Rachael Jolley talks to Bill Clinton’s ex-economic adviser about the positive power of globalisation and other issues ahead of the Fabian foreign affairs conference on 19 January in association with the New Statesman

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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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