Granted, the present U.S. economic slowdown -- maybe already a recession -- stems mostly from familiar domestic causes, dominated by the burst housing "bubble." The Bush administration's rescue of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the struggling government-sponsored housing enterprises, is the latest reminder. Still, global factors, notably high oil and food prices, have aggravated the slump. The line between what's local and what's global seems increasingly blurred, and there is a general anxiety that we are in the grip of mysterious worldwide forces.
The good that globalization has done is hard to dispute. Trade-driven economic growth and technology transfer have alleviated much human misery. If present economic trends continue (a big "if"), the worldwide middle class will expand by 2 billion by 2030, estimates a Goldman Sachs study. (Goldman's definition of middle class: people with incomes from $6,000 to $30,000.) In the United States, imports and foreign competition have raised incomes by 10 percent since World War II, some studies suggest. Job losses, though real, are often exaggerated.
But a disorderly global economy could reverse these advances. By disorderly I mean an economy plagued by financial crises, interruptions of crucial supplies (oil, obviously), trade wars or violent business cycles. This is globalization's Achilles' heel. Connections among countries have deepened and become more contradictory. Take oil producers. On one hand, high oil prices hurt advanced countries. But on the other, oil countries have an interest in keeping advanced countries prosperous, because that's where much surplus oil wealth is invested.
Vast global flows of money threaten unintended side effects. Foreigners own more than $1 trillion of debt issued or guaranteed by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, reports economist Harm Bandholz of UniCredit. In the past six years, he notes, foreigners have purchased $5.7 trillion of U.S. stocks and bonds. Bandholz says the inflow of money cut U.S. interest rates by 0.75 percentage points. So: Surplus savings from Asia and the Middle East, funneled into U.S. financial markets, may have abetted the "subprime" mortgage crisis by encouraging sloppy American credit practices. Too much money chased too few good investment opportunities.
A loss of confidence in U.S. financial markets could be calamitous; that was one reason for the rescue of Fannie and Freddie. But just possibly, we're at a crucial -- and desirable -- turning point. For several decades, the U.S. economy has been the world's economic locomotive. Americans borrowed and shopped; the U.S. trade deficit ballooned to $759 billion in 2006, stimulating exports from other countries. The trouble is that this pattern of growth could not continue indefinitely, because it required that Americans raise their debt burdens indefinitely. Now, China and other emerging markets may be moving beyond export-led growth. Unfortunately, that shift could abort, if high inflation (8 percent in China and India) derails domestic expansion.