A big part of the political upheavals currently afflicting many nations in the First World, including the USA, is the impact of globalization, defined as “the process of international integration arising from the interchange of world views, products, ideas, and other aspects of culture”. Supporters claim that its benefits far outweigh its disadvantages. For example, the Economist defends its economic benefits:
Export-led growth and foreign investment have dragged hundreds of millions out of poverty in China, and transformed economies from Ireland to South Korea.
Plainly, Western voters are not much comforted by this extraordinary transformation in the fortunes of emerging markets. But at home, too, the overall benefits of free trade are unarguable. Exporting firms are more productive and pay higher wages than those that serve only the domestic market. Half of America’s exports go to countries with which it has a free-trade deal, even though their economies account for less than a tenth of global GDP.
Protectionism, by contrast, hurts consumers and does little for workers. The worst-off benefit far more from trade than the rich. A study of 40 countries found that the richest consumers would lose 28% of their purchasing power if cross-border trade ended; but those in the bottom tenth would lose 63%. The annual cost to American consumers of switching to non-Chinese tyres after Barack Obama slapped on anti-dumping tariffs in 2009 was around $1.1 billion, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics. That amounts to over $900,000 for each of the 1,200 jobs that were “saved”.
There’s more at the link.
Unfortunately, those same benefits bring with them associated penalties, most particularly the loss of local jobs as production is ‘outsourced’ to countries with lower personnel costs such as wages, benefits and other overheads. What’s more, skilled workers from those countries can be employed at much lower costs in this country than local workers – hence the dramatic increase in the H-1B visa program, which benefits corporations (particularly those that ‘game the system’) but penalizes their US employees.
Many lower-skilled jobs are paid so poorly that US workers literally can’t afford to take them; welfare and other unemployment support programs pay them more than they could earn at those jobs. (Whether such benefits should be so lavish is another question, of course.) Instead, companies offering such employment (e.g. farms, food processors, construction companies, etc.) rely, explicitly or implicitly, on cheap foreign labor, sometimes legal, often illegal. Most of the millions of illegal aliens currently in this country would not be here if they could not be sure of employment. Thus, illegal immigration – a major social issue and cost to the taxpayer – is directly correlated with globalization from an economic perspective.
A backlash is brewing against globalization. The recent Brexit vote in the UK is one aspect of this. The Presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the USA were also related to it. Many workers – or those whose jobs were eliminated through globalization – want to reverse its effects, so that they can get their jobs back and revert to their previous standard of living. However, they’re probably doomed to disappointment, because technology – which previously contributed to globalization – is beginning to work against it in entirely new ways.
A prime example of this is 3D printing. Instead of a part being produced in a factory in the traditional way by taking a block of metal, or plastic, or whatever, and cutting away everything that doesn’t belong in or on the finished product, a 3D printer builds up the part by depositing layer upon layer of additive material until it’s built what’s required. The application of this technology is as broad as your imagination. Here are 17 examples, some of which are pretty mind-boggling.
What a lot of people, both pro- and anti-globalization, have not yet grasped is that this technology has the potential to completely upend the current manufacturing cycle. Raw materials are presently mined in one country, either refined there or shipped to another country to be refined, ordered by a factory, shipped there (perhaps in a third country), and used to manufacture a product. The finished item is then shipped to customers (perhaps in multiple countries). Workers are involved in every single step of that production cycle.
3D printing is already radically changing that cycle in certain specialized applications, and promises to do so in many more as the technology is perfected. A few real-world examples:
- The US Army has deployed mobile 3D printing laboratories to Afghanistan to produce urgently-needed parts locally – even designing some in the field, rather than waiting for the normal procurement process. The US Navy is experimenting with a similar approach at sea.
- Purpose-built body parts are saving lives, including a 3D-printed ribcage and sternum and tracheal implant that have already been implanted in patients. In the not too distant future, 3D-printed organs are expected to alleviate the critical shortage of donor organs in the field of transplant medicine – and they’ll also eliminate the rejection of donor organs, because they’ll be printed using the recipient’s own cells as a foundation.
- We’ll increasingly be able to print our needs at home, rather than leave the house to shop for them or order them online for delivery. Home 3D printers are already freely available at relatively low cost, and their sophistication and capabilities are increasing every year. For example, it’s expected that before long, we might be able to ‘print’ a dress or shirt at home. A complete clothing collection has already been produced in this way by one fashion student.
- If you have an older vehicle, you’ve probably already experienced the hassle of trying to obtain parts for it after the manufacturer’s stocks run out. 3D printing will make it possible for a repair shop – or even a home mechanic – to produce such parts locally on demand. One could even produce every part needed to build an entire vehicle.
There are many more possibilities. Furthermore, 3D printing is only one aspect of this technological revolution. If a designer can produce and digitize a design for a product, it can be downloaded to a 3D printer or robotic manufacturing facility anywhere in the world, and produced on demand. It will no longer be necessary to produce it in a centralized factory, and then export the product to its markets. This is likely to produce a massive escalation in digital piracy. If a company produces a particularly desirable product, what’s to stop someone buying a single example, laser-scanning it (and/or its component parts), digitizing the design, and producing a 3D printer template that will allow anyone to produce an exact copy, anywhere in the world? The company may be able to sue a rival corporation or factory to prevent the mass production of such pirated copies, but how can it possibly stop thousands of people from making their own copies at home, simply by downloading the template?
What this means is that a very large number of the jobs associated with the historically typical production cycle are going to be automated out of existence. Factories will still be the most economical way to mass-produce large quantities of items. However, when individuals and families, or smaller companies, can produce what they need on their own premises, on demand, that’s going to greatly reduce the need to order parts and products from elsewhere.
The technology is still in its infancy, but it’s growing by leaps and bounds. Who knows what impact it will have on globalization? Not only will this affect production in other countries, but it’ll also affect the need for immigrant labor, legal or illegal, in those countries and our own. Furthermore, those arguing that globalization should be reversed in order to ‘bring jobs home‘ have often failed to reckon with the fact that it may no longer be possible to ‘bring them home’, because they may have gone the way of buggy whip manufacturers in the age of the automobile.
That’s something to keep in mind as we consider the current Presidential election campaign. How many of the promises being made by any or all candidates have taken this into account? And how many voters are aware of its implications?