Visualizing Foreign Trade
President Obama completed a whirlwind world tour that took him from India to Indonesia and finally to South Korea for the Group of 20 (G-20) summit on global economy and trade.
The summit, and the presidential tour, come at a delicate time, as the economies of most of the G-20 nations still struggle to recover from the Great Recession that began in 2008. In a carefully worded letter to the G-20 leaders, President Obama made a broad appeal for the nations of the world to cease relying solely on American over-consumption of export goods to support their trade surpluses. How much of a choice the other G-20 nations have in going along with this proposal is unclear: Last week the US Federal Reserve moved to stimulate the flagging US economy with an injection of $600 billion, an action that may well boost domestic exports and shrink foreign imports.
If you're left wondering what exactly any of this might have to do with you, how summits like the G-20 and actions of the US Federal Reserve actually affect the world economy, and what exactly is meant by the vague term "global trade," a good introduction can be found via a visualization and video from a recent workshop held at Harvard by the World Economic Forum.
In a circuitous narrative that spans the globe, the linkages between extraction, production, distribution, consumption, decommission, and disposal of goods are elucidated with clear examples. In one case, an imbroglio over Mexican and American agricultural policy results in a global avocado glut. In another, obsolete American electronics are exported to countries like India, where they are harvested for precious metals, metals that in turn are forged into jewelry that is then sold back to American consumers.
The message of the visualization--and for the leaders at the G-20 summit--is that the ebb and flow of global trade can have surprising and far-reaching consequences, for good and ill. In very tangible ways, the nations of the world are now all intimately connected by their economies, and small policy changes in one inevitably cascade to affect all the others. Somehow balancing the global benefits of this interconnectivity with its drawbacks on regional, national, and even individual scales is unquestionably one of the great challenges of the 21st century, and perhaps the only way to ensure sustainable prosperity and growth.