Thomas Friedman’s misuse of metaphor may be actionable and his meager statistical evidence a thing of shame, but as with all world improvers his cardinal crime is vanity. He looks in the mirror, puffs out his mustache, and falls in love. And then he goes forth with Christian charity to spread that love over the face of the earth. He means to make converts of the new global players but he can hardly tell apart one from the other.
It is overweening vanity that is behind most of the flaws in the methodology of this book, The World is Flat. Instead of humbly studying what is under his nose, instead of doing the tedious legwork of research, the man would rather pull metaphors out of his hat and disappear the facts into them with parlor tricks.
Or palm off rank misstatements about politics and economics as facts, without bothering to check:
On p. 104, he lets fly with a whopper about India so big it should disqualify him immediately from discussing the country at all: “In short, India is a country with virtually no natural resources that got very good at doing one thing -- mining the brains of its own people by educating a relatively large slice of its elites in the sciences, engineering, and medicine.”
Virtually no natural resources?
Apparently with all the flatness around, Friedman did not bother with Flattener No. 9: Informing a google search would have given him this Wikipedia entry on the subject:
“India is particularly rich in a variety of natural resources. Along with 56% arable land, it has significant sources of Coal (fourth-largest reserves in the world), Iron ore, Manganese, Mica, Bauxite, Titanium ore, Chromite, Natural gas, Diamonds, Petroleum, Limestone, Thorium (world's largest along Kerala's shores). Petroleum is found off the coast of Maharashtra, Gujarat and in Assam, but meets only 40% of India's demand. Increasing amounts of natural gas are being discovering regularly especially off the coast of Andhra Pradesh. Uranium is mined in Andhra Pradesh and gold in the Kolar Gold Fields in Karnataka.”
Wiki would also have told the much-traveled but little-informed columnist that other areas besides the professions are flourishing in India -- manufacturing, mining, and financial services are all well-developed and were so many years before the liberalization of the country in the 1980s. The Indian economy is the fourth largest in the world in purchasing power parity and with a GDP growth rate of 8.1, it is the second fastest growing economy in the world.
Besides, what does Friedman mean, elites? In India, state universities and technical schools offer generous scholarships to those who top the competitive exams, regardless of their economic or social status. The Indian Institutes of Technology, for instance, are publicly subsidized, fiercely merit-based (much more so than many American elite universities) and there are also state schools that offer excellent educations quite affordably. At least, that was the case before the privatization took over in the nineties, but don’t expect Friedman to mention that.
And the merry-go-round of errors goes on. He says that the U.S. needs more scientists and engineers, a claim based mostly on a conversation with the president of RPI, an engineering school. But if so, why is it that companies like Hewlett Packard and IBM fire engineers by the thousands?
Could university administrators and company CEO’s have their own self-serving reasons for claiming a shortage of engineers in the U.S.? The universities need to pump up enrollments; CEOs need to cut costs by hiring cheaper foreigners.
But, don’t hold your breath for Friedman to explain.
And a host of such statements rush headlong like the Gadarene swine out of the capacious mouth of our columnist, and tumble straight over the edge of comprehension. Statement after statement of pure drivel.
1. Globalization, he explains, is competition between workers and collaboration between businesses. And this is good.
Of course, it means nothing of the sort. What is called globalization is only the same process of international exchange that has gone on for eons. What Friedman feels the need to defend -- and what anti-globalizers feel the need to attack -- seems actually not to be globalization so much as a set of trade rules imposed top down. The anti-globalizers argue -- not without merit -- that these rules amount to socialism for big corporations and the free market for everyone else. And it looks like Friedman thoroughly agrees, only he thinks that’s what a free market looks like. Even if you do not take issue with Friedman’s defense of the trade game, you wonder if the man knows what it is he is defending.
Unless, of course, he is being paid to come up with this claptrap. Either way, there is a solution: outsource New York Times columnists.
Yes, he really does think this . . . and in the same breath, he also really does admire Roosevelt’s New Deal and hankers for a revival of Johnson’s Great Society programs (P. 277). How do you call yourself a free-market advocate, even by your own definition, and manage to do that? But no schizophrenia here. In a flat world, you’re allowed flat contradictions. He mocks Europe as “an assisted living facility with an aging population lavishly attended to by Turkish nurses” but then turns around and asks for calls for a safety net in America for those dislocated by off-shoring. He wants the federal government to prop up minimum wage levels and he wants them also to promote market efficiency.
Friedman’s whole approach to the market is an exercise in overt self-contradiction.
Ergo his most famous statement on the subject -- “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald's cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas.”
Flatten or be flattened. Take that, Adam Smith.
free enterprise, which supposedly encourages merit, should need jet
bombers to sustain it is not the only anomaly in the flat world crying out
to be addressed. There’s also the disconnect between the Everest-high
salaries executives take home and the Pacific Trench-low performances they
turn in. Where does the staggering divergence between Joe Blow’s paycheck
and his boss’s fit into this new flattened landscape? Friedman doesn’t
say. And if this disparity is true in America with its strong history of
legal protections and transparence, what must we assume of crony
capitalism in China or criminal capitalism in Russia? Or India where the
old License -- as in, you need a permit to do this -- Raj has now been
succeeded by the new License -- as in, anything goes -- Raj.
It’s not that he does not talk about the “unflat” world -- as he puts it awkwardly. He does. Whether it’s Untouchables in India, AIDS patients in Africa, or women in Saudi Arabia, he always has something to say. What he doesn’t seem to get or perhaps doesn’t want to get is the less noticeable unflatness mixed right into his flat world. And he also doesn’t want to notice that the unflat or half-flat world can sometimes do just what the flat world is supposed to. Otherwise how to explain growth in corrupt authoritarian China or in conservative, discriminatory Malaysia?
A self-respecting journalist might be expected to at least try to figure that out.
But it is sunnily optimistic to think that Friedman is a journalist in the usual sense of the world. Thumbing through the book, you actually get the sense not of a book but of a huge PR release. First, for Thomas Friedman, of course. The man inserts himself shamelessly into each anecdote as if nothing in the process of globalization could actually take place without his presence. Every breathless buzzword escapes with a gaseous self-satisfaction that lets us know that Columbus is a pretty poor second to our man in Bangalore when it comes to world historical discoveries. On practically every other page there is a plug for The Lexus and the Olive Tree. All roads lead to Tom.
More significantly, the book is an unpaid -- at least, let us hope -- advertisement for outsourcing. Not that we necessarily have a quarrel with that. The man is entitled to his views. What we object to is his palming this farrago of half-truths and misperceptions off as an objective account of globalization, when it’s nothing of the sort. It’s a peculiarly provincial, even solipsistic, view of the global trade regime in which everything that takes place everywhere is somehow a threat to, caused by, or geared toward what happens in America.
Take Friedman’s explanation of the impact of the dot-com bust. He claims that though it wiped out investors, it ended up providing telecommunications at fire-sale prices and letting players from the sidelines like China and India, to get into the game. What he forgets to tell us is that the telecom and tech boom were going on in China and India long before the dotcoms went bust in the U.S. India has had an explicit policy in place to attract high tech Foreign Direct Investment since the early to mid ‘90s and it was already a telecom player by then. China was doing much the same at roughly the same time. It was the meltdown of the Soviet Union not of Silicon Valley that prompted the transformation of the Asian giants from state socialist to liberal economic polices.
But like all world-improvers, Friedman does not seem to know much -- or be interested in learning much -- about the world he is hell-bent on improving.
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 II: The Madness in His Methods -- 9-11 and 7-11