Sunday, July 17, 2005

More on Friedman's book

Sitting here with the S.O. watching the British Open. I think I am back in the right time zone now, and maybe, that means I might even get a decent night's sleep.

For all you S.O. fans out there, waiting for her to dump Skippy or at least give him his comeuppance, well relax , she still loves me and also enjoys putting me in my proper place on the golf course. She beat me by 8 strokes today out playing golf. ( I'm blaming the jet lag. "Yea, Yea, that's the problem" .......not the fact that I FORGOT HOW TO USE A DRIVER!). Yes, she had packed a can of whup ass in her golf bag, putting and chipping her way to a 39 on the back and a 47 on the front. Properly humiliated, she has been doing her best to remind me who is the better golfer. I'll accept this truth the day she plays #16 from the men's tees.

Since Tiger is on the 3rd hole only, I've got time. So I thought I would offer a few unsolicited observations on Thomas Friedman's book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. If you have not read the book, Amazon saves you the trouble:

What Friedman means by "flat" is "connected": the lowering of trade and political barriers and the exponential technical advances of the digital revolution have made it possible to do business, or almost anything else, instantaneously with billions of other people across the planet. This in itself should not be news to anyone. But the news that Friedman has to deliver is that just when we stopped paying attention to these developments--when the dot-com bust turned interest away from the business and technology pages and when 9/11 and the Iraq War turned all eyes toward the Middle East--is when they actually began to accelerate. Globalization 3.0, as he calls it, is driven not by major corporations or giant trade organizations like the World Bank, but by individuals: desktop freelancers and innovative startups all over the world (but especially in India and China) who can compete--and win--not just for low-wage manufacturing and information labor but, increasingly, for the highest-end research and sign work as well. (He doesn't forget the "mutant supply chains" like Al-Qaeda that let the small act big in more destructive ways.) Friedman tells his eye-opening story with the catchy slogans and globe-hopping anecdotes readers of his earlier books and his New York Times columns will know well, and also with a stern sort of optimism. He wants to tell you how exciting this new world is, but he also wants you to know you're going to be trampled if you don't keep up with it. His book is an excellent place to begin. --Tom Nissley

Maybe its an excellent place to begin, however, Friedman's book has several flaws. It's still a good book and his central premise is worth ignoring at a nation's peril. However, as I said in a previous post, perhaps because he does not have to worry about losing his job, Friedman seems to have checked his American identity at the door. Either that, or he is very heartless.

Flaw # 1.

Friedman assumes that all nations have social justice and advancement of their people as a priority. The fact is, the reason that countries such as India, China and others are thriving in the Internet ages, is that they have maintained and will continue to maintain a permanent underclass, which in turn, offers it the ability to offer the cheap labor rates with no corporate benefits or responsibility. Since America, for all her problems, really does seek social justice for all ( its one of the bedrock principles of the American ideal, the argument is how to achieve it), the USA is automatically at a disadvantage. China and India with 3 times as many people can afford to write off 300-500 million people in order to take care of the remaining group of budding entrepreneurs. There is no real incentive for these nations to change this as is evidenced by China. So the field is not really flat, these other nations have used the cost( or more correctly lack of) this underclass as a counter weight to slant the (economic) world in their favor.

Flaw #2.

Its a hell of a lot easier to compete when you don't have to spend billions from your national treasure being the world's policeman. In Friedman's "brave new world" the heavy lifting of international security is being done by a few nations and most of them are on the losing side in his global competition model. Talk all you want about the "Coalition of the Willing", but I have yet to see the PLA or the Indian Army send 150,000 troops to Iraq for occupation duty. Nor undertake, as a national objective, a war framed in terms of good vs. evil that will last for a generation. No, on the current "flat" playing field, its easier to let the US do the dirty work and laugh all the way to the (Internet) bank.

Flaw #3

The nation state is not dead yet. Neither is nationalism, and these nations benefiting from the flat world have not forgotten that. For the flat world to be truly successful, it hinges on a world of commerce with no boundaries. It seems to me his two principal competitors, China and India are very firmly committed to advancing commerce so that it favors their nation. To me, it seems however, that Friedman is asking Americans to abandon their national identity in favor of "free trade". To paraphrase Patton, " No poor bastard ever won a (trade) war by (losing his job) dying for his country, he won it by making the other poor bastard die for his." So while protectionism is counterproductive, he seems to be arguing that we just have to continue to let American jobs slip away in the name of greater commercial good.

There are two types of people who watch the Olympics: 1) those who want to see sport at its finest and 2) those who want to see the "Star Spangled Banner" played over and over and over again at awards ceremonies. I fall into the latter category, Friedman seems to be in the former. As I said earlier he has that luxury because he is rich. What about the average Joe, who has kids to raise and bills to pay? Its all well and good to talk about retraining and enhancing life skills, but in real non-NY Times world, people have to make hard choices. That is why Americans have to be sticking up for Americans.

FLAW #4-

Friedman correctly notes that their are wild cards out their that threaten everyone's well being in this flat world: Nuclear weapons, AIDS, imbalance of resources to name a few. He points out that those things make the world not flat because they unfairly siphon resources away from the greater good. But there is no incentive for the haves to change the current system. Especially when money and wealth are the sole determiners of success. He offers no real prescription to change the value system that exploits the poor. Until we do, there will be no real progress in the world, just different actors fighting the same wars.

None of this is to say its not a good book, and America does need to wake up and smell the coffee. Superpower or no, it is possible for America to become irrelevant in the interconnected world. I think we are already seeing the first signs of this in a variety of areas. Give it 50 years and we may be right back where the world was at the beginning of the industrial age, multiple powers competing for the same resources. There has to be a better and saner way to run the planet. Unfortunately, if we are not careful the US will only be a spectator to that competition.



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