Reflecting on Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat
November 16, 2009 3 Comments
ATLANTA— I have picked up a new read, Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. It will be my second political-economic read of the year, following Amity Shlae’s fantastic history of the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man. For a while now, I have thought it would be fun to blog about books I am reading as I read them; to put my meandering reflections on paper, both for discussion and for my own edification, so I remember them later on. I have finally decided I am going to try that as I make my way through Mr. Friedman’s contemporary classic.
First published four short years ago in 2005, The World is Flat became an almost overnight political/economic classic. The book primarily revolves around the “flattening” of the global economy via the proliferation of web-based technology and the opening up of formerly closed economies, in places such as China and India. Mr. Friedman deliberately chose the term “flat” to describe the world as a direct counter to Christopher Columbus emphatically declaring the world ”round” 500 years before.
By using this metaphor, Mr. Friedman is saying we are at a seminal moment, akin to Mr. Columbus’ voyage, where events have transpired which have forever changed the course of human history. He states that the world has been “flattened,” in that new technology and the capitalist push for cost efficiency have brought us to a place where, for example, Indians can compete directly with Americans for a broad array of jobs, despite living under different political regimes on separate continents, thousands of miles apart. Mr. Friedman’s purpose in the book is to construct a framework in which to understand the nature and implications of this flattening.
My description is hurried and does little justice to what so far is a very interesting read (if you like this sort of thing).
My Initial Reflections
Having gotten now 70 pages into this 635 page treatise, I have a few off-hand reflections. The first is my surprise at Mr. Friedman himself. My only previous encounters with Mr. Friedman have been through his columns in the New York Times. I have found him to be a frustrating columnist, because I have never fully been able to pin down where he is coming from. At times, he sounds perfectly reasonable. At other times, however, he demonstrates a very high view of the state, and gives me the impression he secretly yearns for a top-down, authoritarian management of the US economy.
To this point in my reading of the The World is Flat, however, I am finding nothing objectionable. The theme of the book so far is the international empowerment of the individual through technology. There have already been a dozen or more stories about people in India and China, unleashed from oppressive regulation, creating new companies and spawning unprecedented economic grow. For a conservative like myself, I take great encouragement from this as yet another proof that free markets work. And I am surprised to find Mr. Friedman writing about it with such effusive praise, given my previous suspicions that he might be a protectionist, anti-market guy. I am now curious where he will go with this.
My second reflection is just an amazement at how rapidly the world has and is changing. Mr. Friedman is doing a great job in the early going setting up the 10 events which have flattened the world in our lifetimes and they begin with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 1989 is only 20 short years ago!
Barack Obama may not think the fall of the Berlin Wall is worthy of on-site presidential recognition (at least when compared with the possibility of winning the 2016 Olympics for Chicago or getting an award for doing nothing). But Mr. Friedman explains just how far-reaching the implications of the wall’s fall were. Not only did it liberate Eastern Europe and ultimately signal the collapse of the Soviet Union. But it was a symbol to other, statist economies that communism and central planning could not prevail over and against capitalism.
The wall’s fall had a profound impact on India in particular, which for decades had suffered under the brutal weight of Fabian socialist economic restraints. Once India saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and made the judgment that America’s economic system worked better, they began to dismantle many of their regulations over private industry and the old 1-3% economic growth suddenly became 7-9% annual economic growth.
My initial perception from this book is that while many in the fringe American left may decry capitalism, the East seems to be embracing it with whole-hearted zeal. It is no wonder many pundits believe the pendulum of economic power will swing back to its historic residence in the East during this century, after residing almost exclusively in the West for last several centuries.
I am certain my early reflections about Mr. Friedman, this book, and globalization will change and evolve as I continue to make my way through this narrative. But I am enjoying it thus far and look forward to sharing more in the days and weeks ahead (when I find time to actually read it!).