Friday, April 28, 2017

In France, the Geography of Globalization

In France these days one of the hottest intellectuals is a geographer who studies urban real estate markets. Christophe Guilluy has published three books in the past five years, and been consulted by all the major candidates for president. A summary of his work:
At the heart of Guilluy’s inquiry is globalization. Internationalizing the division of labor has brought significant economic efficiencies. But it has also brought inequalities unseen for a century, demographic upheaval, and cultural disruption. Now we face the question of what—if anything—we should do about it.

A process that Guilluy calls m├ętropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals—the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them—who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, B├ęziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.

Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.

Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalization. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever shortcut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wireless, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too. Guilluy disagrees. For him, there’s no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class or to assume that broad-based prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system.
The same problem looms over all the rich nations: where will middle class jobs come from in the future? And how can the prosperity of thriving urban centers be spread across the nation?


David said...

For my money, this--along with its consequences, such as populist nationalism and the increasing hostility of political division--is the dire issue facing western civilization. The usual solutions offered, such as more education, are not convincing.

G. Verloren said...

The only thing I can think to propose is to restructure how we distribute wealth, starting at the top.

There is only a finite amount of wealth in any economy. If you structure things so that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, the effects inevitably bleed into the middle class. The more polarized toward the extremes things get, the less room there is for anyone or anything to exist in the middle.

It's like trying to set a thermostat that's wildly oversensitive. If your controls aren't granular enough, you can't find a happy medium. If you're feeling slightly too warm, you want to be able to shift the temperature by 1 or 2 degrees at a time - not by 10 or 20 at a time.

Another apt comparison might be to a garden hose that only goes between barely dribbling and full blast, or to a desk fan whose only settings are "Off" and "High". The system is tuned too far toward the extremes, and it's virtually impossible to achieve a result that's somewhere in the middle.

You're either one of the countless poor, or you're one of the lucky few who get to be a billionaire, and the more stark the contrast and the inequality between the extremes, the less capacity there is for people to live comfortably in the middle.

There is only one solution - reduce inequality. Crack down on the wild and monstrous excesses of the rich, protect the weak and vulnerable poor, and in the process level out the distribution of wealth. Only then can the middle class possibly thrive.

The only alternative is to keep increasing inequality until there simply is no more middle class, with most individuals in that category downgrading to being poor, and a small handful of the lucky ones at the top being elevated into riches.

leif said...

something we don't hear much of, since it probably introduces something akin to eugenics into the mix, is how or if population contributes to this. i feel that it absolutely does. i do work for a very large corporation -- larger in total employees than all but the largest 33 cities in the US -- and highly skilled people are routinely treated like commodities. i have become convinced that population, abetted of course by plutocratic regimes, permits the very rich to continue to concentrate wealth.

they do this by pitting people against each other (in a local market) and of course by outsourcing. the former has fallen out of favor, for technology work, and instead why not pay 25% or less to someone who can do the job at least 50% as well?

so g., while i certainly agree that a wealth redistribution is appropriate and long overdue, i don't think that this alone will do it. frankly we just have too many people, and i think that as population continues to grow, so too will several of its associated problems such as the commoditization of once-respected skills, resource wars, resource shortages in general, and government collusion in propping up nearly dead industries to garner political favor.

John said...

Many people I know seem to feel that excess population is at the root of the problem. Since people alive today will see the world's population peak and start to fall, maybe we'll find out.