© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Challenges Facing Globalization


We have a global conversation this morning about resistance to globalization. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in North East England in the U.K., which voted this year to leave the European Union. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And David Wessel is in our studios here in Washington. Good morning, David.

DAVID WESSEL: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's with the Brookings Institution and The Wall Street Journal. Together, David and Frank can give us a wide-angle lens on what people really want after dramatic elections this year. Now, Frank, where are you exactly?

LANGFITT: I'm sitting in Sunderland along the river. This is North Eastern England. It's an old industrial town. I'm looking out over what used to be shipyards. And people thought Sunderland might vote to stay in the EU because there's a Nissan plant here that ships most of its cars to the European continent. But the big surprise was that Sunderland didn't.

They voted to leave, which a lot of people saw as people here voting against their economic self-interest. I was talking to a local law student, a guy named Bailey Baker. He voted to stay in the EU. His dad works for a factory that provides auto parts for Nissan. He voted out. And Bailey, when we were talking, sort of described the conversation he's been having with his dad and other Brexit voters here.

BAILEY BAKER: Everybody who voted leave that I've spoke to when I said, oh, it can affect this, it can affect that, said, oh, Britain will recover, was the response. Britain will recover. We've always been a resilient nation.

LANGFITT: Do you think that's realistic or rational?

BAKER: No, no. Well, I think it would be rational if you had something to back it up with. But saying Britain will recover because they've recovered in the past is not a good way to look at a new political landscape and how we'll recover from a new political event which has never happened before. It's not wise, is it (laughter)?

INSKEEP: This is reminding me of voters in the United States who said to me, we need a shakeup. Even if they couldn't say what it was, they felt like they needed a shakeup. Now let's bring David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal into the conversation. David, when you hear about an old industrial place where there's still things going on, still things being manufactured, but also there's a Rust Belt feel to it, does that sound familiar?

WESSEL: It certainly does. There are places in the U.S. - Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana - where workers, some of whom are hurt by globalization, some of whom benefit from exports or buy cheap imports, voted with Donald Trump and surprised Democrats by turning out in such numbers that they basically made the difference in this election.

INSKEEP: Well, Frank Langfitt, in North East England, follow up on something that you said. You said that some people were seen as voting against their economic self-interest. Why would that be?

LANGFITT: Well, that was one of the questions I've been asking for the last few days around here. And what I found really interesting is people kept saying immigration. And immigration, I think, is a code word, frankly - and I had this long conversation with a bunch of guys basically in a pub working-class folk - for white identity politics, which we've been hearing a lot about in the United States.

People feel that England is changing, that it's not the same culture that it's been. And they feel a little threatened by that. And what they say is, we don't want the immigrants to come here. And that's why they wanted to leave the EU to have stronger control of the borders.

INSKEEP: Do people feel demographically threatened, which is something that you do hear about in the United States as the country becomes more and more diverse, more different kinds of people? And for some Americans, that's just a different deal than having a smaller group of minorities.

LANGFITT: Absolutely. I think that you do hear a lot of that. And they do sound under threat. There's very much that tone of, you know, we don't feel like we have the same rights here as we had in the past or that people are following our culture. They often say immigrants should come here and they should adapt and assimilate. If we went to their countries, we would do the same.

INSKEEP: Let me follow up though, David Wessel, with something that you said. You said that globalization is not necessarily the cause of people's economic frustrations, not necessarily the only cause. But it's real. I mean, this is a very real thing for some people.

WESSEL: No doubt about it. And I think that the cheerleaders for globalization oversold the benefits and underestimated the cost. You know, there's some really interesting research by a couple of economists that looks at counties that have been particularly affected by imports from China. And they find an increase in death rates, including from suicide, among white working-class men.

INSKEEP: Why would that be connected to imports from China?

WESSEL: Their theory is that manufacturing jobs were particularly hard hit when China joined the World Trade Organization. And these workers found basically despair. I mean, there is a hypothesis, but they have pretty convincing data that where imports penetrated, manufacturing jobs went down. In those counties, death rates were up including from suicide.

INSKEEP: Frank Langfitt, I want to raise that because you talked about shipyards in North East England in the city where you're at. And I'm thinking about the way that Americans who used to work in steel mills, for example, or in coal mines - they were hard jobs, they were difficult jobs. But when you talk to people who used to have those jobs, they were proud of them.

It was part of their identity was where they worked. Is that perhaps why some people feel their identity is under threat even if globalization is not hurting them quite that directly?

LANGFITT: Yeah, I'll give an example. I was talking to a guy here at a fish market here along the river and he was saying that he used to work in the shipyards before they left. And then as he tried to get other jobs, he actually had some managerial experience, he had to drop it off his resume. He couldn't get those jobs, and now he's been working for a long time in this fish market.

And you do get a sense of that sort of frustration. And let me just throw one more thing in here. The interesting thing about this fish market is it was - the building was paid for by the European Union. It was a direct benefit from being inside the EU, and this guy still voted out. And a lot of it had to do with concerns about immigration.

INSKEEP: This raises another thing, gentlemen. It's not entirely clear to me that people necessarily voted against free trade. It seems they voted against some of the downsides of free trade. In the Brexit vote, we heard that campaigners for Brexit said you can keep having free trade with the European Union, we can just redo the rules so you don't have to worry about immigrants.

Here in the United States, Donald Trump did talk about big tariffs on imports, but he actually talked about threatening big tariffs to get better deals for free trade. Is it possible, actually, that people just want to tweak the rules here a little bit?

WESSEL: Well, I suppose it's possible. I think this is pretty hard for voters to understand. And I think that Frank has picked up and I've picked up in the United States that there's something other than this easy-to-measure economics going on. It has to do with people in the U.S., white men, especially those of modest education, who feel like they've been overtaken, that there's women and African-Americans and Hispanics and immigrants getting in line in front of them.

And they used to be at the head of the line. And they want to go back to some era when white men like them, like their fathers, could get a decent paying job, be the head of the household and feel like they were at the top of the pile.

INSKEEP: Frank, did you talk to people in England who said that explicitly?

LANGFITT: I think they feel sort of marginalized. If you look at the way England and the United Kingdom works, London is the center of everything, even more so than New York is a center in America. And I think everybody outside of London sort of feels left out. They see the country changing and they just sort of feel that not paid attention to.

I mean, there's a lot of - the same kind of anger that you see at the Beltway, you totally see at the anger up here towards Westminster in London, you know, where all the political power is and a feeling that we haven't been getting investment, they don't pay attention to us, they don't listen to us. You hear that all the time.

INSKEEP: A bit of the global conversation about globalization. NPR's Frank Langfitt is in North East England. David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal and The Brookings Institution here in Washington. Thank you, gentlemen.

WESSEL: You're welcome.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.