Friedman, T. L. (2005). The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century . New York, Farrar, Strauss Giroux. (link is updated to version 3.0)
I have long used chapters from Tom Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree in my classes to explain the impact of information technology and globalized capital markets on the world economy. Friedman’s ability to find entertaining and highly relevant examples, and his gift for creative labels (in that book he coined two: The electronic herd to denote the legions of day-traders and other small traders who represent the volatile private capital countries now must attract, rather than the much more stable large bank loans of yore; and the golden straight-jacket, how politicians are forced to refrain from cronyism, populism and personal enrichment in order to attract and maintain the good will of the electronic herd. In Lexus, Friedman showed how politicians are becoming CEOs of their countries, managing them to compete in a global economy that cares less about color and location than education and infrastructure. I was eagerly looking forward to his next book on globalization, and, to judge from the response, so has many others.
That being said, my feelings are mixed on this one. Don’t misunderstand me – everyone, from politicians to business leaders to students – should read this book, but perhaps less for the first 10 chapters, where Friedman describes how the world is going "flat" (that is, small and interconnected) than for the latter part of the book, starting with chapter 11, "The Unflat World", where he dives into the difficulties of globalization and the dangers of holding it up. While the first 10 chapters are interesting because Friedman writes extremely lively and documents relevant, if well known cases with clarity and wit, it is in the latter part of the book, where Friedman shows why he is the New York Times leading foreign affairs journalist and not their technology or business writer. In that part, the book starts to shine and really deserve the accolades heaped on it.
His key message is very similar to the closing passages of Landes’ The Wealth and Poverty of Nations , (indeed, the whole book can be taken as a popularization of Landes with more imminent examples, with a an seasoning of Theodore Dalrymple and Ernst Luttwak, but writen up more in the style of BusinessWeek than The Economist. If that is what it takes to get people to read about and understand globalization, I’m all for it.
That being said, the weakest chapter of the book is the one about business – aside from the brilliant example of Aramex, a Jordanian rapid delivery company, most of the advice there is trite to business researchers and, I suspect, not exactly news to the common reader. Friedman’s saving grace is that he can and does travel, has an incredibly knack not only for picking the relevant examples (most of the companies mentioned, such as UPS, eBay, Wal-Mart, are overused in many other contexts but appear fresh here) but for writing them up in a style that makes them interesting. The best example by far is Dell Computer, where he simply traces (or, rather, gets Dell to trace for him) in minute but fascinating detail how the computer he wrote most of the book on came to be – showing that if China and Taiwan cannot agree politically, they are pretty good at supplying parts and know-how to each other and to the world.
Friedman has a great gift for the poignant expression (On the need to not shut the world out for fear of terrorism: "Leave the cave-dwelling to Osama.") but sometimes veers over towards the saccarine (On the India-Pakistan sabre rattling in 2002 and how big companies lobbied to get India to stand down: "The [India-Pakistani 2000] cease-fire was brought to us not by General Powell but by General Electric. We bring good things to life.")
His suggestion that the United States embark on a "man on the moon" project aimed at making the country energy-independent in ten years is nothing short of brilliant – it addresses a serious problem, is doable, would further research towards a great goal, and help the American and the world economy no end. And it would lessen the world’s dependence on oil and thereby reduce the danger of future fallouts over access to energy. Go for it. It’s a no-brainer.
Friedman also answers his critics, cheerfully admitting that he is a technological determinist – "guilty as charged" – but not a historical one. And his analysis of how the anti-globalization movement – which he thinks is extremely important – has been shanghaied by anti-Americanism and geriatric leftist ideology is both cooly rational but also heartfelt: Friedman is honest and world-wise enough to know that globalization, to be a beneficial evolution, needs a fact-based and rational opposition – focused on how we globalize rather than whether we are. Too many critics of globalization see it in terms of conspiracy theories – it is an evolution enabled by freedom of information, capital and to a certain extent people, and attempts to put the djinnie back in the bottle are not likely to be successful, to put it mildly. (Incidentally, Jared Diamond’s Collapse, which I am halfway through at the moment, provides a much better foundation for this opposition than Naomi Klein’s populistic but theoretically incoherent No Logo.) As Friedman says it: "What the world doesn’t need is the anti-globalization movement to go away. We just need it to grow up. [...] You don’t help the world’s poor by dressing up in a turtle outfit and throwing a stone through a McDonald’s window. You help them by getting them the tools and instutions to help themselves. [...] Just ask any Indian villager."
His best writing – and underlying anger – comes out when writing about the people for whom globalization is not as much a negative influence as a distant mirage. They constitute half the world’s population, they will get restless unless as soon as they see what they can get, and if that isn’t good enough reason to start thinking about how to use globalization beneficially rather than try to stop it from happening, I don’t know what is.
Possible error: On page 268, Friedman refers to a study of "leading universities" creating 4000 companies with 1.1m jobs and $232b in revenues, refers to the "Task Force on the future of American Innovation" On page 244, however, the same figures are repeated, but instead of "leading universities" it is MIT, and the reference is to a study by BankBoston.
Notes after the jump, taken as I read through the book, offered here, caveat emptor, typos and all: