For all the discord over globalization, virtually everyone agrees on two of its properties. First, globalization is very hard to stop. Ever since card-carrying progressive William Greider titled his 1997 book One World, Ready or Not, even the left has increasingly viewed globalization as something to be tamed, not killed. Second, globalization makes the world -- on balance, at least -- more prosperous. The critique of globalization isn’t that it fails to churn out ever more stuff, but that churning out more stuff has lots of drawbacks, especially given the way the stuff gets distributed.
These two properties are related: Globalization is almost unstoppable precisely because it is driven by lots of people hellbent on increasing their prosperity. Nike stockholders want to boost profits by holding down production costs, which means manufacturing overseas. Indonesian workers want to elevate their income by moving from farm fields to Nike factories. Nike customers want, well, they want a shoe that has not just the generic "Air Sole" (old hat) but a "Tuned Air unit in the heel and Zoom Air in the forefoot" -- not to mention "Optimal Motion flex grooves."
As all these people try to upgrade their standard of living, the invisible hand obliges by enmeshing them in an ever larger, ever denser web of investment and production. Human nature itself -- the deep desire to amass resources, to keep up with the Joneses, and, if possible, to leave them in the dust -- drives the engine that is transforming the world.
Unfortunately, human nature has a spotty record in the driver's seat. The one realm where even a cynic might think human nature excels -- helping people selfishly pursue their own well-being -- is an area of frequent failure. Humanity is famous for pursuing things, such as power and riches, that don't bring lasting happiness. Are those Nike stockholders really happier behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz suv than they would be driving a Hyundai Accent? Might some Indonesian factory workers be better off if they had never left the farm and the time-tested folkways that govern life there? Couldn't a weekend athlete find enduring contentment even without Optimal Motion flex grooves?
This question -- Does globalization bring happiness? -- is the $64,000 question. Although it underlies much of the globalization debate and is sometimes tossed out rhetorically, it is seldom seriously addressed, perhaps because of its presumed elusiveness. But psychologists actually have amassed a lot of data about what does and doesn't make people happy. This data doesn't come just from undergraduate volunteers on U.S. campuses: Several massive cross-cultural surveys have been completed over the past two decades. And it is becoming clearer which economic and political circumstances lead people to feel satisfied with their lot in life.
When you combine this data with what we know about globalization's economic and political effects, it becomes possible to take a preliminary shot at the big question: Is globalization good or bad? If you were God (and a utilitarian), would you adopt a hands-off policy, leaving transnational capitalism on autopilot, or would you intervene? And what form might intervention take? How, if at all, should globalization be governed? Psychology's happiness database doesn't answer these questions, but it helps us ponder them. In the process, it also helps overturn some conventional wisdom about who benefits and who suffers under globalization's advance.