Sunday, September 23, 2007

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW: THOMAS FIEDMAN'S LEXUS AND OLIVE TREE

THOMAS FRIEDMAN'S LEXAS AND OLIVE TREE BY JOHN CHUCKMAN, March 11, 2005


It is stunning how little Thomas Friedman understands about globalization, but that didn't stop him from writing a book about it.

Friedman's tone reminds me of the bluff guy who sweeps up to you in a bar, slaps you on the back and starts pouring out the fast-paced patter of a top-producing aluminum-siding salesman. Friedman's goal in every paragraph is to close a sale and unload as much product on you at as high a price as possible.

Most of what we call growth and science goes back only about 500 years to the Renaissance. Before that for centuries people stayed in the same little village, spoke the same words, went to the same church, and in general knew nothing their fathers and mothers didn't know. All great events like the "Enclosures" in England or the "Industrial Revolution" were steps in the same relentless march forward.

Globalization is just the latest manifestation of a now-constant flow of changing technology inducing permanent, long-term economic change. It promises to be a very troubling and unsettled period as local customs, habits, laws, and even languages come under great stress of huge and rapid changes. It is not unrealistic to anticipate revolutions, civil wars, and great human migrations coming out of these changes over the next century or so, just as industrialization or enclosures generated many social and political disturbances.

Ironically enough, America itself, despite its status as world economic power, faces huge problems adjusting to these sweeping, inevitable changes in the world. Ordinary Americans are going to have to make big adjustments in their expectations (the so-called American dream), and there is going to be huge pressure to participate in new and expanding international institutions required to regulate these massive changes.

The modern nation state evolved directly out of these forces, but as the process goes on, the nation state itself will feel heavy forces of erosion. All of this, of course, is in directions opposite to America's present course.

But don't look for a clear explanation of any of this from Friedman. Friedman's sales pitch includes a call to making the world safe for McDonald's, Pepsi, and America Online. The tone is genuinely depressing.

Friedman's gems include belittling Silicon-Valley executives who stress their international identity. Like a stereotype of the ugly American, Friedman bellows, "Oh, yeah? Then, the next time I.B.M. China gets in trouble in China, call Jiang Zemin for help."

Does Friedman truly think high-tech business can be global without concessions to local interests? Think of car plants today. No government allows you to just keep exporting cars. Sooner or later you build a local plant, and you adapt to local conditions. You certainly obey local laws. And you certainly hire mostly local people. America's F-16s, the kinds of things Friedman is so fond of referring to, don't change any of that.

This book represents a kind of catch-22 for Americans. If they embrace Friedman's parochial, beat-the-drum-for-America attitude, they will only be even less prepared for the unavoidable era of dramatic change coming.

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