Flat Note from the Pied Piper of Globalization

Flat Note from the Pied Piper of Globalization

Thomas L. Friedman’s The World Is Flat

The World Is Flat:
A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005 488 pp
$27.50 cloth $16 paper


Thomas L. Friedman’s new book is one of those works that reveals more than the author seems to intend—or perhaps understands. For the past year or so, a new tone has seeped into the writings of Friedman and the other pundits who have promoted the protection system for transnational investors that we call globalization and the rest of the world calls “neoliberalism.” In the past they have assured us that, whatever we call this process, it is a “win-win” for everyone, apparently the only exception to the dictum of another Friedman (Milton, no relation) that there is no free lunch.

But as the economic casualties—lost jobs, lower wages, the proliferation of sweatshops—have mounted, the tune is now slightly less upbeat. There is, after all, a bit of a bill to be paid, and Americans, of all people, will have to pay it.

As one would expect, Friedman’s new book is a paean to the entrepreneurs who are “flattening” the world; in other words, taking advantage of the new technologies that allow businesspeople to enter the global market from anywhere.

In his trademark style, Friedman gives us pithy snippets of his conversations with people around the world who are getting rich on this phenomenon and, not surprisingly, think it is a great thing.

The perpetually astonished Friedman gets a bit intoxicated by his own metaphor. “My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!” he exclaims after talking to a businessman in India, and proceeds to equate this discovery to Columbus’s first sighting of the “new world.” Still, he ably describes the mosaic of globalization from the point of view of the winners. He shows us Wal-Mart’s warehouses, Japanese teaching machines that talk to each other, and the multiethnic management team that runs IBM’s partnership with China.

Like other cheerleaders for capital mobility—Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and Francis Fukuyama come to mind—Friedman has an affinity for wildly simplistic historic analogies. Globalization 1.0, he tells us, began with the discovery of America and lasted until 1800, when the invention of the multinational corporation ushered in Globalization 2.0. Luckily for us, the new era began in the year 2000. “In Globalization 1.0,” Friedman writes, “there was a ticket agent. In Globalization 2.0 the e-ticket machine replaced the ticket agent. In Globalization 3.0 you are your own ticket agent.”

You don’t have to buy into Friedman’s contrived and fractured history to accept the obvious point: the barriers of time, space, and nationality have been shrinking between the world’s buyers and sellers, relentlessly leveling the economic playing field.

Although cleverly packaged, none of this i...