[Paleopsych] Book World: (Tho. Friedman) The Great Leveling

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The Great Leveling

    Reviewed by Warren Bass


    A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century

    By Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar Straus Giroux. 488 pp. $27.50

    On a modern-day passage to India, Thomas L. Friedman, the foreign
    affairs columnist for the New York Times, found himself chatting in
    Bangalore with a young, slight, mustachioed videogame-company CEO
    named Rajesh Rao. "India is going to be a superpower," Rao said,
    gushing about a new economic era that makes the globe into one massive
    marketplace, "and we are going to rule." But rule whom? Friedman
    asked. Rao laughed. "It's not about ruling anybody," he admitted.
    "That's the point. There is nobody to rule anymore."

    Rao's enthusiasm about the changing rules of international commerce
    and politics today -- about whether there's anything left to rule in a
    brave new world of globalization -- underscores the virtues and vices
    of Friedman's captivating and sometimes frustrating new book. The
    World Is Flat continues the franchise Friedman has made for himself as
    a great explicator of and cheerleader for globalization, building upon
    his 1999 The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Like its predecessor, this book
    showcases Friedman's gift for lucid dissections of abstruse economic
    phenomena, his teacher's head, his preacher's heart, his genius for
    trend-spotting and his sometimes maddening inability to take himself
    out of the frame. It also shares some of the earlier volume's
    excitement (mirroring Rajesh Rao's) and hesitations about whether
    we're still living in an era dominated by old-fashioned states or in a
    postmodern, globalized era where states matter far less and the
    principal engine of change is a leveled playing field for
    international trade.

    What complicates this further is, of course, 9/11. If the idea of
    globalization filled a conceptual void in the formless 1990s -- the
    editors of Foreign Affairs magazine wrote in 1997 that "the overall
    theme of the 1990s is that there is no overall theme to the 1990s" --
    the shock of al Qaeda's assault yanked early-21st-century geopolitics
    back to worries about security. In The World Is Flat, Friedman rejoins
    the debate over what's really driving world politics, but he does not
    come out where readers of his eloquent columns on the challenges of
    defeating bin Ladenism might expect; instead, he argues that "the most
    important force shaping global economics and politics in the early
    twenty-first century" is not the admittedly important war on terrorism
    but a "triple convergence -- of new players, on a new playing field,
    developing new processes and habits for horizontal collaboration."

    Friedman writes that the world is now entering the era of
    "Globalization 3.0," following Globalization 1.0, which ran from 1492
    until 1800 and was driven by countries' sheer brawn, and Globalization
    2.0, in which "the key agent of change, the dynamic force driving
    global integration, was multinational companies" driven to look abroad
    for markets and labor, spurred by industrial-age "breakthroughs in
    hardware" such as steamships, trains, phones and computers. That epoch
    ended around 2000, replaced by one in which individuals are the main
    agents doing the globalizing, pushed by "not horsepower, and not
    hardware, but software" and a "global fiber-optic network that has
    made us all next-door neighbors." If the first two eras were driven
    mostly by Europeans and Americans, the third is open to "every color
    of the human rainbow."

    In particular, Friedman is obsessed with one of the great economic
    phenomena of our day: the outsourcing of the U.S. economy's service
    and information-technology work to India, China and elsewhere. The
    reason that Indian accounting firms are expected to do about 400,000
    American tax returns this year, that small U.S. hospitals have their
    CAT scans read in the wee hours by Indian or Australian radiologists
    known as the "Nighthawks," or that the Chinese port city of Dalian is
    taking outsourced work from its former imperial masters in Japan,
    Friedman argues, is that the world is undergoing "one of those
    fundamental changes -- like the rise of the nation-state or the
    Industrial Revolution" -- that transform the roles of individuals,
    governments and societies. The world was flattened, he writes, by 10
    forces, including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the discrediting of
    Soviet-style command economies; the 1995 Netscape IPO, which opened up
    the Internet for easy browsing; the dot-com era overinvestment in the
    fiber-optic cables that such globalizing hubs as Bangalore and
    Shenzhen, China, rely upon to cheaply transmit data around the planet;
    search engines like Google, most of whose queries are now no longer in
    English; and such flat-world "steroids" as PalmPilots, tiny laptops
    and the wireless technology that lets one of Friedman's colleagues
    merrily e-mail from aboard a Japanese bullet train. "The 'hot line,'
    which used to connect the Kremlin with the White House," Friedman
    writes, "has been replaced by the 'help line,' which connects everyone
    in America to call centers in Bangalore."

