Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
S4. EPISODE 8
The Globalization Myth
Featuring Shannon O'Neil
How have regional dynamics shifted in an increasingly globalizing world? And, what is going on in Latin America and Mexico, and how will it affect the United States? Today we talk with Shannon O’Neil, vice president, deputy director of studies, and senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as the author of the book “The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter.” Plus, we take a look at medicine, drug, and vaccine breakthroughs from around the world.
Prefer to read? Check out the Audio Transcript
Zachary Karabell (ZK): What could go right? I’m Zachary Karabell, the founder of The Progress Network, and I’m joined as always by Emma Varvaloucas, the executive director of The Progress Network for our podcast, What Could Go Right?, where we try to talk to people, who you might not have heard of or might not have heard about, who are engaged in the work of looking at the world, at least through a different sensibility, if not through a different lens. That sensibility being what could go right, doesn’t mean that they’re blithely indifferent to all that’s going wrong. In fact, most of the people we talk to as part of this podcast are profoundly aware of everything that’s going wrong, but are more, I think, dedicated to figuring out ways to make it right, to create that future of our hopes and not the one of our fears. And one area of the world that we don’t talk about nearly as much except through the lens of our fears, our, in this case, being the United States and Americans. I know this show increasingly has a global audience and we try not to be too provincial and too American in that perspective. But clearly, I sit in the United States, I was born in the United States. Emma is half Greek, half American, and toggles between those identities as is convenient. And in this particular case, we do not pay enough attention to what is going on in the teeming world of Latin America, extending from Mexico through the Caribbean, down into the Southern American continent all the way to Tierra del Fuego and right before Antarctica, a big place, a lot of multiplicity, and certainly no unanimity within those various countries and societies, but nonetheless, an entire ecosystem that profoundly shapes the one in which the United States lives, particularly Mexico. And today we’re gonna talk to somebody who has been looking at this, looking at regional dynamics in light of globalization. And I hope this is an illuminating conversation because as central as it actually is to our world and our existence, it gets incredibly overlooked and get totally short shrifted. Emma, tell us about who we’re gonna speak with today.
Emma Varvaloucas (EV): So today, we’re gonna talk with Shannon O’Neil. She’s the vice president, deputy director of studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller senior fellow for Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She’s the author of two books, one that we’re gonna talk about today, The Globalization Myth: Why Regions Matter, and the other book is called Two Nations Indivisible: Mexico, the United States, and the Road Ahead. She’s also a columnist and frequent guest on national broadcast news and radio programs where she talks about global trade supply chains, Mexico, Latin America, and democracy. Are you ready, Zachary?
ZK: I am ready.
EV: All right. Let’s talk with Shannon.
ZK: Shannon O’Neil, it’s great to have this conversation with you today or certainly, I hope it’s going to be great to have this conversation with you today. I have no anticipation that it won’t be, but you never know. Let’s see. So you just wrote a book, you’ve written a few, this is your latest, and one of the key elements of this is talking about the binary that people have been in for a bunch of years about globalization or deglobalization. Is it good, is it bad? Is it happening, is it not happening? And you add a new, I guess a new twist to that to talk about. It’s always been not just globalizations, people understand that like the world knitting itself together, but it’s also been intense regionalism or regionalization, whether that’s NAFTA and the— what do we call it now? The USMCA or the post-NAFTA agreement or the Trans-Pacific Partnership that really is now just a Pacific partnership ’cause it doesn’t include the United States or African Union or the European Union or elements of what’s going on in the Gulf between the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia and others to create an economic trade zone. But for those who haven’t read the book or haven’t been listening to you, which everybody should always and every day, is this a good thing? Do you think regionalization is a good thing or are you just saying it is a thing?
Shannon O’Neil (SO): So I’m looking for this conversation too. I hope it goes well myself.
SO: But you know what I—
ZK: Fingers crossed.
SO: Fingers crossed. But what I found in the book and what I talk about is that over these last 40 years, these years where everybody’s been talking about globalization and focused on that, that sure that has happened. And we have examples of these companies that went global and sourced from dozens of different countries, but more often than not actually, when companies and money and people and ideas went abroad, they didn’t go so far. And when you look at these last 40 years, it’s actually been more regionalization than globalization. And one interesting just piece of data that brings us to point is that the average good that travels abroad, so that’s a traded good, it travels 3,000 miles, so that is about the distance from New York to Los Angeles. It doesn’t get you to Berlin, it doesn’t get you to Shanghai, it’s much closer. So whether that’s good or bad is an open question I would say. And there’s good parts to it and there’s bad parts to it, but the reality is much different than I think the media portrays today or the way we really talk about globalization today.
EV: Shannon, maybe you can give us a little bit of an overview of the good parts and the bad parts. Choose which you wanna start with and which you wanna finish with. But is it similar to the common criticisms of globalization or is it totally different?
