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Friday, June 25, 2010

Why Are Golden Arches Lightning Rods?

The Globalizing Impulse Originates in Consumer Preference

It is obvious that anti-globalization forces suffer from a myopic fixation on symbols rather than offering arguments based on substance. The clearest evidence of this is the widespread attacks on McDonald’s outlets and other iconic symbols of Americana.

Perhaps these protesters have poor powers of observation or simply lack fertile imaginations to seek out some new symbol of protest. It does seem curious that there are no known complaints about the global reach of karaoke or the invasions of Asian cuisines that have swept the world.

Surely, there are more karaoke bars in more cities around the globe than there are McDonald’s restaurants. And what about the scourge of Latino songs that have stormed the music world like wildfire? Or things Korean that charm a growing number of admirers among Asians? And who accounts for the sins of Sony and Mercedes?

As it is, would-be activists have cut their teeth on breaking into or tearing down structures adorned with the Golden Arches. Jean Bove, a self-styled French farmer who spends more time on the barricades than on his fantasized farm, was catapulted into stardom by vandalizing one of those hamburger joints. Ironically, no one paid attention to the fact that his act destroyed job opportunities in a rather depressed part of France.

Now McDonald’s has become the target of choice of those who would express outrage against the U.S. retaliatory actions for terrorism directed at the Taliban, Afghanistan’s wannbe government. In neighboring Pakistan, unruly crowds trashed McDonald’s in Islamabad and Karachi. Demonstrators in Indonesia have been slightly more tame with outlets in various cities being cordoned. As if to show their resolve and to make up for their tempered rage, protesters also set upon Pizza Hut outlets and implored diners to stay away.

Although multinational corporations make an easier target for registering complaints about globalization, ubiquitous brands certainly are not limited to the United States. As suggested above, it is simply wrong to portray globalization as a form of cultural imperialism by America or the West. (The favorite target of the predecessors of modern anti-globalists was the Swiss company Nestlé.) Indeed, globalization involves a more complex process of modernization combined with internationalization. Those who would pretend it is otherwise are playing a dangerous game.

Attempts to mischaracterize globalization as an American or Western conspiracy resonate of social theories that supported ruinous economic policies in much of the postwar period. Generations of Latin American dictators, African despots, and communist commissars condemned their countries to grinding poverty by thinking along these lines.

Causing generations to suffer from economic stagnation is bad enough. Now their modern-day fellow-travelers are encouraging a divisive view of the world that is inhabited by a virtuous “us” and an evil “them.” Under this banner, the downtrodden victims are acting righteously in tilting against the windmills of multinational corporations. Unwittingly perhaps, this fuels the fire that burns in the gut of terrorists.

Granted, there is an apparent convergence toward certain norms or rules that are common to Western cultures, especially as they relate to economic transactions. However, this convergence is the outcome of a natural and evolutionary procedure that arises from voluntary choices by citizens and their governments to engage in worldwide markets. Most of these individual or collective choices are made with the aim of promoting greater prosperity. Consequently, as more countries have opened their economies to global markets, they have found a need to establish certain legal arrangements that oversee contractual agreements.

Part of this trend should be welcome to those who oppose authoritarianism. For there is an unmistakable movement toward institutions that protect individuals and away from authority-based institutions that protect state power. Critiques of globalization are little more than another round in the struggle between conservatism and modernism.

Biggest Losers

If protests and vandalism are successful in undermining global branding, the biggest losers will be consumers, especially those in poorer countries. Whatever the complaints against corporations with global reach, the presence of these brands benefits consumers by lowering information costs. Wishing to protect brands, companies will insure a high level of standardized quality and nondiscriminatory treatment of customers.

The good news is that larger multinationals are unlikely to withdraw completely even from the most threatened markets. They can buy up or into local brands or diversify into products with names that may not indicate the geographic origin of the company.

In all events, the success of branding has spawned imitators in developing countries. In the Philippines, a local burger brand named Jolly Bee bested McDonald’s sales before moving into regional markets and a few outlets in California. Another fast-food franchise operation in Guatemala based on chicken products, Pollo Campero, outsells all competitors despite the presence of all the major chains.

It is a gross misrepresentation to depict globalization as the outcome of a conspiracy of anonymous and mysterious foreign forces. The globalizing impulse is to a large degree the result of preferences for imported products or services that are better or cheaper than what is produced locally.

In this sense, globalization is not merely benign. It reflects an expanding freedom of expression for citizens acting as consumers. Those who oppose these results reveal their own elitist loathing for their fellow citizens and their right to express their choices.

Message to anti-globalists: Your distaste for Big Macs or American policies gives you neither the right nor obligation to stop others from enjoying their Happy Meals. Especially when it causes someone else to lose his job.

  • Christopher Lingle is senior fellow at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquín, Guatemala.