    Even as these forces leveled the playing field, Friedman notes, some 3
    billion people were rushing onto it -- from China, India, the former
    Soviet Union and other countries whose economies had thrown off
    socialism or self-defeating insularism. As American politicians were
    letting the country's scientific and engineering base erode and
    peddling protectionist myths, the global economy was being "shaped
    less by the ponderous deliberations of finance ministers and more by
    the spontaneous explosion of energy" from eager Indian and Chinese

    Friedman offers an engrossing tour of Flat World, but he sometimes
    overestimates its novelty. For starters, the glee of Globalization
    3.0's players at the prospect of a seemingly borderless world is
    hardly new. "Merchants have no country," Jefferson wrote in 1814. "The
    mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as
    that from which they draw their gains." Similarly, Friedman is right
    that China might now be more leery about attacking high-tech Taiwan
    for fear of snarling international trade and manufacturing lines,
    giving the island its so-called silicon shield. But his puckishly
    named Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention -- "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" -- skates past the fact that potential
    belligerents have always weighed the economic costs of war, often with
    breathtaking inaccuracy. (Saddam Hussein thought gobbling up Kuwait in
    August 1990 would let him dominate the world oil market, not shatter
    his army and usher in a decade of crippling sanctions.) And the
    argument that trade inhibits belligerence dates back at least to Kant.

    Friedman also does not have a compelling rebuttal for Harvard's
    Michael Sandel, who calls Flat World's new horizontal collaboration
    "just a nice name for the ability to hire cheap labor in India." For
    instance, Indian techies had the manpower and ambition to do the
    "huge, tedious job" of fixing the West's Y2K computer bug, giving
    India a surge of IT business that Friedman calls "a second Indian
    Independence Day." But India's Y2K windfall could be read just as
    easily as a sign of dependence, of reliance on tasks that American
    workers no longer want. Friedman rightly notes that "low-wage,
    low-prestige jobs in America . . . become high-wage, high-prestige
    jobs" when outsourced to India. But in an era where, as Friedman puts
    it, both pride and humiliation get served up to you via fiber-optic
    cable, it's not at all clear we'll like the long-term geopolitical
    consequences of having emerging powers reliant on scraps from the
    American economic table.

    Friedman's evangelism never entirely allays the suspicion that "the
    single most important trend in the world today" is actually the empty
    half of the glass. In a sense, The World Is Flat serves as a sort of
    bookend to this spring's other blockbuster economics book, Jeffrey D.
    Sachs's The End of Poverty, which angrily notes that some 20,000
    people die unnecessarily every day from starvation and diseases like
    malaria while the developed world fiddles. Much of the world is indeed
    flat -- flat broke. "You cannot drive economic growth," Friedman
    acknowledges, "in a place where 50 percent of the people are infected
    with malaria or half of the kids are malnourished or a third of the
    mothers are dying of AIDS."

    And then there's 9/11. "The flat world -- unfortunately -- is a friend
    of both Infosys and al-Qaeda," Friedman writes, since both rely on the
    imaginative use of the Internet and global supply chains and since
    both are super-empowered by a flatter playing field magnifying the
    importance of individuals and groups. Fair enough, but why does Rajesh
    Rao matter more than Osama bin Laden, the Lexus more than the olive
    tree, flat-world globalization more than the far-flung struggle with
    jihadism that Friedman himself has likened to World War III? He
    doesn't quite say. As one would expect from the author of the
    brilliant From Beirut to Jerusalem, his treatment of 9/11 and Middle
    Eastern issues is insightful and deeply informed, but it doesn't
    convincingly settle the question of whether global trade or global
    terror is our age's central organizing principle. If al Qaeda ever
    buys, builds or steals even a small nuclear bomb -- taking advantage
    of the Bush administration's leisurely belief that America can afford
    to wait until sometime after 2008 to secure poorly guarded Russian
    nuclear weapons and material -- the surging growth of the Indian and
    Chinese entrepreneurial classes may seem largely of academic interest.

    While The World Is Flat is not a classic like From Beirut to
    Jerusalem, it is still an enthralling read. To his great credit,
    Friedman embraces much of his flat world's complexity, and his
    reporting brings to vibrant life some beguiling characters and trends.
    If his book is marred by an exasperating reliance on the first person
    and a surplus of catch phrases (" 'Friedman,' I said to myself,
    looking at this scene, 'you are so twentieth-century. . . . You are so
    Globalization 2.0' "), it is also more lively, provocative and
    sophisticated than the overwhelming bulk of foreign policy commentary
    these days. We've no real idea how the 21st century's history will
    unfold, but this terrifically stimulating book will certainly inspire
    readers to start thinking it all through. o

    Warren Bass is a senior editor at Book World and a former member of
    the 9/11 Commission staff. He is the author of "Support Any Friend:
    Kennedy's Middle East and the Making of the U.S.-Israel Alliance,"
    which was recently released in paperback.

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