SO: So I think the good parts are that those countries that regionalize, those countries that really did change their economies over these last few decades, grew much more quickly. And when you look around of those countries that really did transform their economies, opening them up where you saw trade as part of GDP double or more, lots of those are these countries that really participated in this. They’re East Asian countries. They’re Taiwan and South Korea and China and Vietnam. They are Mexico and also the United States. They’re Eastern European countries. They’re Poland and Slovenia and Slovakia, Romania, Hungary. Many of these countries, you’ve seen huge growth here. Socioeconomic growth, also technological growth where their economies really became much more diversified and more sophisticated. So that’s the good side of this. I think the downside perhaps of this is not all that many countries participated and not all that many countries regionalized. And in fact when you look at these last 40 years, there’s only about two dozen countries that really opened up their economies through what we call globalization, which is probably more regionalization, that really saw trade as part of GDP double or more. And there are dozens more, there are 89 countries to be precise, that saw trade stagnate or even decline. So there’s a good number of countries that deglobalized over these last 40 years. And the bad side of all of this is those countries that did that, that didn’t open up, that didn’t tie themselves to their neighbors, they haven’t grown as fast. Like these are the countries that have been left more on the margins. So this is Latin America, this is Africa, this is parts of the Middle East, this is South Asia where you haven’t seen standards of living rise a lot, you haven’t seen them become more sophisticated and they’ve been left pretty much on the margins with lots of the challenges of inequality we’re facing today in lots of places.
ZK: So, wait, I thought that— and you’re one of your primary areas of sort of specialization has been Latin America. So I thought countries like Peru and Brazil and Chile and Mexico had seen some decent growth in kind of size of the middle class, movement up the material value chain, much the same way you’ve seen in parts of South Asia, certainly have not seen that as much in Sub-Saharan Africa. But I thought that was one of the things about contemporary Brazil, for instance, some of the intolerance of corruption was that you had seen more trade, obviously Brazil had a huge boost in trade with China, a lot of that commodity-based. And you had seen that somewhat with Mexico, even with a chronically, unbelievably dysfunctional government.
SO: So this is a good comparison, Brazil and Mexico on where they’ve gone, and partly it has to do with regionalization. So Mexico has been a big beneficiary of this. It’s tied itself to the United States through NAFTA and then USMCA as you mentioned, and you’ve seen that economy transform over the last 40 years from being a commodity producing oil exporter to now an exporter of advanced manufacturing goods. What they send out to the world is auto parts, it’s aerospace, it’s other machinery and the like. And they’ve seen trade as part of their economy grow significantly. In fact, it’s one of the most open economies in the world. So Mexico has its challenges, which we can deep dive into. But overall, you have seen a real change. And particularly the north of Mexico, which is the NAFTA region, which is the part of the country tied to the United States, has seen growth in those states of 7, 8, 9% a year and productivity growing. So it really has seen a change. The south of Mexico has been left behind and so that’s part of the challenge. Look to Brazil, and Brazil is still one of the most closed economies in the world. It does export, but it exports mostly commodities and then imports back finished goods. So it has lost that middle of supply chains that really helps you diversify your economy. In fact, Brazil is one of the countries around the world that has suffered most from what economists call premature deindustrialization, so losing your manufacturing sector before you become a high-income country. And so it has real challenges. There’s lots of opportunities for Brazil, there’s lots of things that are great about that country, but it has seen pretty slow economic growth overall. I think in large part because it has not regionalized. In fact, most of its trade, 85, 90% of its trade, goes far away, goes to places like China, and it has not allowed it to really become a much more sophisticated economy that provides better jobs and more equal opportunities.
ZK: Premature deindustrialization sounds like something that should be one of those commercials in midday cable news that there should be some new pill for.
SO: Here comes the fine print right afterwards. They speak very quickly.
ZK: May not raise your living standard.
EV: So, Shannon, when you’re describing like the bad parts of regionalization, it was essentially like the countries that don’t participate in it aren’t able to participate in the benefits, but are there any bad parts of regionalization if you participate in it? The common criticism with globalization shall we say, is that it sends labor that could be done in the United States to other parts of the world where things are cheaper. Does that stay the same for regionalization, for instance, between the United States and Mexico? Does that criticism hold or are we talking a different situation here?
SO: Yes. So regionalization, I think, is actually an antidote or at least takes the edge off of those challenges of globalization. There’s a great economic paper that’s out there that focuses on what they call the China shock. And so when China became part of the WTO and it started exporting all around the world, that it had huge costs for US communities, somewhere between 1 and 2 million jobs. You know, a lot of the things that we’re talking about are politics today. The challenges were communities were eroded, manufacturing left and it’s hard to find something to replace it. But a lot of that story, I would say, is not globalization so much, but is limited regionalization. And you know what happened there is China hooked into really deep and robust Asian supply chains. It wasn’t China alone doing all of this, but they were importing and exporting parts and components from Taiwan and South Korea and Thailand and Vietnam and all these other countries. So they were able to make all kinds of products, electronics and clothing and all kinds of other things, much better and much cheaper because they had these international supply chains that were across Asia. And then US communities, at least in some sectors, weren’t able to compete because they were just trying to do it alone and they couldn’t reach the economies of scale, they couldn’t get the specialization, they wouldn’t have the affordability that you could see across Asia. And so that is part of the reason why you saw an erosion. So reaching out to Mexico and Canada, as we’ve seen in some sectors like the automotive sector and aerospace and the like, it’s actually made it more competitive for jobs to stay here in the United States because you could reach economies of scale. So I think actually regionalization for the worries in the United States or in Europe or in other places who are worried with higher wages and more labor protections and more environmental protections where things are more costly to produce, one of the solutions is actually to spread this production across a few countries, your neighbors or others, so you can actually get these economies of scale that allow you to produce competitively in the global marketplace.
