Ruminations on Thomas Friedman, Part II
It is not just that Thomas Friedman’s metaphors clash with each other like mismatched furniture at a yard sale. That would be bad enough, but it would only offend our aesthetic sense. What insults logic is when he tries to force his theories to squeeze into his metaphoric hand-me-downs.
Having latched on to “flatness” as his organizing theme, he crams a whole swathe of technical, economic and political developments into it without let or hindrance of reason. Sometimes he even employs his own peculiar brand of kabalistic numbering to do this. Thus, there are ten flatteners . . . four steroids . . . three convergences -- 9/11 (the attack on the WTC) is mystically born out of 11/9 (the fall of the Berlin Wall), but it’s also connected to 8/9, the day Netscape released its initial public offering. Who would have thought? And why stop there, you wonder. Why be so selective? Looked at properly, an almost infinite number of things are related to 9/11 numerically.
Let’s see. The long stock market crash in 1973 began on 1/11. That was just about when OPEC was tightening the screws on the West and reasserting the power of Arab nationalism. Undoubtedly, a direct line to 9/11 there.
Or what about 9-11-1941, when the construction of the Pentagon began officially. How about that? Surely the fall of the Berlin Wall has not been half as much of an incentive to resentful young Saudis or Pakistanis as the rise of the Pentagon. Didn’t one of those hijacked planes hit the Pentagon? Proof enough.
Or why not 11-9-1938, the Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht), when enraged Germans turned on their Jewish compatriots? Didn’t it eventually lead the way to the Holocaust? And did the Holocaust not aid the creation of a Jewish state, which in turn displaced the Palestinian people? And is that not what is fuelling jihad worldwide?
Then again, according to Hebrew scriptures 9-11-1999 was the 6,000th anniversary of Adam's creation, and year 1 on the Hebrew calendar. Can we be completely certain that this did not influence the anti-Semitic imaginations of those who picked the date on which to strike the Twin Towers?
In fact, if you dig around a bit, the coincidences begin to fly out and slap you in the face. Take 7-Eleven, the largest chain in the convenience retailing industry. Seems fairly innocuous until you realize that it licenses more than 23,600 stores abroad in 17 countries and U.S. territories, according to its website. Come to think of it, it is also one of the nation's largest independent gasoline retailers. A fairly ominous business altogether from a Muslim viewpoint. Imagine all those Taylor pork rolls on Saudi soil . . . or the glossy copies of Penthouse. Makes you wonder -- was it US bases in the Gulf, or that local 7-Eleven that finally got to Osama?
Mind you, it’s not as if there is no sense at all in the Friedmanesque squint on the world. On the contrary, had he noted the coincidental dates as synchronous oddities, we would applaud; had he pointed out the connections between things as one might trace the pout of a girl’s mouth to a forgotten grandaunt, we might find them convincing. But they would be convincing not as explanations of the immutable logic by which events lead one to the other but as instances of the fascinating but obscure patterns thrown up by the currents of history.
But that is always the case with world improvers of a feeble theoretical bend like Friedman. They can never leave things as they found them, or put them back on the shelf exactly where they were. They always have to fiddle with stuff. They are always smoothing out the past and gilding the future with the unctuous certainty of tea leaf readers at a country fair. They are perpetually looking for numbers and formulas to convince their readers -- and themselves -- that they are onto something deep. Left to their own devices, the plebs might conclude that they, like everyone else, are in the dark about the mysterious workings of history. They might throw up their hands and give up hope of ever constructing a demi-paradise on earth. They might even content themselves with merely improving the little parcel of earth they know at first hand. But string a number or two together, line up statistics like blindfolded prisoners and fire away, and even the most skeptical and irascible come around.
This is not to suggest that Friedman lards his books with statistical evidence, compelling or not. Far from it. What he does instead is to suggestively throw out a few figures, denuded of context or analysis, so that in the midst of his upbeat commercials for the mercantilist trade game, they carry a force they would otherwise lack.
Take his analysis of globalization. He figures there are three waves: a first wave (what Friedman calls Globalization 1.0) which lasted from 1492-1800 and shrank the world from a size large to a size medium mainly through governmental action; a second wave, (Globalization 2.0) which lasted from 1800-2000, which shrank the world from a size medium to a size small, mainly through multinational companies; and a third wave, (Globalization 3.0), starting from 2000, which is shrinking the size small to size tiny, and is being driven by individuals.
