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Opinion The success of ‘Squid Game’ illustrates the benefits of globalization and free trade

A scene from “Squid Game” on Netflix. (Youngkyu Park/Netflix)

Like millions of other people around the world, I binge-watched all nine episodes of “Squid Game” last week. This Korean-language series has become a breakout hit on Netflix, enthralling viewers with its dystopian story of indebted people playing children’s games for the highest stakes possible: If they win, they get rich; if they lose, they die. It’s insanely watchable, with cliffhangers at the end of every episode ensuring that you come back for more.

It is also a brutal satire of the wealth inequality produced by unbridled capitalism. It is ironic, then, that the worldwide success of “Squad Game” is, in fact, the ultimate tribute to the power of capitalism — and in particular to two of its much-maligned outgrowths: globalization and free trade. Both have done a great deal to improve our entertainment experience.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, watching TV meant watching three major broadcast networks, PBS or a handful of local independent stations. It was a grab-bag of reruns and new shows. Some were great if still low-rent by modern standards: “Get Smart,” “The Rockford Files,” “Cheers.” Most were simply trashy: “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “Starsky & Hutch,” “CHiPs,” “The Love Boat,” “Charlie’s Angels.” All of the episodes were self-contained (story lines were resolved every week), all were interrupted by commercials, and all were U.S. productions. The only foreign shows available back then were the British costume dramas on PBS.

Better dramas with longer story arcs, such as “St. Elsewhere” and “Hill Street Blues,” began to appear in the 1980s, but it was not until the 2000s that U.S. television achieved a new golden age with shows such as “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Mad Men,” and “Breaking Bad.” But that age has now ended. “Game of Thrones” aired its last episode in 2019, and there has not been a U.S. series since then that has achieved a similar cultural impact.

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I love shows such as “Ozark,” “Succession” and “Ted Lasso,” but that still leaves me and lot of other Americans watching foreign offerings — in particular on Netflix, which has smartly led the way in building an international streaming platform. I have been greatly entertained not just by South Korea’s “Squid Game” but also by Israel’s “Fauda” and “Shtisel,” France’s “Lupin” and “Call My Agent!,” Germany’s “Babylon Berlin,” Norway’s “Occupied,” and Britain’s “The Crown.” My favorite is the French series “The Bureau” on Amazon Prime. It is, in my opinion, the best spy show ever — and one of the greatest TV shows, period.

No one should be surprised that so many of the best shows are no longer made in America. The United States, after all, has only 4 percent of the world’s population. It stands to reason that the other 96 percent would produce a lot of great content. The miracle is that we are now able to see so much of it. The Internet offers an infinity of choices, and the more choices you have, the better the prospect of finding something great to watch. Good thing Washington isn’t limiting imports of foreign shows to protect producers grousing in Malibu diners about how they can’t get their shows on the air anymore. Globalization has opened up a vast marketplace for the U.S. entertainment industry — but also ensured that it no longer enjoys a monopoly on the domestic market. That’s a good thing.

Every time you watch a foreign TV show, you are seeing the benefits of globalization and free trade — concepts that have practically become curse words. President Biden doesn’t demonize globalization or trash trade agreements the way that President Donald Trump did, but he is continuing the same protectionist policies that Trump initiated. The Biden administration has shown no interest in rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership or in lifting tariffs on Chinese goods whose cost is paid by U.S. consumers.

Much of the debate focuses on the people who are hurt by trade — workers in industries that can’t compete with more cost-effective competitors abroad. We forget or take for granted the benefits of trade — namely, all of the economic activity that creates jobs, raises household incomes and improves the quality of life for consumers (i.e., all of us).

What is happening on TV is a microcosm of an entire economy that has benefited from imports of everything from textiles to electronics to automobiles. When you buy a new car, your choices are no longer limited to Ford, General Motors or Chrysler — and Chrysler isn’t even U.S.-owned anymore. Indeed, in the age of globalization, the lines between “foreign” and “domestic” blur. An American company, Apple, sells iPhones, but their components are made all over the world. Another U.S. company, Netflix, shows TV programs that originate in many other countries.

We don’t need tariffs to protect workers in dying industries; we can offer them retraining assistance or welfare benefits to make their lives better despite the dislocations of a changing economy. And, in the meantime, we can make life better for everyone by lifting tariffs and encouraging greater globalization.

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