ZK: Yeah, it’s one of the things that happened in the 2000s, the first decade of the 21st century. The American focus was entirely on the rise of China as a potential threat to American manufacturing. But of course a lot of that American manufacturing that was threatened, some of it had moved because of NAFTA to northern Mexico. And the area that was really incredibly hurt by that for about 10 or 15 years by the rise of China was northern Mexico. There’s, you could see a total correlation between rising drug violence and crime in northern Mexico in areas that had been set up to be NAFTA-ish that were eroded. And that’s shifting back now obviously. And of course we didn’t pay attention to it because the Americans aren’t gonna pay attention to the negative effects of the rise of China on Mexico. That’s a bridge too far or wall to high.
SO: In fact, the biggest China shock was probably on Mexico ’cause they were a direct competitor to China in terms of-
SO: -lower cost wages. So they lost shoe industries, they lost apparel industries, they lost easy electronics, they lost many more jobs than the United States did. And in these debates over does Mexico take US jobs, when you look at all of the studies, it just is really awash. Yes, there’s some jobs that move to Mexico, assembly jobs and the like, but when you count the exports that the United States sends to Mexico, it’s the same number of jobs. And study after study show that export-oriented jobs in the United States pay more than jobs that are just looking at the internal economy, that are just domestically focused jobs. So you don’t lose jobs to Mexico. They move around, some jobs disappear and some jobs are created, but the jobs that are created that sell products to Mexico actually pay better. So NAFTA in many ways was good for US workers and for US-based companies.
EV: In your opinion, is the United States regionalized enough? Like how do you see the USMCA? Could we do more? Should we— we’re probably not gonna say should we do less but [laughs] are we doing it enough? Let’s start from there.
SO: So here’s where, when you dive into the economic data, it’s interesting and a little depressing for the United States in terms of how integrated we are. So you look at Europe and about two-thirds of trade and movement of money and people and ideas is within the European Union. They make stuff together and then they sell it to each other. When you look at Asia back in 1980, about a third of goods and trade was moving around Asia. Today, it’s over 60%. So they really make things together and increasingly sell things to each other as well. In North America, when NAFTA was signed, it was about 40% of the trade was between Mexico, the United States, and Canada. It rose to 47, 48%, so almost half was moving between the region. And then it fell back down in the 2000s to 40% again. So North America is much less integrated than Asia is or Europe is. And I think that’s part of the challenge that we have is that, whether we like it or not, the rest of the world, manufacturing has become a team sport. It’s across a lot of countries and there they have more markets, they have more economies of scale, they have more specialization, they’re able to do things better. And in North America, we’ve only done it in a few industries. Automotive for sure, a couple others we have, but much less than other places. So, in some ways, the antidote to our challenge is to produce across countries and find partners in this because this is a team sport again.
ZK: So what do you make of this rising trend begun under the Trump administration and actually aggressively continued under the Biden administration, these rules of origins of if you’re gonna do a government contract, there are all these clauses of the Inflation Reduction Act that all these green energy products have to do bidding where the components are made in the United States. This is something that has been economy, national planning that that even the Europeans are now quite upset about, which is interesting in light of, on the one hand there’s this closer and closer lines between the United States and Europe in order to aid Ukraine against Russia, but on the other hand, the EU and other countries are increasingly frustrated with the kind of not regionalization of the United States, but just nationalization of the United States. Where do you come out on this and do you see any chance politically that this is not gonna get more intense before it or if it ever becomes less intense?
SO: The US It’s pretty schizophrenic on there because, as you say, there’s this protectionism, Buy American clauses, steel has to come from here, cement and aluminum and things like that, lots of these subsidies depend on it being assembled here. But we do see a few openings in these security concerns that we have over electric vehicle batteries or critical minerals or pharmaceuticals and the like. And some is, for instance, in the Inflation Reduction Act, as you mentioned, there’s some North America there, right? You’re allowed to assemble things in North America. It doesn’t just have to be in the United States, much to the European chagrin ’cause they’re not part of that. Some of the others, there is money in the CHIPS Act, which is about semiconductors. There’s some money that will allow nearshoring or friendshoring and the like. So there’s a little bit of space for other countries, our neighbors, or other countries with whom we have free trade agreements, which are mostly in the Western hemisphere. But I think the challenge here for the US is a lot of these stipulations, a lot of these rules are very Buy American and some of this stuff we’re just not gonna find in the United States. The two, three dozen critical minerals that are on the list, not all of those are gonna be in the United States. They either don’t exist here or the big mines or reserves aren’t here or it’s gonna be really hard to mine them and refine them in the United States. So you’re gonna need partners in this. And as we know too, we have labor shortages in the United States, both in general but also in particular skills that you need to make semiconductors, to make other types of equipment and the like. So I think we’re gonna have to cast a little broader net if we actually want these policies to succeed and we wanna have supply chains that we trust where the pieces and parts are in places that we trust, either here in the United States or in countries with whom we have good relations rather than much more hostile ones.
