I've gotta have a framework. My predecessors
had the Cold War-it really shaped the whole thing.
When you cut through all the achingly precious stories, examples, and metaphors he peppers his narrative with (like the olive tree which represents traditional culture and the Lexus which represents globalization), and the self-serving talk about how much more complex the world he has to report on is than the simplistic Cold War world that his predecessors enjoyed, Thomas L. Friedman's book has a pretty basic premise. He argues that the central geopolitical force at work in the world today is globalization, and that :
The driving idea behind globalization is free-market
capitalism--the more you let market forces
So far, so good. After all, here in the West, we've understood free market capitalism to be the most efficient way to organize an economy since Adam Smith wrote his masterpiece, The Wealth of Nations, in 1776. With the collapse of Marxism and Socialism in the late 1980's and early 1990's, there are virtually no competing economic systems remaining, nor many advocates who will claim that alternatives are more efficient--more caring, humane, beneficent, yes, but more efficient, no. And, though globalization has plenty of enemies--Trade Unionists, Environmentalists, Anarchists, Nativists, Consumer Groups, etc.--you would be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks it is not the predominant force shaping the world we live in. Nevertheless, Friedman spends several hundred pages beating this argument into the ground (if he were a cop and it were a suspect, it would be Amidou Diallo).
He then proceeds to demonstrate that, for all the good things he has to say about the process, it is people like him--well intentioned Western liberals--who, still, pose the greatest threat to free market capitalism. Though he holds out great hope that the integration of domestic economies into one interlocking global economy will act as a damper on the nationalistic, religious, and racial tensions which have repeatedly torn the species apart, he has a very peculiar definition of integration in mind. For Friedman, integration means that where we have the greatest amount of regulation--child labor, environment, etc.--lesser developed nation's should be required to meet our standards, but where others have greater regulation--Western European style environmental regulation and social welfare systems--America should have to meet their stricter schemes. Of course, the recent setbacks in negotiations of World Trade agreements have been precisely a result of this kind of meddling by the Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Tom Friedman types, insisting that Third World nations adhere to the labor standards of the West. Even if we suppose, for the sake of argument, that the whole world should adopt such standards, there is no reason to believe that they are suitable for countries which are at such an early stage of development. Five day/40 hour weeks, minimum wages, age requirements, benefits, etc., may all be well and good, but they were added at the later stages of the Industrial Age, not at its birth.
Likewise, having given chapter and verse on why any country that ignores the power of the free market is destined for the ash heap of history, he concludes the book talking about how he doesn't want to live in a country that is governed by the types of ideas proposed by the 1994 Republican Congress. He calls himself an Integrationist Social-Safety-Netter--believe me, it's not worth explaining the precise derivation for this awkward apellation--which essentially boils down to wanting to maintain retirement, education, health care and welfare in government hands. Of course, the reforms that Republicans were, and are, talking about are things like Welfare reform, which has been fabulously successful, School Choice, privatization of Social Security, etc. What is it that makes these programs immune to capitalist forces ? Why would free market principles not make them all more efficient ? Why should the poorest nation's on Earth throw their entire economies upon the mercy of the markets, if we're unwilling to trust those same markets with our social safety net ? That even folks like Tom Friedman (by which I mean NY Times columnists) have been forced to recognize the advantages of capitalism does mark a major step forward in the long march of freedom, but as his reservations demonstrate, there's still a long way to go before the free market is allowed, by the intellectuals and opinion makers, to realize its full potential.
But there's a much broader problem with Friedman's framework, one that transcends his hesitancy about practicing what he preaches. Because he imagines us to be in a totally new situation, he is simply too optimistic about the likelihood that nations and peoples will act rationally and choose capitalism. The metaphor he chose for the book, the Lexus representing the "new" global economy, the olive tree representing old tribal customs and quarrels, shows how limited is his understanding of the threat to capitalism. For it is not animosities across racial or religious lines that are most dangerous (though they are trouble too), but those within each country and between heterogeneous people.
