The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century By Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 488 pages. $27.50.
From the July 2005 Issue
In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman came up with something called the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, which postulated that no two nations that contain a McDonald’s outlet have ever fought each other. The theory fell apart when the United States bombed Yugoslavia.
Not to be deterred, Friedman comes up with a new hypothesis in The World Is Flat, which he names the Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention. “The Dell Theory stipulates: No two countries that are both part of a major global supply chain, like Dell’s, will ever fight a war against each other as long as they are both part of the same global supply chain. Because people embedded in major global supply chains don’t want to fight old-time wars any more,” he states.
The Dell Theory will also quite likely be proven wrong in the coming years, but that won’t keep Friedman from extolling globalization’s pacifying properties, as he has done over the past many years.
And as in his previous work, Friedman can’t resist the impulse to be cutesy. Here he is explaining how cultural conservatives and labor are on one side in opposing globalization, with businessmen and the information industry on the other:
“The Passion of the Christ audience will be in the same trench with the Teamsters and the AFL-CIO, while the Hollywood and Wall Street liberals and the You’ve Got Mail crowd will be in the same trench with the high-tech workers of Silicon Valley and the global service providers of Manhattan and San Francisco,” he writes. “It will be Mel Gibson and Jimmy Hoffa Jr. versus Bill Gates and Meg Ryan.”
So infatuated is he with what he considers to be his cleverness that he employs absolutely horrendous metaphors of “vanilla” (representing a regular job), “chocolate sauce” (value-added job), and “the cherry on top” (the ultimate value-added job) to describe occupations in the United States. And he doesn’t stop there. “In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears,” Friedman writes. “In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears—and that is our problem.”
His cheesy style gets in the way of his main point: Technological forces—such as the Internet and outsourcing—have altered the nature of the workplace so fundamentally that they have changed the world. This, Friedman argues, has affected everything ranging from the way you order burgers at drive ups (the orders are often taken at some remote location) to the way cartoon movies are made (teams in Bangalore, India, are frequently doing the animation) to the way computers are fixed (UPS runs a repair facility for Toshiba).
He says these technological innovations, combined with the almost universal adoption of free market economics, have leveled the playing field for developing countries—hence the odd title of the book. As a result, a few billion more people have entered into the global workforce, most significantly in India and China, creating enormous opportunities for them and significantly benefiting the world as a whole, Friedman contends. At the same time, this has created worrisome competition for American workers, since a lot of their jobs—in manufacturing and services—can be now shipped off to China or India.
The problem is that Friedman takes this thesis and then overstates it so greatly and pounds it home so hard that by the end you’re left wincing. For much of the book, he makes it seem that these technological transformations are affecting almost everyone around the world. To cover his behind, he has one chapter that he dedicates to the “unflat world”: people not benefiting from these changes, such as in rural areas in many parts of the globe, because they are left out of the technological loop. But the tone of the rest of the book is that everyone needs to get with the program of free trade, capitalism, and technological innovation.
Much of the book is dedicated to cataloging the business practices of corporations that have, according to Friedman, transformed the world. These entities include Wal-Mart, UPS, Yahoo, and Google, and Friedman’s extensive interviews with their executives give the book the feel of a puff job.
Friedman’s geeky enthusiasm leads him to hail every technological innovation as the next best thing since the microchip. So when he doesn’t get a desired seat on a Southwest Airlines flight because many passengers themselves have printed out their boarding passes and are allowed to get on the plane earlier, he has an epiphany. “ ‘Friedman,’ I said to myself, looking at this scene, ‘you are so twentieth-century . . . You are so Globalization 2.0.’ In Globalization 1.0 there was a ticket agent. In Globalization 2.0 the e-ticket machine replaced the ticket agent. In Globalization 3.0 you are your own ticket agent.”
While Friedman cautions that the dangers of outsourcing should not be overstated, he repeatedly raises the specter of people’s jobs being sent overseas unless the American education system is overhauled or workers reinvent themselves. To prove his point, he cites a Forrester Research study that estimates that three million jobs will be sent abroad by 2015. But this translates into an annual loss of 300,000 jobs. Currently, there are 135 million jobs in the U.S. economy. So why is he making such a big deal out of this tiny fraction? And he exaggerates the importance of jobs being created in the developing world due to technological innovation, even as he admits that the high-tech sector employs just 0.2 percent of the workforce in India, his main example.
The jury is still out on whether Friedman’s beloved globalization will bring any relief to the world’s deprived. “Trying to sell trade policy as a high-powered way for helping the poor—you can’t do it with intellectual honesty,” Gary Hufbauer, an economist with the pro-trade Institute for International Economics, recently told The Wall Street Journal.