EV: So, Shannon, I just wanna shift to Mexico specifically now. Before, you mentioned that it has its challenges. I was wondering if you could paint us an accurate picture of kind of what’s Mexico doing right now because it’s amazing— you know, your previous book was about the relationship between the US and Mexico and kind of how the discourse around Mexico in the US is very limited. I was in Mexico City in December and it’s fascinating how quickly when you tell people I’m going to Mexico City, that they’re like drug cartels, be careful. Like, guys, there are no drug cartels in Mexico City. So yeah, it’s amazing how exactly limited that discourse is and I’m really curious to hear like what you’re paying attention to right now. What are the trials and tribulations but also the successes going on?
SO: So Mexico on the economics side and the commercial side right now has huge tailwinds and in part because we’re seeing— for lots of reasons, we’re seeing this once in a generation fluidity to supply chains. Lots of companies are at least thinking about moving out of China because of geopolitics, because of automation, because of demographics, because of lots of different issues. You’re seeing this movement around in Mexico because of its proximity in the United States, because of its trade agreement, because of the industrial base that it has built up over the last 30, 40 years as being a big beneficiary. So there’s a good— these tailwinds that are pushing Mexico’s economy. And if you go to the border, every industrial park is full, there’s cranes everywhere as they’re trying to build other ones and there’s a lot of interchange between the two countries. So that’s the good side. The downside or challenge for Mexico is that its politics are not particularly supportive of this. So this is all happening despite the federal level government, which is probably one of the most suspicious of the United States. It’s much more nationalist in terms of energy and food policy and other types of economic policies. And for the first time, I would say, in 25 or 30 years where Mexico had been the most eager partner among the three in NAFTA, now USMCA. Today, I think Mexico’s the most reticent. Both the United States and Canada are trying to think more broadly about North America and Mexico is pushing back. So you have a government that is much more populist, much more nationalist, is not dealing with some of the challenges like security, which are always difficult for companies that are locating there and for the regular people, the citizens of Mexico. So it is a challenge today in Mexico to manage the politics even though the commercial side, the economic side, especially in the north, is looking really favorable and you’re seeing a lot of economic growth and dynamism.
ZK: So I guess if we’re on the Mexico topic, Mexico in the form of AMLO, Mr. Obrador, is often described as Mexico’s variant of Brazil’s Bolsonaro or Trump in the United States or Orbán in Hungary or Erdoğan in Turkey. He obviously can’t run for reelection, although I think he tried to game out the constitution unsuccessfully. His party can, although it’s not very clear how much of a party there is there as opposed to the emanation of one individual. People have been raising concerns about the health of Mexican democracy, how that might impact the United States, raising concerns about— at the time that we’re recording this, there was an attempt to undermine the Mexican election commission that would be the neutral arbiter of election fairness. Is this something that you share the concern of? Is this overblown? Is he and what he represents more rhetorical than actual? Where do you come out in the future of question?
SO: I do worry about Mexico’s future and he has used— Mexico has a six-year term, so he’s four years into the six-year term. And he has, especially in the last couple of years, systematically undermined many of the independent institutions, the checks and balances within Mexico. So the latest one is the Electoral Institute, which by all accounts is a pretty professional, very professional, very technically astute, independent organization that oversees elections to make sure they’re free and fair. He has undermined the antitrust body that’s there to help guide the economy. He has undermined others, the Freedom of Information Act, other kinds of access to information that we need in a free society. He’s gone after the press, he’s one of the most hostile to the free press and difference of opinion. So he really is going and beginning to dismantle some of those things, like many of the leaders that you mentioned earlier, Bolsonaro, Orbán, or others within there. I think the real question in Mexico is how much institutions in Mexico and civil society can push back. The Congress has shown little ability to do so in part because he’s controlled a lot of the Congress. The Supreme Court has stood up so far and the current new head of the Supreme Court looks pretty tough and this woman who’s very independent, and so that may be a ballast for Mexican democracy. But I do think this is a challenge, and where it is a challenge, it’s a challenge for Mexico and Mexico’s future, but it’s a challenge for the United States because many of the— he’s focused on this political possibilities and pushing forward his political project and many things that we care about, like security issues, like the movement of fentanyl, many of the other things that the US cares about, like commerce and the growth of the two economies together, the movement of people, all of these things are left more by the wayside as he focuses on implementing this domestic political project. And as he hopes in two years to get a member of his party elected as the next president.
EV: Okay, so that’s good for us to know who don’t pay close attention to Mexican politics, that two years from now is when we should really be paying attention.
ZK: And until then, Emma, we can just ignore Mexico, as we normally do, until there’s a reason to pay attention to it.
SO: Well, Mexico’s likely to play a part in our elections as we get into US campaigning because of the border, because of the movement of people and the like. But they will be going to the polls just when we are as well. So it’s always— this happens once every 12 years and it’s always a lot of dynamics, a lot of fireworks on both sides of the border often.
EV: That’s a very diplomatic and patriotic way to put it, the fireworks metaphor [laughs].
