Globalization's sins in dire perspective

By Rich Barlow
May 18, 2009
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Globalization Fleeced Working People

By Jon Jeter
W. W. Norton & Co., 256 pp., $25.95

Rose Shanzi works 12-hour days running a roadside vegetable stand in Zambia's sultry heat. To feed her five children, she must sell 75 cents' worth of tomatoes each day. "If I sell my tomatoes, we will eat today. If I don't, we don't eat."

Miguel Machado prowls the streets of Buenos Aires nightly to plunder garbage bins for recyclables to sell. On lean days, he and his wife drink tea for dinner so their kids can have what little food is in the house. Their 9-year-old boy notices that they fight more since his father lost his job.

Shanzi and Machado live in countries that embraced globalization, former Washington Post journalist Jon Jeter reports in "Flat Broke." From Africa to Argentina, from Chicago to D.C., the book takes an international tour of globalization's supposed disaster areas. Jeter puts real faces and names to victims of failed economic promises. But when it comes to analysis, he overreaches, laying a load of sins on globalization that reality cannot bear.

There's no disputing Jeter's reporting chops. Even when he shoots wide of his globalization target, his anecdotes fix themselves in memory, as when he recounts the story of the Brazilian cabdriver whose mother rejects his pleas to attend his 46th birthday, fearful that it would set off his hostile stepfather. "He kissed his mother goodbye and left, trying his best to hold back tears."

Yet when running at full-screed ahead, Jeter gets clumsy. In many countries, he writes, "Privatizing state-owned industries and utilities generated huge profits for investors but ate away at jobs and drove up the price of electricity and water." Later, though, he acknowledges that Chile privatized without such disruptions by stringently enforcing regulations on business. (He doesn't note that Scandinavian countries privatized successfully as well.)

Elsewhere, reporting on African-Americans' plight, Jeter profiles Sonia, an attractive doctoral candidate in Chicago who cannot find a husband. "Globalization pits men and women against each other, fueling greater miscommunication, jealousies, and even violence," he charges. "Educated women like Sonia are confronted with an increasing number of potential husbands who earn less money than they do and travel in different professional circles," something "men often find unacceptable."

Even granting that globalization whittled away manufacturing jobs that many black Chicago males depended upon, blaming it for the collapse of the black family, as if the Moynihan Report hadn't warned of that calamity 40 years ago, is to reduce a longstanding and complex problem to a fairy tale.

In fact, Jeter has come not to bury globalization but to tame it. Avoiding a misguided prescription for protectionism, he proposes that developing countries follow the example of Chile. Faced with the challenges of an integrated world, he says, that country beefed up its business regulation, invested in infrastructure, and reinforced its social safety net: minimum wage up, school spending up, health spending up.

"To compete in the global economy, a country must first invest in its own workforce and industries, before outsiders rush in to assume a complementary and supervised role in economic development. It is Keynesian economics and good old common sense." Jeter's words might offend those who consider President Obama a socialist. Thinking readers, on the other hand, will understand it as the lesson of history.

In the end, Jeter fingers a real problem, exaggerates its consequences, and manages to propose a sensible solution. Two out of three ain't bad.

Rich Barlow can be reached at

FLAT BROKE IN THE FREE MARKET: How Globalization Fleeced Working People By Jon Jeter

W. W. Norton & Co., 256 pp., $25.95

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