Never mind that all three waves, whether governmental corporate or individual, have always been systematically instigated by physical force. Never mind that the first wave in India, for one, was set in motion by a corporation -- the East India Company -- long before Her Majesty’s government got involved. Never mind that globalization has less to do with technological innovation than with political intervention, that Wal-Mart is cheap because of the externalization of its costs and low wages not because of information technology adaptations.
And that’s not all.
Take his defense of free trade in The World Is Flat. There’s nothing wrong with his argument that jobs in big companies that are lost to outsourcing and free trade are replaced by jobs created by small companies that never make the headlines. Theoretically, that is the way Ricardo’s classical theory of comparative advantage works. But, is it the way things have been working in America in recent years? Yes, says, Friedman, pointing to the U.S. unemployment rate of just over 5%, roughly half that of most developing countries. On this slender thread rests practically the entire weight of the chapter on free trade.
But where does the 5% number come from? And what does it mean? Are we to assume from it that the other 95% of Americans are wiping the sweat off their brows after days packed with toil?
Obviously not. In any population at any time there is a whole segment that does not work . . . and cannot be expected to. From toddlers to teens the age group under 20 is likely almost entirely unemployed. The same goes for the age group over 60. Neither gets much room in calculations of the labor market. But in the 20-60 group, there are also whole populations whom we eliminate: stay-at-home wives and mothers and sometimes fathers, the incapacitated, those in hospital or homebound by illness, the insane, prisoners, gang members and other criminals.
But, even so, the picture is skewed because what economists mean by “full employment” is highly relative. For instance, if you work just one hour a day, you are considered employed, for official purposes. And if you get discouraged from looking for work and give up, after just six months you are not considered unemployed at all, you simply become marginal to the labor market like the prison or hospital population. You disappear. If your work starts paying you less, taking up more of your time, yielding fewer benefits, or if you need to hold several jobs to meet the needs that used to be met by just one, that too is not factored into the unemployment figure most often used in public. Then there is the rise in the number of professional workers receiving disability payments in the past 23 years -- up from 3.8 million to 7.7 million. Those who receive disability don’t count as unemployed. And workers who return to school, work for cash, or temp, also fall into the black hole. What this means is that if you juggled all the variables that go into the production of the unemployment figure, you could come up with all sorts of results to suit every agenda.
And so it has been. Critics on the left, for instance, argue that the huge increase in prisons and the criminalization of more and more victimless offenses masks rising unemployment. If all adults behind bars were counted, they argue, the unemployment rate would be about one percent point higher. And the rate for black men would rise astronomically to almost 20%. The US does have a government program for the unemployed, they say -- it’s just called prison.
But one doesn’t have to sit left of center to notice the fraud on stage. Simply look at the figures for one month from when Thomas was laboring at his magnum opus: In July 2004 the "official" unemployment rate in the United States was 5.5 percent, just as he claims. But wait. The actual number of the unemployed at the time was 16,265,736, the highest in 20 years. The actual percentage of "unemployed" was thus really 9.7 percent, up 3 percent from 2002
Want more proof? How about this: The percentage of employed adults in the United States reached a high of 65 percent in April 2000 at the peak of the stock market and then dropped to 61 percent in September 2003, a low for ten years. But even with this 4 percent drop in employed adults -- which ought to mean a total unemployment rate of 8 percent -- the unemployment rate supposedly still held around 6 percent under the Bush administration.
So what gives? Where are these missing five million unemployed? Did they all make their fortunes selling the QQQs short and retire?
Not so, alas. Labor Department (BLS) reports from the same month show what happened: 300,000 workers left the labor pool and 6,700,000 professionals lost their unemployment benefits although they found no new jobs. When all that is taken into account, it turns out that employers created only 32,000 jobs in July 2004.
Of course, that figure too is as much a bit of fiction as any other governmental statistical fraud but at least it doesn’t cover up the number of unemployed workers.
The Washington Post, 2004 Jan noted. “The unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent in December, a 14 month low, from 5.9 percent in November. But that reflected the decisions of 309,000 people to either stop working or stop looking for jobs, which means they are no longer counted as part of the labor force.”
