Posted on June 29, 2016

Brexit Is a Symptom of Globalization’s Deeper Ills

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Boston Globe, June 27, 2016


Brexit is part of a deep trend in the United States and Europe: a rejection by roughly half of the population of globalization as currently implemented. Almost every country in Europe now has a rising populist, anti-immigrant party, while the United States has Donald Trump. Yes, there are differences in the various movements, parties, and personalities, but the similarities are also unmistakable.

The supporters tend to be older, whiter, less educated, and working class. They believe that immigration is out of control, culturally destabilizing, and adverse to their economic interests. They believe that the political and financial elites have joined forces to abuse power, evade taxes, and twist globalization toward narrow ends.

These attitudes are not racist, xenophobic, or fascist (despite claims to the contrary, and despite enough racists and xenophobes in our midst). They are based on facts on the ground. In the past half century, the United States and Europe have experienced a massive surge of migration, both legal and illegal. The foreign-born share of the US population soared from 4.8 percent in 1970 to an estimated 13.9 percent in 2015, and in the UK the share of foreign-born surged from 5.8 percent in 1971 to 13.1 percent in 2015. At the same time, inequality of income has soared; the top have made off with the prize.

The rich countries lost effective control of their borders, or at least much of the public feels that way. Populations in the source regions surged, leading to huge pressures for out-migration (Mexico and the Caribbean Basin are the main sources of US immigrants; the Middle East, North Africa, Western and Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa are source-regions of Europe). The economic elites took little interest in this: Companies made profits on low- wage immigrant labor, while richer consumers enjoyed the low-cost services supplied by the immigrants. The elites turned a blind eye to the falling wages of the working class, who were also being hit by increased trade competition, offshoring of jobs, and automation.

US militarism has greatly amplified the migration. The US war on drugs in Latin America has caused mass violence and a flood of refugees into the United States. The senseless, absurd contra wars of Central America in the 1980s destabilized the US neighbors. The recent CIA-led efforts to topple governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere have been the single biggest cause of the influx of refugees to Europe.


Brexit, in short, is a powerful signal of deep and pervasive problems in our approach to globalization. The proper response is to fix the deeper problems. Within our economies we need to combine realistic limits on migration with a social-democratic ethos to take care of those left behind by globalization. Abroad, we need to shift from war to sustainable development. The United States and Europe will be secure only when their neighborhoods are also prospering and safe.