The place to start is with a true history of capitalism and globalization, which I examine in the next two chapters. In these chapters I will show how many things that the reader may have accepted as ‘historical facts’ are either wrong or partial truths. Britain and the US are not the homes of free trade; in fact, for a long time they were the most protectionist countries in the world. Not all countries have succeeded through protection and subsidies, but few have done so without them. For developing countries, free trade has rarely been a matter of choice; it was often an imposition from outside, sometimes even through military power. Most of them did very poorly under free trade; they did much better when they used protection and subsidies. The best-performing economies have been those that opened up their economies selectively and gradually. Neo-liberal free-trade free-market policy claims to sacrifice equity for growth, but in fact it achieves neither; growth has slowed down in the past two and a half decades when markets were freed and borders opened.
Chapter 1 The Lexus and the olive tree revisited Once upon a time, the leading car maker of a developing country exported its first passenger cars to the US. Up to that day, the little company had only made shoddy products—poor copies of quality items made by richer countries. The car was nothing too sophisticated—just a cheap subcompact (one could have called it ‘four wheels and an ashtray’). But it was a big moment for the country and its exporters felt proud.
Unfortunately, the product failed. Most thought the little car looked lousy and savvy buyers were reluctant to spend serious money on a family car that came from a place where only second-rate products were made. The car had to be withdrawn from the US market. This disaster led to a major debate among the country’s citizens.
Many argued that the company should have stuck to its original business of making simple textile machinery. After all, the country’s biggest export item was silk. If the company could not make good cars after 25 years of trying, there was no future for it. The government had given the car maker every opportunity to succeed. It had ensured high profits for it at home through high tariffs and draconian controls on foreign investment in the car industry. Fewer than ten years ago, it even gave public money to save the company from imminent bankruptcy. So, the critics argued, foreign cars should now be let in freely and foreign car makers, who had been kicked out 20 years before, allowed to set up shop again.
Others disagreed. They argued that no country had got anywhere without developing ‘serious’ industries like automobile production. They just needed more time to make cars that appealed to everyone.
The year was 1958 and the country, was, in fact, Japan. The company was Toyota, and the car was called the Toyopet. Toyota started out as a manufacturer of textile machinery. (Toyoda Automatic Loom) and moved into car production in 1933. The Japanese government kicked out General Motors and Ford in 1939 and bailed out Toyota with money from the central bank (Bank of Japan) in 1949. Today, Japanese cars are considered as ‘natural’ as Scottish salmon or French wine, but fewer than 50 years ago, most people, including many Japanese, thought the Japanese car industry simply should not exist.
Half a century after the Toyopet debacle, Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus has become something of an icon for globalization, thanks to the American journalist Thomas Friedman’s book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. The book owes its title to an epiphany that Friedman had on the Shinkansen bullet train during his trip to Japan in 1992. On his train back from the car factory in Toyota City to Tokyo, he came across yet another newspaper article about the troubles in the Middle East where he had been a long-time...