The simple fact is that though the recession in the US lasted officially just eight months (March to November, 2001), jobs continued to be cut thereafter in most major companies. Efficiency may have been raised during the shaky recovery that followed, but it was with fewer workers.
And what jobs have been added have been in real estate and finance, where they have been largely the result of speculative and non-productive activity. Or in health care, where they signal inflated costs and an ageing population. Or in low-wage service jobs at all the Home Depots or Wal-Marts around.
But that’s the fun of the flat world. Friedman can just flatten over this statistical chicanery with self-serving quotes from such dispassionate observers of globalization as the chief researcher at the IMF -- only one of the biggest players in the whole game -- and McKinsey, the most prominent of outsourcing consultants.
Ten point three percent? One out of seven cases?
The faithful flock to the altar of mathematical abstraction, certain that they are eating the very bread of the martyrs of science from Galileo on. The less they understand the numbers, the more they are enamored of them. What they can’t see clearly, must, like veiled Houris, have charms beyond anything they do see.
Of course no real statistician, mathematician or scientist would accept the sort of number game that pop social scientists like Friedman palm off as the real thing. There is no logical, mathematical or linguistic structure that does not rest on a blind spot, no sense that does not have a foundation that is nonsense. The charm of real mathematics in fact is its absurd poetry. And great mathematicians have always had about them the fantastic air of magicians . . . or dreamers. The creator of Wonderland, of the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen, the inventor of the nonsense language of Jabberwocky and the insane reverse logic of the Looking Glass was an Oxford don in mathematics, Charles Dodgson. The Indian mathematician Ramanujan who overtook centuries of mathematical research on his own, as an obscure clerk in Madras, swore that his theorems were given to him in dreams by a Goddess Namagiri. Visited by his friend and mentor Hardy in hospital, where he had landed up with pneumonia, the first comment he made was how fascinated he was by the number of Hardy’s taxicab. And binomial equations, he confessed at another time, moved him so much by their beauty that when he came across them he burst into tears.
Math and science at their core nurse a kernel of irrationality. No straight jacket of logic ever fully contains them. Gödel's Theorem on incompleteness demonstrates this and every systems analyst assumes it.
But in Friedman’s world, a few feeble economic statistics are manifest destiny, immutable laws from Mount Sinai that require the tribes of the world to fall down and worship. And straitjackets are not only good things, they are golden. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, he recommends that every nation put one on to get the best out of the global economy. The Golden Straitjacket is pure Friedmanese, shorthand for the neo-liberal economics of downsized government and deregulated commerce. Wages are held low, public assets are privatized or turned over to the international securities markets, tariffs and quotas are eliminated opening up closed economies to foreign ownership. Financial speculators -- the “Electronic Herd,” Friedman calls them -- stampede in and paw up the turf in search of quick profits, bringing with them prosperity for some and joblessness, environmental chaos, and uprooted lives for others.
But no matter. It’s all in a day’s work for our columnist. Get with the program. Sit down at the table. Enter the cash economy or be condemned to be part of the regressive, anti-modern, low-tech, unflat world.
Or, as Friedman writes of a Vietnamese woman huddled on the pavement to whom he paid a dollar a day to be weighed -- not, mind you, to find out his weight (he already knew that, he claims) -- but purely as his “contribution to the globalization of Vietnam”: “To me, her unspoken motto was: ‘Whatever you've got no matter how big or small -- sell it, trade it, barter it, leverage it, rent it, but do something with it to turn a profit, improve your standard of living and get into the game.’”
Just so. For the Friedmans of the world, globalization remains a game. That’s why they lace the gruel of anecdotes they serve up with a heady brew of pseudo-statistics and jargon. It’s the 45% proof with which they knock themselves and their readers out. Take it away and all that remains is a feeble hash of platitudes. Friedman understands globalization like the pilot of a B52 follows street signs . . . rarely and only remotely. On ground zero, a storm rages over large tracts of the globe. Its fallout is neither clear nor always hopeful. But you’d never know that from the well-fed weatherman flying high and dry above.
Lila Rajiva is a freelance writer in Argentina, and the author of the must-read book, The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the US Media (Monthly Review Press, 2005). She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright (c) 2006 by Lila Rajiva
Other Articles by Lila Rajiva
Thomas Friedman, Part I: The Incredible Shrinking Lexus