Music addicts like me can be particularly prone to having a long-forgotten tune resurfacing in their minds any given day for no apparent reason. An old song, which I remember was used for group-singing in primary school, suddenly jumped into my mind this morning. Where did it come from? Wikipedia explains that it is an American spiritual dating from 1927 and you can ever hear the melody here: He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands. It is a simple little tune with an evidently big idea behind it, so big that its title may even seem to have unpleasant connotations to some. How on earth can anyone have “the whole world in their hands”?
Well, it seems some people do by one special means: the use of statistics. Witness the World Trade Organisation’s internet site, which impressively hosts a “trade and tariff map” of the globe: World Trade Organisation. What a wonderful reference this map is for any of us who may have an idea of wanting to know “what is going on in the world” in terms of politics. Click on any country or region on this map and one can see a statistical breakdown of that state’s performance.
The creation of such information maps is nothing new. Some of the best historians have done so for many a year. A brief look at this map reminds me of a point that a great old Irish economic historian, Louis Cullen, made in print a decade or two ago: that the worlds of banking and commerce began to change beyond all recognition in the 1950s. Reduced to essentials, in history, every country judged its effectiveness on its ability to maintain a positive balance of trade, with more exports than imports. Striving for this goal, or maintaining this standard, was the essence of what governments did or “do”. But if one clicks on any of the regions on this map, one can see that states have become more concerned with maintaining a positive balance in the export or import of “commercial services” than they are with merchandise or goods. In fact, many have a negative trading balance in terms of goods, including the United States. Indeed, the alpha and omega of the politics of the current American president may lie in that statistic. A desire to create, or maintain, a positive balance of trade is neither an isolationist nor a (inherently) protectionist policy: in history, it has traditionally been seen as an essential component of good government. This is reasonable.
So what can a map such like that of the World Trade Organisation tells us “today”? Well, reduced to essentials, it indicates that the international economic order has been governed by financial services industries for quite some time far more so than it has been by regular trade. This may be nothing “new”. Whether or not it interests us, we have probably all been aware of this, more or less, for many a year, just from “hearing the tone of the news”. Is this changing? And what do the historians have to say about all this? The short answer, I am inclined to think, is “not a lot”. And why? Because it is not an easy historical trend to understand. It is too recent or too “new”. One is more likely to find reflections on these trends in broader studies, such as works on international relations theory. But, even there, one will find that these theorists evidently do not have any greater inkling of how to describe evident trends than the use of a litany of banal adjectives such as “globalisation” or “liberalism” (particularly, “Anglo-American liberalism”, if such a thing can be said to exist) that are likely to leave one with a blank perception by virtue of their blanket application.
So, one does not need individuals like me to point out that if, or when, one comes across theorists or even historians who write or speak as if they, or even evident “world leaders” in politics or business, have “the whole world in their hands”, they are telling you little more, or possibly even far less, than what can be heard in that simple little tune referenced at the beginning of this blog. This is not an act of reticence or deception. It is a reality because the truth is economic history can only provide indicators rather than a complete picture. Having said that, I guess this is all the more reason for enjoying the completeness of a well-formed melody and to be “content with that”, which returns my mind to an original idea…