Want to catch a view of globalization from the manager's perspective? Fly business class on Northwest Airlines flight 11 from Detroit to Narita. Northwest is the biggest domestic carrier in Asia, and this flight connects their two big "world" hubs. Which means many of the men and women busy outsourcing production and finding new suppliers in Asia are all stuck together on a 13 hour flight well-lubricated by champagne and Northwest's pod-like business class seats. I've taken this route a few times in the last couple of months and find it a fascinating picture of all the contradictions of globalization.
Have you ever driven across the US and tried to to decipher who is growing what kind of food where. Where does my lettuce come from? Are those beans in the field? What kind of fruit tree is that? Well, it’s kind of the same on this flight. Just by listening to people, you discover where all the bits and pieces of the things in our daily life come from. My last flight, for example, provided an extensive lesson of where the fabrics used to line child car seats come from: Ningbo. Shanghai. Huangzhou. Soon, Vietnam. Another time, it was a set of components for automobiles. Another, some small steel components for tractors. Take this flight, and the entire map of China becomes an imagined collection of sources for the banal pieces that together make up your daily life.
And of course, the whole thing is built on a fundamental lack of understanding. The buyer who spent about 4 months a year in China? Doesn’t speak Mandarin, not a word. Wishes his suppliers spoke more English. Avoids staying in towns that have only Chinese hotels, the kind of hotel, I’ve discovered, that might be perfectly clean and comfortable but feels a little dicey because of what appear to be anti-gonorrhea wipes sold in the bathrooms. With poorly-translated labels—under the label “price, 12 Yuan” they say, “Uncomplimentary.”
The thing is, the people flying around the globe to buy their child-seat fabrics are decent folks. There was the guy I sat next to in November, just a few weeks after the election. I made an analogy between China’s one-party state and Brazil’s gangs and democracy. And in a gloomy tone, he jumped immediately to our own one-party state in the US. (In fact, I’ll be damned if I don’t keep sitting next to moderate Democrats. Are all the Republicans flying steerage?? Or do they have their own planes?) This was a guy with the maturity to know the consolidation of the GOP was terrible for our country, but a fundamental naiveté about how this one-party consolidation took place. He put aside his trade journals and listened, rapt, to learn about the election he basically missed while he was out of the country.
Where they’re particularly decent—but troubled and troublesome—is in their relationship to outsourcing. Since I start in Detroit, I often talk to or hear people talking about finding new suppliers in China. Almost to a one, they talk about what a shame it is that all the jobs are going to Asia. Here’s the thing. These people are often the managers making the decisions to outsource these jobs. They’re the ones who, ostensibly, are in the power positions in their companies and industries. But talking to them, you hear the same tone of utter impotence I hear, as well, from workers in manufacturing industries that are shutting down. Who’s driving this bus? If only these folks would collectively realize that if they don’t refuse to stop the process, no one will.
Some of them, of course, really are helpless to do anything about the globalization. I recall distinctly the faces of two engineers who had been busy outsourcing their South Carolina plant’s work to China. We were talking about the wages of the people who we were working with (in my case, about $600 a month for a national management position and about $200 a month for a sales position). Then, with a shocked face, one of these guys explained that the engineers in the new factory didn’t have cars. “They don’t make enough money to buy a car, they just ride bikes.” His face revealed the shock of someone who didn’t realize what it meant to outsource his factory until he realized that his counterparts in China couldn’t even buy what most engineers in the US would consider a bare necessity. It’s the bicycles, I think, that really got to these guys. How can an American engineer compete against people who don’t drive cars? His plant was flying him Business Class on 24-hour plane flight so he could outsource jobs to guys without cars.
(And then there are people like me, who use different rationalizations. My job is to help a manufacturing company compete better in China, turn the Chinese into budding durable good consumers. So I’m saving jobs, not outsourcing them, I say to myself. My rationalization serves to hide the way my activities directly connect with the increasing demand for oil which connects to an underlying instability in the world which connects to the fragility of the US dollar and a potential crash. We’re all very busy rationalizing on the globalization express.)
But here’s the thing that really struck me, this time, that seemed blogworthy—and bloglike, in its own way. As omnipresent as the glasses of champagne are the free business papers. A whole bookshelf of Financial Times and Wall Street Journals in the business lounge before you board, a cart of newspapers, in three different languages, waiting when you board the plane. And so the more-realistic than the “popular press” business headlines are part of the background noise just like the glow from the personalized entertainments systems.
But this week, when I was flying, the headlines all should have punctured the bubble we were flying in. The International Energy Agency says oil is in short supply, recommends conservation. The second highest monthly trade deficit ever. Oil approaches record price. The falling dollar. Trade gap widens. China is muscling private oil drillers in its country. The dollar continues to fall against the Euro. Imports of cotton trousers up 1000%. The headlines are insistent. Repetitive.
Here we were, burning up jet fuel so we could arrange to ship goods all the way around the world to a bunch of people, an entire country, who can’t or won’t pay their debts. But the words kept streaming by. THIS FLIGHT CAN’T GO ON ANY LONGER. GET OFF THE PLANE, IT’S GOING TO CRASH, the newspaper headlines might as well have said.
But still, even with that as background noise, I’d hear the child-like awe of another person making his first trip to China, answered by an old hand, offering to show him the ropes. There’s always this tremendous excitement in those voices, the middle-aged man who can’t imagine what awaits in this new frontier.