Unraveling the Myths of Globalization

By Michael Veseth. Rowman & Littlefield. 267 pp. $24.95


An Economist Examines the Markets, Power,

and Politics of World Trade

By Pietra Rivoli. Wiley. 254 pp. $29.95

The study of current events is a perilous business for professors. While history moves at an ever faster clip, scholarship -- and the tenure process -- does not. With little notice, an entire discipline can vanish, a la Sovietology, creating a petrified swath within the groves of academe. But that risk of obsolescence hasn't deterred the professoriate. In the mid-'90s, globalization emerged as the academic preoccupation of the moment. It was easy to understand the field's appeal. Professors could take their charts and theories and guiltlessly apply them to the popular culture. Political scientists and economists scored surprise publishing hits by writing on such hip topics as Michael Jordan and the new spirit of capitalism.

On Sept. 11, 2001, this field seemed to instantly lose its juice. The academicians who studied globalization -- a phenomenon that even they have a hard time defining but that refers, more or less, to the rising tide of international trade -- had claimed to have uncovered the master narrative of our time. But the terrorist attacks revealed that they had actually missed, or misunderstood, the Big Story: the rise of political Islam. Suddenly, all around the world, you could see the deflation of interest in globalization.

The lull, however, was short-lived. Globalization studies have experienced a recent revival. In part, this swing in the zeitgeist has to do with the passage of time since Sept. 11 and the return to the political agenda of more quotidian issues such as outsourcing and immigration and European integration. But there was another reason for the revival. Scholars in the field realized they had something to say on topics such as Islam and America's place in the world. Islam, after all, had proved a textbook globalization success story. And hadn't anti-Americanism been an obsession of the scholars who had spilled so much ink reviling "Baywatch" and fast food?

The first wave of books about globalization alternated between jeremiads -- like those of Naomi Klein, William Greider and Benjamin R. Barber -- and love letters like A Future Perfect, by Adrian Wooldridge and John Mickelthwait. While the publishing houses continue to pump out similar polemics, a far larger chunk of the current wave of literature takes a more detached view, emphasizing the complexity of globalization and condemning both sides of the debate for failing to grapple with the hard reality. Yet the denizens of the middle ground can be guilty of intellectual laziness, too. It's easy to curse the partisans, split the difference and avoid adjudicating the arguments.

A useful example of this second wave is Globaloney, by political economist Michael Veseth. By "globaloney," a term he tells us was coined in 1943 by Clare Boothe Luce, Veseth means a variety of rhetorical sins committed by both proponents and detractors of globalization. To make their ideological cases, he argues, they toss around powerful but deceptive metaphors and anecdotes to fashion portraits of the phenomenon that often can't withstand empirical scrutiny. In Veseth's view, the shelf of globalization books is full of legerdemain.

Globaloney is organized around several case studies in which Veseth casts a critical eye on this rhetoric. For instance, he spends a chapter dissecting McDonald's transformation into the quintessential symbol of globalization, citing Thomas L. Friedman's Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention and Barber's 1995 book Jihad vs. McWorld. McDonald's, he argues, doesn't deserve this centrality. For starters, the hamburger chain isn't nearly the implacable force for cultural homogenization that its critics imagine. It is owned, in many cases, by local firms and families, and its place in the local landscape varies greatly. Drawing on anthropological studies of East Asian societies, he argues that McDonald's can serve as a "sanctuary" from male domination and "a refuge from urban chaos." Besides, the chain does not, in fact, serve the most hegemonic form of global cuisine. That honor belongs to Italian restaurants, of which there are twice as many in the world as there are McDonald's. In short, he considers the case against the fast food behemoth to be riddled with "false generalizations" and overwrought accusations.

Veseth spends much of his time picking apart the canon of globalization books, especially Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree. This means that he ends up retracing some very familiar territory, including such well-worn topics as the global significance of Michael Jordan and the Slow Food movement. It's hard to take this kind of meta-approach without sounding tedious. At one low moment, he actually excerpts an index entry from The Lexus and the Olive Tree in a block quote. He also compounds this problem by constantly citing his own work and writing in a highly self-referential style ("as I said a few pages ago . . . "). Still, he succeeds in debunking conventional wisdoms, and his digressions on such subjects as the international wine trade and French snobbery are entertaining.

Veseth's book seems to arrive at the heavy-handed conclusion that anecdotal analyses of globalization are inherently facile, amounting to no more than globaloney. Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy makes for an interesting test of that thesis. The book tells the picaresque tale of a T-shirt purchased at a Walgreen's drugstore in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It follows the shirt from its birth in Texas cotton fields to its production in a Chinese factory and on to another factory in Florida, where touristy designs are printed on it. Along the way, Rivoli describes the federal subsidies that preserve the dominance of the American cotton farmer, the aspirations of Chinese workers and the confusing logic of U.S. trade agreements. (The T-shirt business is hardly a model of free trade.)

For the most part, she views this global trade as a model of progress: The cotton planters have used machines to liberate themselves from backbreaking labor, and the young women who hover over the assembly lines are happy to be sprung from their farm work. This circle of commerce helps bind the world, she writes: "I believe that each of [these people], as they touch the next one, is doing their part to keep the peace."

Rivoli proffers many interesting facts -- about how the surprisingly complicated vintage clothing trade sends massive quantities of used American T-shirts to sub-Saharan Africa, for example, or about the political empire built by Texas cotton farmers -- and her judgments seem unfailingly fair. She concludes that the world benefits greatly from the noisy debate over globalization. While commerce is overwhelmingly beneficial, critics of international trade force unwilling governments to protect workers and underdeveloped economies. A happy balance between free trade and regulation emerges. Unfortunately, Rivoli doesn't arrive at this idea in the most elegant fashion. Her narrative suffers from a paucity of dramatic tension, and her characters aren't well-drawn. The minutiae of trade agreements, which take up whole chapters, hardly light up the page. These failings point to a sad fact about the globalization literature: The clearest heads fail to produce the most readable books. *

Franklin Foer is a senior editor at the New Republic and the author of "How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization."