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Comments on Congress: For better and worse, we’re all connected

The point is that the forces of globalization are with us whether we like it or not, and we can’t ignore them, writes Lee Hamilton.

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Lee Hamilton

It’s a cliché to say that everything’s connected. But we live in a world where this is clearly true. Ideas, goods, services, workers, tourists, commerce, communications, drugs, crime, migrants, refugees, weapons, climate impacts… and, of course, viruses...They all cross borders constantly.

This is one reason I’ve come to believe that drawing a distinction between “foreign” and “domestic” policy, while often helpful, is also misleading. Globalization essentially means that we can’t escape the impact of what’s happening in other countries and regions around the globe, either at the policy level in Washington or on the street where you live.

This is often beneficial. The free movement of goods and services from this country to others builds our economy and creates jobs. Likewise, goods and services produced elsewhere and imported or used here have provided many American consumers with a quality of life that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. The relatively free flow of ideas, cultural life and people with talent, skill, ambition, or all three, have enriched this country and many others.

Yet managing globalization is also a clear challenge because it’s not only the good stuff that goes along with it. The work of government – not just at the federal level, but in our states, counties, and cities and towns – is to find ways of promoting what’s good and mitigating what’s bad.

Sometimes, this takes global coordination. The UN Climate Conference that took place in Scotland is one clear example. Climate change affects everything, from the kinds of plants and animals you might see in your backyard to the behavior of the oceans and global wind currents. The Glasgow meeting aimed at accelerating governments’ action on ratcheting back the human-made causes of climate change and at finding ways for nations and communities to adapt to the changes that we’re too late to prevent.

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Sometimes, this demands clear-headed, national strategies. All countries need goods and services from other countries: food, cars, entertainment, manufacturing parts.

And economists would argue that our interconnectedness on these fronts has, on the whole, served both the U.S. and the world well, raising standards of living, lowering costs and expanding the array of choices available.

Yet when factory workers are thrown out of work, farmers are disrupted by competition from overseas, or over-dependence on the global supply chain proves to be a vulnerability, as during the pandemic, these demand thoughtful policy change from the federal government, whether it’s pursuing trade talks, developing support for retraining programs, or buttressing small-scale agriculture and local supply chains.

And at the local level, the forces of globalization clearly require a community response. Maybe it’s finding ways of assimilating and educating migrant workers or refugees. Maybe it’s helping small farms connect with local markets that will boost their chances of success and help feed surrounding communities. And maybe it’s promoting home weatherization and other energy-related policies that help reduce carbon emissions.

The point is that the forces of globalization are with us whether we like it or not, and we can’t ignore them. We’re affected by what takes place everywhere else, and both at home and in the halls of power we have to understand and manage it. It’s inevitable that we’ll face challenges and disruption. Our task is to recognize the opportunities and spread the benefits.

Lee Hamilton is a senior advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government, a nonpartisan educational institution that believes learning about Congress is central to responsible citizenship. The center seeks to inspire young people and adults to take an active part in revitalizing representative government. The center strives to help citizens be effective in bringing their concerns to elected officials so government actions reflect the “consent of the governed.” Hamilton was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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