By Kyle Francis
From Mikhail Gorbachev to Noam Chomsky, the James S. Palmer lecture series has been bringing great minds to Calgary for nearly a decade. This year Robert Reich, a Vaclev Havel prize winner, published author and former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labour came to lecture on the apparent evils of globalization and technology.
In his lecture, Reich spoke of globalization and technology as the two most prominent forces that are perpetuating the forever-growing void in wages between rich and poor. Reich began by soundly beating globalization into oblivion with a club composed of quick rhetoric, hard facts, and a sharp sense of humor.
“The work of nations is really about the quality of jobs and improving the standard of living,” Reich began dramatically before delving into a well thought out argument to support his case. “That depends on two trends. Trend number one has to do with a word that has gone, in public discourse, from obscurity to meaninglessness without any intervening period of coherence. That word is: Globalization.”
In support of his point, Reich indicated that globalization and technology are good if you are well educated, as they simply allow you to do your job more easily. However, for those who are under educated, Reich is adamant that globalization will do far more harm than good. It’s a harsh reality to face, but Reich points out that the less-educated are usually working in manual labor-style jobs, and most corporations would much rather pay a Malaysian pre-teen a penny a day to do the same manual labor-style job that they would have to pay a North American worker at least six dollars an hour to do.
After defeating globalization in the first round of his speech, a figurative bell rang and Reich moved on to his next opponent: Technology. During round two, Reich attacked technology as another catalyst of the ever-widening wage gap between the haves and have-nots. Reich insisted that technology was just as responsible for the wage gap as its big brother globalization, however he was very clear on what he meant by the word itself.
“Technology has to do with the ability of people to innovate,” stated Reich. “It is the potential for change, not just new gadgets. In the job world, regardless of international trade, you can see the impact of technology, it would still be having a profound effect on what people did and who did.”
When a person picks up a phone and dials the operator they will unquestionably get a recorded voice. Reich points out that there was a time when repetitive or otherwise routine tasks like telephone operations were done by flesh-and-blood human beings, rather than automated switch-boards and the like.
As the lecture progressed, it became clearer and clearer that Reich’s stand on globalization was based around the idea that the well educated are well suited to succeeding in a global economy, whereas the poor and less educated are destined to fail. Cynical as this sounds, Reich was not without optimism. Eventually, he offered the solution to the problems he spoke of: improved and more accessible education.
When the wage gap between rich and poor becomes so extreme that a child born into poverty is destined to stay impoverished, Reich was vehement that the decision making process of society would be tragically undermined as every decision would fall very differently and very heavily on every distinct population group. Although this last comes off as extremely cynical, Reich was not without optimism, stressing again his belief in the importance of good education.
“What can be done is a simple word: education,” he said. “Small classes, good teachers. Teachers that are well paid, well prepared, highly motivated. Then children will be given the tools they need to succeed in this highly globalized world.”
Today, globalization and technology have become the focal point of more than a few heated debates, a couple peaceful demonstrations and even the odd riot. No matter what side of the fence you sit on, these are forces we all have to deal with, and the world we live in is inarguably effected by their presence.