ZK: I mean, I do wonder this sort of overall question, which is not just about Mexico, it’s about this whole question of democracy and some of the rise of nationalism. We don’t really have a good term for it. We described a number of individuals who seem to fit some sort of authoritarian-leaning but more nationalist focused, more working- class-focused, working class resentment about whether it’s globalization or regionalization. I think the question for Mexico, just like for the United States and these other countries, is has the promise of democracy not lived up to what people expected such that they’re legitimately looking for alternative systems or alternative leaders who might— in the view of all the promises of these kind of liberal institutions and discussion of trade and free trade, there’s an awful lot of people obviously who feel like, okay, well this not only didn’t give me anything, it took something away. And maybe that’s not statistically correct, but it’s clearly a profound sense. And do you feel that there’s legitimacy to that, I guess, resentment of democracy, resentment of these systems?
SO: So I think the challenge is that democracy is not an economic model. It’s a political model. It’s about rights and individual expression and the ability to change governments and vote for the people as you want to represent you. And of course, it has its important aspects for commerce and for growth, but it’s not an economic model, right? Capitalism is an economic model. Socialism is an economic model. There’s other versions out there, right? But it’s not, it’s about the politics and, well, interestingly— we can talk about the difficulties of Mexican democracy or other democracies in Latin America and around the world, but I have to say interestingly right now for all of the bumps and all of the warts and difficulties of Latin American democracies, there are more people living under democracy in Latin America than anywhere else in the world. And these are not high-income countries. These are middle-income and sometimes even lower-middle-income countries. So the difficulties of inequalities, the difficulties of poverty, of economic opportunity, of all these things, people still— yes, there’s difficulties and there’s places where it’s eroding or we’re seeing some backsliding, but overall, people are really wanting their political rights. And part of the voting people in and out is that they’re frustrated with the economic model, they’re frustrated with other things, but they’re still using the ballot box to get there. And yes, there’s always the danger that you’re gonna get an authoritarian to come in. And in the western hemisphere, I would say, first, Hugo Chávez and now Maduro who’s followed him, is that example, right? People were frustrated. They went to the ballot box and they voted in a populist who then destroyed democratic institutions. But overall, I would say people do care about those political rights. And one thing we have here in the United States is we don’t know what it’s like to live under a dictatorship or an authoritarian regime. None of us in our lifetimes have ever done that, but many Latin Americans have or their grandparents have. And so I think there is some balance here. Yes, people are frustrated and they’re showing that, but I do think, and we’ve seen that— for instance just in Mexico, we saw as López Obrador went after the Electoral Institute, we saw almost a million people come into the main square to protest to try to protect those democratic institutions. So I still have hope for Mexico and broader Latin American democracy.
EV: Oh, that’s such an excellent point. I see that here in Greece too. There are definitely people that still remember living under the military junta and it does make the choice very clear, right? Like they don’t wanna go back, like they understand that the alternative is far worse than any democratically elected leader, even if they’re a populist or even if they bring trouble into the country.
SO: Yeah, they’d like to earn a little more money, but they also wanna have their rights. They wanna be able to say what they wanna say in public.
EV: Right. It’s very good for keeping perspective around that. Kind of same question, I know this is an entire, okay, this is a lot of countries under one banner of Latin America, but do you see overall a bright future emerging right now for Latin America economically, politically, as much as you can say? Or is it different pictures in different countries?
SO: It’s different pictures in different countries, but I do think there are some similar fundamental challenges. And most of these countries got to middle income. So they’re not poor anymore. They have middle classes, they have economic growth, they have a certain level of standard of living. But many of the changes that we’re worried about here in the United States, technology and automation and AI and all these things, they’re not just coming for the United States, they’re coming for the world. And I would say lots of these nations are not yet prepared, probably less prepared than we are here in the United States in terms of education systems that are preparing people for the 21st century and focused on what the workforce of the future will look like, fixing infrastructure that will allow them to meet that, whether it’s physical infrastructure or digital infrastructure, access to the internet, to smartphones, to all this other sorts of aspects, that there are a lot of challenges. And back to the regionalization argument here, their ability to jump in and really participate in supply chains in the middle, in the part that you get knowledge and learning and technical advancement, not just at the ends where you ship out iron and copper and pretty soon lithium and you just get back finished goods, to really have your economies, the Latin American economies be more diversified and then allow more inclusive growth. So I think many share those challenges. The way they’re gonna deal with it is different and their starting points are a bit different here and there, but all of them are facing that. And it’s a big economic challenge. And then, as we were talking about, it’s a big political challenge if they don’t rise to the occasion.
ZK: So as we finish up, you’ve been looking at the world, studying it, commenting on it at the council, at the epicenter of a lot of conversations for a number of years. Are you less hopeful about, I don’t know, the future of either democracy or economic reform in Latin America, the future of that globally, regionally than you were 25 years ago? Has it ebbed and flowed? So where are you now when you think about the next 10 years? Are you trepidatious more than you would’ve been 20 years ago, just about as much? Are there things that could go quite well that we’re not looking at? Or things— I think we know that there are many things that could go quite badly that we are looking at, but we do try in this to at least consider this chronic possibility that we’re on the verge of something good rather than the assumption that we’re on the verge of something terrible.
