The Phantom ‘Global Race’

There’s been a lot of talk from Conservative politicians in the UK about the ‘global race‘. This race, we’re led to believe, involves all the countries of the world. The winners are those countries that can compete the best, presumably by selling more things cheaper than anyone else can, by dint of working harder and being smarter.

Races, and competitions in general, are perfectly reasonable for situations where the thing you want to find out (or to optimise) is easily and directly measured; so, for example, if you want to find out who the fastest runner in the world is, then you hold a series of races where you measure everyone’s speed. No problem, everyone’s happy.

Now, while such races are entertaining to watch and may tell you something about the human spirit, etc, they are not of direct relevance to most people’s lives because most people are not that interested in becoming the fastest runner in the world. They may want to run, because it’s fun to do so or because they want to lose weight, and in the process they may find it fun to try and run faster, but in all the 5k and 10k and half-marathons I’ve run in, there’s only one winner and about 5000 losers. None of those losers consider themselves losers because they aren’t really competing against anyone except for, perhaps, themselves.

That’s where the problem with the global race comes in. The metaphor is chosen because we all know what races are, and we all know that sacrifices must be made in order to win them. We all know about Olympic athletes who swim for eight hours a day or who run on Christmas and New Year’s Day just to get a bit more training in than their rivals. Therefore, if we’re in a global race, everyone in the country must pull together and make sacrifices in order to win.

But what does it mean to win the global race? What, exactly, are we measuring?

GDP per capita? According to the International Monetary Fund, the top spot is held by Qatar, with $100,889; the UK lies at 24th place with $36,569. It’s safe to say we won’t be winning that particular race any time soon. More importantly, I don’t think anyone in the UK is particularly jealous of Qatari citizens other than the fact that they probably own some really nice cars and electronics.

Productivity rates? Out of the OECD countries, Luxembourg and Norway come out top when measured by GDP per hour worked; as of 2007, the UK lay in 11th place. Now, I like Norway a lot, but I suspect the Tories don’t, otherwise they’d be renationalising the energy sector, employing more government workers, expanding the welfare state, and giving parents 46 weeks of paid leave.

Neither measurement is satisfactory. Taiwan, Sweden, Ireland, Hong Kong, and the US all outperform the UK. Does that mean they’re winning in the global race, and so we should mimic whatever they do? Singapore is well up there, perhaps the UK should also become a one-party country. Or maybe, like Germany (who are also beating us), we should require large companies to have workers councils and also adopt proportional representation.

We don’t know who the winners and losers of the global race are because we don’t know what the race is for — and even if we did know, we couldn’t simply just copy what the winners do, because we aren’t about to magically discover more oil in the North Sea, or because we aren’t prepared to adopt the policies of Taiwan or Singapore, or because we know that what works for smaller countries won’t work for us.

As for GDP and productivity figures (which are easily manipulated and hard to compare between countries), they’re only useful as a means towards an end, which may, depending on your politics, include healthier and happier citizens, or citizens who have a great deal of autonomy, or citizens who live fulfilling lives. Those ends can be achieved in many different ways and it’s not always clear that money will help, otherwise Qatar would have the happiest, healthiest, smartest, and most fulfilled citizens in the world. The vagueness of the global race is deliberate, or at least, extremely advantageous, because it allows the Tories to justify more or less any policy they want.

But what’s most disappointing to me is not the vagueness. It’s the lack of vision. We know we don’t want to be poor. But what do we win, and what do we sacrifice, by being rich?

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