A Frenchman rents a Hollywood movie. A Thai schoolgirl mimics Madonna. Saddam Hussein chooses Frank Sinatra's "My Way" as the theme song for his fifty-fourth birthday. It is a commonplace that globalization is subverting local culture. But is it helping as much as it hurts? In this strikingly original treatment of a fiercely debated issue, Tyler Cowen makes a bold new case for a more sympathetic understanding of cross-cultural trade. Creative Destruction brings not stale suppositions but an economist's eye to bear on an age-old question: Are market exchange and aesthetic quality friends or foes? On the whole, argues Cowen in clear and vigorous prose, they are friends. Cultural "destruction" breeds not artistic demise but diversity.
Through an array of colorful examples from the areas where globalization's critics have been most vocal, Cowen asks what happens when cultures collide through trade, whether technology destroys native arts, why (and whether) Hollywood movies rule the world, whether "globalized" culture is dumbing down societies everywhere, and if national cultures matter at all. Scrutinizing such manifestations of "indigenous" culture as the steel band ensembles of Trinidad, Indian handweaving, and music from Zaire, Cowen finds that they are more vibrant than ever--thanks largely to cross-cultural trade.
For all the pressures that market forces exert on individual cultures, diversity typically increases within society, even when cultures become more like each other. Trade enhances the range of individual choice, yielding forms of expression within cultures that flower as never before. While some see cultural decline as a half-empty glass, Cowen sees it as a glass half-full with the stirrings of cultural brilliance. Not all readers will agree, but all will want a say in the debate this exceptional book will stir.
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Princeton University Press
February 29, 2004
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Excerpt from Creative Destruction by Tyler Cowen
TRADE BETWEEN CULTURES
Haitian music has a strong presence in French Guiana, Dominica, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and St. Lucia--the smaller Caribbean markets. Many Antillean musicians have resented the Haitian success, even though they derived many musical ideas from the Haitian style of compas (pronounced "comb-pa"). The founder of Kassav, the leading Antillean group in the funky style of zouk, stated: "It's this Haitian imperialism [i.e., the popularity of the groups] that we were rising against when we began Kassav." Governments responded with protective measures to limit the number of Haitian bands in the country. Ironically, Antillean zouk now has penetrated Haiti. Haitian musicians resent the foreign style, although like their Antillean counterparts they do not hesitate to draw on its musical innovations. Haiti's compas style was originally a modified version of Cuban dance music and Dominican merengue.1
The Canadian government discouraged the American book-superstore Borders from entering the Canadian market, out of fear that it would not carry enough Canadian literature. Canadians subsidize their domestic cinema and mandate domestic musical content for a percentage of radio time, which leads to extra airplay for successful Canadian pop stars like Celine Dion and Barenaked Ladies. Americans take pride in the global success of their entertainment industry, but Canadian writer Margaret Atwood coined the phrase "the Great Star-Spangled Them" to express her opposition to NAFTA.
The French spend approximately $3 billion a year on cultural matters, and employ twelve thousand cultural bureaucrats, trying to nourish and preserve their vision of a uniquely French culture.2 They have led a world movement to insist that culture is exempt from free trade agreements. Along these lines, Spain, South Korea, and Brazil place binding domestic content requirements on their cinemas; France and Spain do the same for television. Until recently India did not allow the import of Coca-Cola.
Trade is an emotionally charged issue for several reasons, but most of all because it shapes our sense of cultural self. More than ever before, we are aware that not everyone likes how international trade and globalization are altering today's cultures. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on America were directed first at the World Trade Center, a noted icon of global commerce.
Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia, argued that market society offered a cultural utopia based on freedom of choice. He portrayed a hypothetical libertarian world where individuals would freely choose their lifestyles, their mores, and their culture, so long as they did not impinge on the rights of others to make the same choices. Such a vision has held great appeal for many, but it has skirted the empirical question of how much choice actually is available in the market, or would be available in a more libertarian society.
Numerous commentators, from across the traditional political spectrum, have argued that markets destroy culture and diversity. Benjamin Barber claimed that the modern world is caught between Jihad, a "bloody politics of identity," and McWorld, "a bloodless economics of profit," represented by the spread of McDonald's and American popular culture. John Gray, an English conservative, has argued that global free trade is ruining the world's polities, economies, and cultures. His book is entitled False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. Jeremy Tunstall defined the "cultural imperialism thesis" as the view that "authentic, traditional and local culture in many parts of the world is being battered out of existence by the indiscriminate dumping of large quantities of slick commercial and media products, mainly from the United States." Fredric Jameson writes: "The standardization of world culture, with local popular or traditional forms driven out or dumbed down to make way for American television, American music, food, clothes and films, has been seen by many as the very heart of globalization."3
Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth-century French author of Democracy in America, provided foundations for many modern critics of commercialism. Tocqueville is not typically considered an economic thinker, but in fact his book is permeated with a deep and original economics of culture; he provides the most serious nineteenth-century attempt to revise Adam Smith. He sought, for instance, to disprove the Scottish Enlightenment dictum that an increase in the size of the market leads to more diversity. For Tocqueville, market growth serves as a magnet, pulling creators towards mass production and away from serving niches.