SO: So I think Latin America hit a high point in the ’90s and 200s where it seemed like there was lots of possibility. Countries are all becoming democratic and then there’s a big commodity boom. So there’s lots of money flowing around that let people into the middle class and government spent it for education and health and the likes. So there’s a lot of that. And then they hit a commodity decline and a lot of that money disappeared, and then they hit democratic backsliding sort of difficulties and challenges there like much of the world. But as I look forward, I don’t think the next decade has to be a lost decade too. I think there are ways that Latin America could take advantage of this. And I do see this movement of supply chains, many of these countries could grab onto that. I do see, as the world makes a green transition, Latin America’s already ahead on that. Half of the electricity produced in Latin America is already green. There’s a lot of advantages that they could take advantage of, that they could step in and use. The Amazon, other places are in Latin America, right? This is the future of the globe and these are countries that should and could benefit from it. And I guess the last thing I would say, and so back to the survival of Latin America’s democracies, they’ve definitely been hit. It hasn’t been a great number of years for Latin American democracies, but they’ve survived and we’ve seen them work. We’ve seen voters express their frustrations through democratic institutions in most places. And as I look, especially at this last year, sure it’s been hard for democracies, but it’s been a pretty rough year for autocracies too, right? Ask Russia, ask Iran, ask China. The sheen is coming off a little bit of their economic models, of their political models. We’re all struggling with the transformations that are happening. And so I’d like to end and keep my glass half full and think about positive sides. And I do think in the end, democracy lets you get through really difficult times. If you can keep it and bring everybody along rather than it just be guided by a very few at the top.
ZK: I wanna thank you, Shannon, for a conversation about, at least for an American audience, for an entire regional reality that we tend to ignore. Except when it pertains to the border and immigration, there’s not a lot of popular sensibility about the western hemisphere, and that would include Canada, which we didn’t talk about. Nonetheless, this is, as it were, our neighborhood and Americans spend a lot of time not paying attention to much of the neighborhood except that one little area that we call the border. And you’ve been really illuminating over the years about making sure we at least try to pay attention to it or raising your hand going, excuse me, there’s this whole, whole world of multiple countries just to the south that is deeply shaping the ecosystem in which we are actually living, we should probably pay attention. And hopefully this conversation will be a step in that direction. Thank you, Shannon.
SO: It was a pleasure to join you.
EV: So, Zachary, I think that was a perfect example of what you’re saying at the end there when I said for those of us that don’t pay close attention to the Mexican elections, it’s so true what you said that we really just don’t— we don’t look around and look well, right, at our neighbors other than really the immigration. So I hope that this conversation will start to change that for people. It definitely put off a bell in my head that I should be paying closer attention.
ZK: I certainly have that hope. I don’t really have that expectation. To be fair, it’s not like an American thing. And every group of human beings everywhere in the world are deeply provincial and focus on themselves, which is probably a good thing half the time, meaning better to attend to your own, the moats in your own eye than others, better to focus on your own society than endlessly obsess about parts of the world or even nearby parts of the world that you can’t really do much about. But there’s that fine line between awareness on the one hand and complete indifferent and not paying attention on the other. And for Mexico in particular, given that Mexico, for most Americans, given if you’re gonna judge from sort of cable news, obviously not most Americans of Mexican descent, the focus is entirely on the border or drugs, right? Which is a completely distorting lens on a country of size and population of Mexico. So it’s good to at least step back and go, wow, this is a whole other country. And I tell friends who haven’t been to Mexico City, it’s extraordinary, if you’ve never been, that this is a city that is a little bit further than going from New York to Los Angeles, but you really do feel you’ve entered an entirely other country, another world, right? And that shouldn’t be surprising [laughs]. That shouldn’t be remarkable. But I do think the way in which we think about our region tends to be— we don’t really recognize that the way we do even about Paris or Istanbul or certainly about Beijing,
EV: Although it’s really funny that you say that because my experience in December when I was in Mexico City, I felt like I was in Brooklyn because there are so many people working there remotely now. You would go to a taco joint, I would meet people who graduated from NYU a year before I did, and it was just like, oh, man, actually I’m in the same place that I just flew in from.
ZK: That’s illuminating too, right? The sense of it’s both distant and near all at the same time. I’m glad we had the conversation. We haven’t really focused a lot on Latin America, certainly not focused on Mexico relative to other parts of the world. And I think it’s important to look at this not just through the lens of Fox News or, for that matter, CNN, which is all border, all immigration all the time.
EV: Expanding the narrative. Let’s do it.
