Really Creative Destruction

Economist Tyler Cowen argues for the cultural benefits of globalization

What are we to make of the fact that Saddam Hussein selected Frank Sinatra's version of "My Way" as the theme song for his 54th birthday?

Cultural pessimists and critics of globalization would tend to view such a curious choice with alarm or condescension, as just one more case of tawdry American, profit-based pop supplanting "authentic" indigenous music. On the left, political scientist Benjamin Barber decries the spread of "McWorld," a "bloodless economics of profit" that relentlessly exports cheesy American goods to far-flung lands. On the right, conservatives such as philosopher John Gray fret that free trade is destroying local customs while homogenizing culture and lowering standards.

In his recent and important book Creative Destruction: How Globalization Is Changing the World's Cultures (Princeton University Press), economist Tyler Cowen argues that something very different -- and much more heartening -- is going on. He takes his cue from Joseph Schumpeter, who famously described the "perennial gale of creative destruction" at the very heart of market orders. Cowen contends that "cross-cultural exchange...creates a plethora of innovative and high-quality creations in many different genres, styles, and media," and that such exchange "expands the menu of choice, at least provided that trade and markets are allowed to flourish."

The result is a powerful, richly evocative contribution to our understanding of how art and commerce, often seen as natural enemies, are in fact closely related. Cowen, described by The Boston Globe as "the leading proponent of a free market position within the arts and culture," writes: "A typical American yuppie drinks French wine, listens to Beethoven on a Japanese audio system, uses the Internet to buy Persian textiles from a dealer in London, watches Hollywood movies funded by foreign capital and filmed by European directors, and vacations in Bali; an upper-middle-class Japanese may do much the same. A teenager in Bangkok may see Hollywood movies starring Arnold Schwarzenegger (an Austrian), study Japanese, and listen to new pop music from Hong Kong and China, in addition to the Latino singer Ricky Martin."

Given the anxieties surrounding globalization -- and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, which many took to reflect an unbridgeable gap between Islam and the West -- the deep understanding Cowen brings to cross-cultural exchange has never been more relevant.

Cowen, 41, has explored related territory in two highly acclaimed books, In Praise of Commercial Culture (1998) and What Price Fame? (2000). Cowen was raised in New Jersey, and his interest in commerce may stem from the fact that his father was the president of the Northern New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. After attending Virginia's George Mason University, he took his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1987.

Following a teaching gig at the University of California at Irvine, he returned to George Mason, where he holds the Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics and directs both the James M. Buchanan Center for Political Economy and the Mercatus Center. He is also the proprietor of a lively Web home page that hosts an extensive and ever-expanding ethnic dining guide for the Washington, D.C. area. More recently -- and in keeping with his interest in cross-cultural trade -- Cowen married the Russian-born lawyer Natasha Chernyak.

Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie interviewed Cowen in April.

reason: Give an example that characterizes the sort of cultural exchange and hybridization that you discuss in Creative Destruction.

Tyler Cowen: The first point to make is that all examples characterize it. The only question is, how much of it do we already see? Look at a book and ask yourself, where does paper come from, where does printing come from, where do the ideas in the book come from? What's the religious background of the author? You're already talking about the Middle East, China, Europe, the United States.

Just about anything you can find reflects a synthetic culture based on trade. It's really not even a question of degree. Virtually everything is a product of multiple cultures coming from very different places, and we should be acutely aware of that when we approach debates on globalization and nationalism and cultural protectionism.

Reggae music is a specific example. It drew heavily from American rhythm and blues. It really took off when Jamaicans received American radio broadcasts of American music. Later, it drew heavily from the Beatles and the British Invasion bands. It's a notion of music that's seen as intensely Jamaican, and in a way it is, but it's also drawing on sea chanteys and influences from all over the place. And it's drawing on a religion -- Rastafarianism -- that has a link to Ethiopia.

Not only is reggae incredibly synthetic, but it's had an enormous influence on global culture. A lot of American rap music came from reggae. Musicians such as Blondie, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, and many others have been considerably influenced by reggae. A lot of techno and rave music comes from the Jamaican form called dub.

Here's a pretty small island, not too many people, not too rich, very close to this big cultural giant, the United States, and it develops a form which is synthetic in the first place and then really has a big impact on the world. It's not the case that it's been trampled by big conglomerate multinationals. Jamaica has more record labels than the United Kingdom.

reason: If this sort of hybridization is so striking and central to cultural production and exchange, why isn't it more widely acknowledged, much less celebrated?

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