Saturday, April 30, 2005

A friend of mine is currently taking a class on globalization at Harvard. Along with Larry Summers and Michael Sandel, the class is also being taught by Thomas Friedman.

When I sent my friend an amusing review of Friedman's new book, The World is Flat, he responded with the following:
i didn't know much about [friedman] before the class but have pretty much been underwhelmed by him. he's clearly outclassed by summers and sandel...every time friedman talks he repeats the same jargon about the world being flat, the internet solving every problem globalization presents, mozilla being proof of this, etc.
I couldn't help but think back to this assessment while reading Friedman's most recent Times column, "A Man without a Plan."

Although the piece is about America's educational system, Friedman nonetheless mentions how the world is flat three times:

--America's biggest challenge today? "The flattening of the global playing field."

--Why do we need to develop our own talent? Because "we Americans can't rely on importing the talent we need anymore -- not in a flat world."

--What should President Bush do? Produce "a comprehensive U.S. response ... to focus on developing talent in a flat world."

He's a little better about it here, but what irks me about Friedman's 'flat world' rhetoric is not so much his point -- that the dramatic rise in information technology has provided unprecendented access to global markets -- as the relative ignorance with which he's been proffering it. From the currency crises in southeast Asia to the massive layoffs here at home, the last decade is littered with examples of the destruction that globalization can yield. Yet Friedman himself seems willfully unaware of the gravity of the situation. He continually seizes on the benefits of globalization while refusing to adequately address its more baneful consequences. If globalization were alcohol, Friedman would be that guy at the party who's become embarrassingly drunk and now insists on letting everyone know it.
Where his latest column is concerned, the real shame of Friedman's bromitic prose is that it drowns out his most important point. True to form, that point comes not from him but Summers:
"For the first time in our history, we are going to face competition from low-wage, high-human-capital communities, embedded within India, China and Asia," President Lawrence Summers of Harvard told me. In order to thrive, "it will not be enough for us to just leave no child behind. We also have to make sure that many more young Americans can get as far ahead as their potential will take them. How we meet this challenge is what will define our nation's political economy for the next several decades."
Never mind our educational system; Summers is tacitly proposing that we radically overhaul the educational philosophy which underlies it. Needless to say, that's no small task. It means altering how we currently reconcile the principle of equal opportunity with the reality of an unequal distribution of natural talent.

All the more pity, then, that Friedman couldn't discuss Summers' proposal in anything more than the limited terms of his own 'flattened' vocabulary.


Blogger Stuart Berman said...

Sounds like you haven't read Friedman's books on globalization.

He considers the cultural perturbations that are part of globalization and the counterforce to it.

The issue is whether these disturbances to cultures around the world are destructive or really disruptive innovation. Before condemning globalization consider that it is being driven by desires at the grassroots level mainly by the desire for imrpoved living conditions.

9:31 PM  
Blogger Dan tdaxp said...

I have to generally agree with Stuart.

Take the asian currency crisis as an example. The affected economies still did a lot better with the extra growth of globalization than without it. Yes, globalization creates uncertainty -- but it also creates even greater rewards.

Friedman's "flat" metaphor is more interesting the more I think about it. I've blogged about what it could here.


8:41 PM  

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