ZK: Expanding the narrative. And let’s expand the narrative further and let’s talk about the news that people might not have been paying attention to that you have been. For those of you who are watching, we are recording this segment of the episode at a different point that we recorded the interview. So if you’re listening, you can disregard everything I’ve just said because hopefully our voices sound largely the same. So, Emma, what news should we talk about this week that other people and other outlets have not paid attention to? And we probably should begin with a not insignificant caveat that we’re recording this part of the show right after news of former president Donald Trump’s indictment, pre his arraignment, which of course is dominating the news cycle and will probably be somewhat top of mind for many people listening about the news. You and I were talking before about we have to some degree, and rather purposefully and rather blissfully, not focused on either Donald Trump or the anti-Donald Trump aspect of our culture because, one, we feel like that waterfront is full of people. It’s not like there’s any risk of these issues getting ignored by either the mainstream media or anybody around us. And I think purposely as well in that I certainly have felt that there’s a degree to which the fixation on Trump when he was president was unhealthy and not necessarily buying into the Trump derangement syndrome critique of the anti-Trump. It’s just that he does occupy and did occupy an inordinate amount of airspace relative to how most people are living their lives and relative to a whole myriad of other issues that we could be focusing on. And that’s true of the federal government in the United States, it’s true of any central government anywhere in the world. There’s a tendency to pay attention to what’s going on in a nation’s capital and amongst its leaders. That is partly a product of legitimate this is an aspect of our collective, but it’s also a product of the way media has evolved over time. It’s an easy story. It plays into kind of fame, gossip. And I think we would do better paying a little less attention to what goes on in the halls of government. We, meaning collectively, in our general sense, if you’re a farmer, you should pay attention to what’s going on in Farm Bill, but that’s a different aspect of what we’re talking about. So that’s a very long way of saying as much as we’re all gonna pay a lot of attention to Trump over the coming 18 months between now and the US presidential election in November of ’24, it is unequivocally true in my view that we ought to be paying less attention.
EV: So that’s a long way of saying we’re gonna leave that alone for now-
EV: -and see how the indictment process turns out, but I’m sure we’ll pick ’em up later in the season. So maybe people will enjoy us skipping over that right now. So skipping over, we are [laughs], and I’m going to move to a collection of very good vaccine news, and some of these are vaccines you’ve heard of, some of ’em are vaccines you probably haven’t heard of. So probably people don’t know, I just learned this myself when this news came out last week, that the bacteria that caused The Black Death is still around and still causing Black Death, obviously not at the scale that it once did, but it does cause problems around the world, actually including in the US, which I also didn’t know. So—
ZK: I’m sorry, I’ll have to cancel my reservation tonight. My wife has the plague.
EV: [Laughs] apparently, it happens. I did not know. We probably shouldn’t be laughing either because that really does not sound fun. But everyone knows about the mRNA vaccines, the potential of mRNA vaccines for viruses. We’ve talked about it on the podcast. It’s been talked about everywhere. The first mRNA vaccine just came out for a bacteria, and it’s the bacteria that caused The Black Death. These are from researchers at Tel Aviv University, so quite different than the other Israel news that’s coming out these days. Israel Institute for Biological Research. So it’s the first time mRNA has been used for bacteria, which is really cool ’cause it means, you know, as we get further into the years of potentially antibiotic resistant bacteria, that mRNA vaccines might be another tool to help us fight against that.
ZK: That is cool. The one mRNA vaccine that we’ve had is antiviral. So now we have some evidence that this can be antibacterial as well. And it was clear when these were developed with such amazing alacrity that this was gonna open up a whole new frontier of possibility in both vaccine development and medicine development. And this is one of the early proof points of that.
EV: Yep, yep. Hopefully it does something to really squash out that bacteria that caused The Black Death, and then we can say it’s really finally done. So there’s that too. Next one, like I said, I have a vaccine collection today. Zachary, did you have the chickenpox when you were little?
ZK: I did have the chickenpox when I was little.
EV: I also had the—
ZK: I had seven pox. I had very few pox, but I had to stay out of school for two weeks, I think.
EV: Really, you had only seven? You got away pretty easy. Okay. I also had the chickenpox. I was born in 1990 so now everyone knows how old I am, but I was born in 1990 and the reason why I mentioned that is because I was right before the chickenpox vaccines were rolled out. They were rolled out— the United States was the first country to do it in 1995, and at the time, it was a very controversial decision to do it, if that reminds you of anything. Now, of course the chickenpox vaccine is very well taken up and they’re looking at data now about how it’s affected US population and it’s just been wildly successful. Rates of chickenpox have declined by over 97%. Hospitalization rates declined 98% in children and 84% in adults. Deaths have gone to absolutely zero. That’s for people under the age of 20. And it’s also meant that adults outta the age of 50, who can get shingles if they caught chickenpox when they were little, they’re also now less likely to get sick, hospitalized, and die. So that’s in the United States and quite a few other countries. There’s a really weird mix of countries that have vaccinated for chickenpox and those that haven’t. It’s essentially like little less than half of Europe, all of Africa, and almost all of Asia that haven’t vaccinated.
ZK: There you go. Chickenpox was such a rite of passage when I was growing up. Of course, we didn’t really pay attention to the degree that which it could have been completely lethal. We just thought it was something you would inevitably get and then show your scars, literally, of battle. But I think that the point of this conversation is to keep at the forefront that whatever the controversies, and there were significant ones, certainly in the United States but in other countries as well, over the way vaccines were mandated for coronavirus. The story of the 20th century was about vaccines eradicating diseases that had been really hobbling human societies for centuries and was seen, for the most part, as a unequivocal positive. I mean, there were always people who distrusted vaccines, the secondary effects of them. And I think one thing that we could probably do better at out of the coronavirus period is acknowledge that there is no such thing as a risk-free solution to a problem. `So that those who say, look, there could be really amazingly negative side effects of a vaccine in any one individual. That’s entirely true, right? It’s not a false statement, it’s not fearmongering, but we all have to make both a collective and an individual decision of the risk-reward and that’s never easy. So just a reminder of the collective result of disease eradication in the 20th century and into the 21st has been remarkably positive and we should not let the noise and the maelstrom of a particular vaccine in 2020, ’21 cloud that reality. And you’re reminding us that this continues in multiple areas with multiple diseases in different ways.