When it comes to India, Friedman’s favorite, free market policies have failed to reduce poverty any faster than the state-oriented policies before them, according to independent estimates. The free market has done worse in some respects. The rate of improvement for key health indicators in India, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, slowed in the 1990s. This deceleration came about because of policies carried out as part of the neoliberal agenda, such as freezing public health expenditures, removing price controls on essential drugs, and subsidizing private hospitals at the expense of public ones, according to an article in The Hindu newspaper by Professor Gita Sen of the Indian Institute of Management at Bangalore. Thousands of farmers have committed suicide in rural India in the past few years partly as a result of “price uncertainty due to trade liberalization and rise in costs due to domestic liberalization,” according to a study quoted in Economic and Political Weekly.
As for the United States, a country that Friedman proudly holds up as the role model for the world, Berkeley economist David Levine recently pointed out in The New York Times that “being born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada.” Plus, overall poverty is higher in the United States. The U.S. poverty figure (17.1 percent) for 2000, for instance, was significantly higher than for most European countries. France, Germany, and the United Kingdom had poverty rates of 7.0 percent, 9.8 percent, and 11.4 percent, respectively. Canada and Japan were lower than the United States, too, with a poverty rate of 10.3 percent and 15.3 percent, respectively.
One problem with Friedman is the extremely narrow net of informants who feed him notions that reinforce his beliefs. Friedman’s Indian corporate buddies keep on supplying him half-truths and distortions that he accepts as gospel because they fit into his worldview. And even when he has a sensible person as the source, such as Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, he fails to get the right information from him. So Friedman and his sources lay all of India’s problems on the supposedly socialist policies it followed till 1991. But Sen has said elsewhere that the “tendency to describe our past up to 1991 as some kind of left-wing Nehruvian socialism” is “really a monstrous absurdity.” Friedman’s analysis contains such errors throughout, making you wish that he had spoken with more people who know reality outside the corporate boardrooms and office parks in India, individuals like journalist Palagummi Sainath or development expert Jean Drèze, who has co-authored a number of books (with none other than Amartya Sen) on the mixed record of economic liberalization in India.
Friedman completely ignores the problems created by the Indian call center industry, such as the imposition of fake Western identities and the harshness of constantly working at night. He talks to timid employees and industry flacks and comes to the conclusion that all is well. In Friedman’s world, “Indian call center operators adopt Western names of their own choosing.” And the night shift fits “in very nicely with the Indian day,” as he told Terry Gross of Fresh Air. He would have had a much less one-sided evaluation if he had talked to people like Arjun Raina, a call center trainer and theater performer featured on 60 Minutes who has written a play, A Terrible Beauty Is Born, on the plight of call center workers.
Similarly, Friedman extols the shifting of global manufacturing to China, even approving of the downward tug that China exhibits on global standards. China “has created a process of competitive flattening, in which countries scramble to see who can give companies the best tax breaks, education incentives, and subsidies, on top of their cheap labor, to encourage offshoring to their shores.” Though wages may be flattening, too, he evidently assumes that everyone will win out by moving from vanilla to chocolate sauce to the cherry on top.
Friedman is so enamored with globalization and technology that he is unable to tackle the issue in all its complexity.
He constantly touts the jobs that outsourcing is creating in the developing world, but he never once mentions that globalization is a package deal that comes with less attractive features. One such aspect was recently on display in India. In order to comply with World Trade Organization rules, the Indian parliament granted strong patent protections to medicines a few months ago, a step that will probably make lifesaving medications such as AIDS drugs unaffordable in the future not only in India but all over the developing world, since India has been a major exporter of generic drugs.
Another troubling feature of globalization is the patenting of life forms and seeds, a highly controversial subject in developing countries, but an issue that Friedman ignores.
Nor does Friedman discuss currency liberalization, which means yielding control of your currency to speculators, a phenomenon that has harmed millions of people in developing nations. This was one of the primary causes for the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s that devastated a number of countries.
Friedman also fails to grapple with two of the most prominent critiques of globalization in recent years—Joseph Stiglitz’s Globalization and Its Discontents and George Soros on Globalization. Friedman doesn’t even mention either author, a huge omission, given that Stiglitz has won the Nobel Prize for Economics and that Soros is, well, Soros.
Friedman almost totally ignores South America. This is not just a coincidence, since the region—once heralded as the poster child of globalization—has fallen on hard times, and the people of that region have repeatedly rejected the neoliberal model in recent elections. The only Latin American country that merits more than a passing mention is Mexico, with Friedman offering a feeble conjecture about “intangibles” being the reason the country hasn’t prospered in spite of NAFTA and the push toward a free market model.
One of the very few references to Argentina is in a typically silly and paternalistic passage, where he proposes that countries that fail to achieve the proper level of globalization form Developing Countries Anonymous, modeled on Alcoholics Anonymous:
“Countries would have to stand up at their first meeting and say, ‘My name is Syria and I’m underdeveloped.’ Or ‘My name is Argentina and I’m underachieving. I have not lived up to my potential.’ ”
Given how half-baked his book is, Friedman is the one who is underachieving and not living up to his potential.