Barry C. Lynn’s vision of the apocalypse is a bit more subtle than the one currently blowing through the minds of New Orleans residents. And, some might argue, a bit more terrifying.
“We live in a world where a sixty-second earthquake in Taiwan can nearly shatter the American economy,” reads the first paragraph of his first book, End of the Line: The Rise and Coming Fall of the Global Corporation. “We live in a world where the shuttering of a single factory in England can deprive Americans of half the nation’s supply of flu vaccine.”
But even as the 44-year-old Mount Pleasant resident and New America Foundation fellow lays out his case for what he argues is the potentially catastrophic collapse of the global production system, he sees room for hope. “It is bleak,” Lynn says of the subject of his book, “but I’m pretty optimistic about it….The basic solutions that I advocate—there’s nothing pie-in-the-sky, there’s nothing Pollyannaish here. All we have to do is just be rational.”
According to Lynn, throughout its history, the American economy has operated fairly rationally. In the ’60s, he says, the laissez-faire movement picked up steam due to the perception of excess government involvement in economic systems. But only in the past 15 years, he says, has the loosening of fiscal oversight through such policies as permanent normal trade relations with China allowed conglomerating corporations to dangerously structure their institutions across borders and time zones. With the supply chain stretching ever thinner around the globe, the production line is increasingly exposed to a wider variety of unforeseeable disasters.
Lynn and like-minded economy trackers argue that such events could leave Americans’ most basic needs unfulfilled—and that it’s time for the government to step in. “Laissez-faire, when carried too far within our industrial system, will kill us,” he says. “Once we get [past] this delusion that the government has no role in running the system…then we can see that [it] is just another human machine that can be shaped in any way.”
Lynn’s book isn’t all theory—probably because he’s not an economist. He holds a degree in English literature from Columbia University, and he comes at economics from the perspective of a writer who, he says, is “one of the few journalists who’s written about business for businesspeople.” For seven years, Lynn headed Global Business magazine, which reports on international business practices and whose target audience is Fortune 500 executives.
“I got a unique sense of how the gears fit together inside the companies,” he says of his years at the publication. “When Tom Friedman talks about globalization, it’s like he’s presenting a shiny car, and that’s useful. But what I’m doing—I’ve opened the hood of the car….If we look at it carefully, we see that, you know what, there are some big flaws in it.”
But none that are unfixable, the author maintains. Indeed, End of the Line doesn’t call for the abandonment of globalization—a point that could get lost in a cursory reading. And though he was initially worried about having his message interpreted as anti-business, he points to a positive review in the well-respected and Wall Street–read Bloomberg wire service. “They accepted my thesis and described my proposed set of solutions as realistic,” he says. “If Bloomberg says that, then the door is open.” —Mike Kanin
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Pilar Vergara.