EV: Yep. And continues as well to the last story I have about vaccines too, which is the malaria vaccine. The first malaria vaccine that was approved for use started the rollout in 2019 and it’s actually the first vaccine we’ve had that works against a parasite. So, I’m a vaccine weirdo in that I’m such an enthusiast that I feel like we’re in like a new golden age of vaccines or something.
Audio Clip: Since September 2019, the Ministry of Health and its partners have provided the malaria vaccine as part of routine immunization in 25 subcounties across eight counties in western Kenya, namely Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori, Siaya, Busia, Bungoma, Vihiga, and Kakamega. The malaria vaccine is given simultaneously with other childhood vaccines in four doses where the last dose is given when a child is two years. So far, close to 400,000 children in Kenya have already received the RTS malaria vaccine. The scale up in the eight counties is meant to see a reduction of malaria cases and deaths in the country in the wake of the new lethal mosquito vector.
EV: There’s lots of instance of malaria as well that there’s a lot of hesitation around taking vaccines. The good news with this new malaria one have now vaccinated over a million children in Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana with this new vaccine already cut down on the incidents of malaria and death and hospitalization a lot. Modeling says that they’ve saved one life for every 200 children vaccinated already since 2019.
Audio Clip: The World Health Organization estimates that half a million children died from malaria during the course of the year. That equates to one child per minute dying from malaria. And we know that each one of those deaths is too many, and each one of those deaths suggests the importance of bringing forward new tools and utilizing new tools in the countries.
EV: Next up, I have to stop saying the word drugs because for those of us who don’t listen to us on video, we do put these up on YouTube and YouTube keeps flagging us [laughs] for drug use. But I do have something more to say about drugs today. And I think probably a lot of people saw this one, that the FDA has finally approved Narcan to be sold over the counter and that’s the nasal spray that reverses opioid overdose. So now you can sell that in a Walmart or in a supermarket, in a convenience store, in a gas station, and anyone can get it at any time, which I think is going to make hopefully somewhat of a difference when it comes to the opioid crisis in the US. I saw this graph on Future Crunch. I haven’t seen anyone else [inaudible] this graph out before, but it’s the first glimmer of hope I’ve seen actually around opioid overdose deaths in the United States.
Audio Clip: A big step towards addressing America’s opioid crisis. The FDA approving the opioid overdose antidote, Narcan, for sale over the counter. The drug will soon be available on the shelves, potentially saving thousands of lives. CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent, of course, is Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Since we’ve been reporting on this over the last two decades, more than a million people have died of drug overdoses and the majority of those have been opioids. I mean, people have been hearing these numbers for some time, and the numbers have been getting worse. Any strategy that could potentially be helpful is what people have been looking for, and Narcan is essentially an antidote to an opioid overdose. It can block opioids from actually killing you. You can get Narcan in any pharmacy in the country. There’s these access laws that allow you to get that without a prescription. What this is gonna do, and this will be by end of summer, is allow the Narcan to be purchased over the counter. So in the same place you buy your Tylenol or allergy medications, things like that, you could get it there. So would it make it more likely for people to buy the Narcan, put it in their medicine cabinet, have it ready to go should, you know, some terrible overdose happen? That’s the question.
EV: CDC just put out data. It’s not finished yet, so the amount of deaths might go up by the time the data is finished, but for the first time, we are seeing, you can’t tell if it’s a plateau or a dip, like I said, because the data is provisional, but it does seem to be slowing down. So if you look at the data for opioid overdose that’s in the US, they just go up, up, up, up, and we finally seem to be hitting a little bit of a plateau. I will say that might change, we can come back to that, but it’s the first time I’m like, okay, something might be happening here that we’re slowing this down.
ZK: Yeah, obviously this whole issue of not just opioids but what Angus Deaton, et al. have talked about, the deaths of despair are part, you know that there’s a real coincidence of areas of the country that have had real economic multi-year depression and higher levels of use, often amongst men, often, weirdly enough, amongst older men as in not teens. There’s a whole teen issue, but one of the areas that’s been really pronounced is this kind of middle-aged cohort and maybe the worst of that crisis is also ameliorating. We’ve talked a bunch of times on the show already about morphing American attitudes towards substances and how we use such substances, particularly in the kind of arbitrariness of legal versus illegal, in that a lot of the substances that we call legal are highly addictive and really problematic, a lot of the ones that we’ve called illegal have massively potentially positive therapeutic uses. And I remain more focused on the more we can non-criminalize. And I think the only issue that’s a problem with the opioid is that there’s a legit use of these as pain management medicines that was always legit. What we’re trying to do in general with this, the best answer usually entail balance and not extremes. And that’s true in this case as well. Thank you, Emma, for yet another illuminating things that we weren’t looking at conversation and we’ll do this again next week.
EV: Sounds good. Thanks, Zachary. What Could Go Right? is produced by Andrew Steven. Executive produced by Jeff Umbro and The Podglomerate. To find out more about What Could Go Right?, The Progress Network, or to join the What Could Go Right? newsletter, visit theprogressnetwork.org. Thanks for listening.
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