Globalization, a millimeter at a time

October 18, 2018

The US has always been sort of a weird island.

As a teenager, I found it both absurd and fascinating that the US hung on to feet and pounds, even as the rest of the world moved on to meters and grams. My brother felt the same way; after I came back from China in 2002, I decided it was time to learn temperatures in Celsius, so the weather station in our shared bedroom was set permanently to show the outdoor temperature in Celsius degrees.

Things have changed. It's hard to pinpoint exactly, but sometime in the last decade, I started to notice otherwise "global" trends showing up in the US. There are a bunch of possible on-the-ground explanations: greater trade, more communication, even NAFTA or the Obama presidency. Whatever the causes, we're becoming less an island and more like the rest of the world.

Some things I've noticed:

  • Urban/rural split. I first read about this in China: the vast gulf between big, rich, global cities, and the more traditional, conservative, less wealthy countryside. It didn't feel as pronounced in the US 20 years ago, but it's a huge driver of national politics today, one of the strongest predictors of how someone votes (Lilliana Mason's book "Uncivil Agreement" discusses this point in detail)
  • Metrication: it's become common to see metric drink sizes in the US (e.g. 500 mL, 1L, 2L). We shoot 9mm rounds at each other while buying grams of cocaine or marijuana. We measure sugar and fat in grams, and use milligrams at the pharmacy.
  • Populism: I always thought of "strongman" politics as more of an Eastern European/South American thing. We got Trump. China has Xi Jinping. The Economist did a lengthy piece on the causes and effects of global populism a few months ago.
  • TV: still mostly an export industry in the US, but I notice an increasing number of popular foreign-language shows reaching mainstream US audiences (e.g. Narcos)
  • Trade policy and environmentalism: mass movements that are getting ordinary people in the US interested in multinational agreements (Kyoto Protocol, Paris Climate Accord, TPP, NAFTA) and the bodies that shape them (WTO, UN, etc.)