Here the experience of the industrialized nations should be instructive. As we've already mentioned, it's been well understood in the West for over two hundred years now that capitalism is the most efficient economic system for creating wealth. The problem hasn't been that we didn't know how to create it, it's been what happens to the wealth once it's there. Hundreds of millions of people, in dozens of Western nations, have gone to the polls, or taken to the streets, demanding that their countries' economic pie be distributed equally, even when that has meant less for nearly everyone. There is little or no evidence that mankind in general is willing to accept a system where the gap between winners and losers is as large as the one that capitalism inevitably produces. In fact, Friedman's own demand for an extensive skein of government programs indicates just how difficult it is, for even someone who thoroughly understands the consequences of such interference with the free market, to countenance the most discomfiting aspects of genuine freedom.
In good part, Friedman's failure to reckon with the potentially dire consequences of this willingness on the part of nations to act irrationally may be a result of a naive faith in the abstract equality of all men. Liberals do tend to dismiss the differences in performance by different people in capitalist systems as an artificial result of external factors, rather than accepting them as indicative of genuine differences in ability, intellect, drive, and the like. And so, naturally, he has a rather touching faith that given free market economies, all of the world's peoples will perform similarly and benefit roughly equally. But suppose that he is quite wrong. Suppose that no amount of freedom and unfettered functioning of the free market will ever--for whatever reasons, be they climactic, cultural, religious, genetic, geographic, or whatever--lift a country like...say Afghanistan to parity with the United States. At some point, mustn't this necessarily result in tensions between the countries ? And suppose that, just as we see within a single country, over time the various nations settle in to fairly stratified locations on the economic scale, and that it just happens that one religious, racial, ethnic, or whatever group tends to do poorly across the board. Mustn't this lead to even greater tensions ? And, just based on the experiences of the more industrialized nations, isn't it likely that over time, those who do less well in general will demand a share of the wealth of those do better ? Mightn't we integrate ourselves right into the middle of a World Economic System wherein the United States is expected, even required, to transfer wealth to less fortunate nations ? Is it really likely that the graduated income tax and redistribution of wealth are phenomena which occur only within the borders of a country, but not within a network of countries ?
Which brings us to a final problem with Friedman's world view : he, I believe mistakenly, argues that it is necessary for the United States to remain engaged with the rest of the world politically, in order to reap the benefits of a global free trade economic system. History offers little evidence that this is so either. Just for example, the United States began its recovery from the Depression during the period of time when it almost completely ignored the events of the Second World War. In point of fact, there's no reason to believe that we could not have sat it out entirely, selling weapons to both sides, and done quite nicely for ourselves. There are perfectly good arguments that it would have been wrong to do so, but they are moral arguments, not economic. Or take the Persian Gulf War--sure Saddam's a bad character, but having taken Kuwait, and even Saudi Arabia, what would he have done with his newfound oil resources ? Sell them to us. And, economically, what does it matter to us who we get the oil from ? Or take our annual ritual of approving Most Favored Nation status for Red China--looked at purely in terms of what is best for American consumers, who cares if they have democracy in China if they are willing to make our clothes really cheap ? One must be careful, and Friedman is not, to separate morality from economics when it comes to the free market. China, Cuba, Bosnia, Iraq, etc., should and probably will evolve into liberal capitalist democracies, but they will do so because it is ultimately in their own interest, regardless of whether it is in ours, which it may very well not be, at least in economic terms. If engagement with the world and its affairs were necessary to a nation's economy, Switzerland would look like Ethiopia. Instead, it demonstrates that trade can be completely independent of geopolitical activism.
But let us not judge Mr. Friedman too harshly. We should be sufficiently surprised and pleased to find a Timesman at least gingerly embracing capitalism. If he's still got a ways to go, at least he's come quite a distance. Come on in Tom, the water's fine.
-BOOK SITE : The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux)
-EXCERPT : from Lexus and the Olive Tree : Chapter One : Tourist with an Attitude
-ESSAY : A Manifesto for the Fast World : adapted from The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Thomas L. Friedman, March 28, 1999, NY Times Magazine)
-COLUMN ARCHIVES : Thomas L. Friedman (NY Times)
-BOOKNOTES : From Beirut to Jerusalem Author: Thomas Friedman Air Date: September 10, 1989
-ESSAY : Yes, but What? (THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, October 5, 2001, NY Times)
-ESSAY : A Perfect Storm? (Thomas L. Friedman, May 18, 2001 , NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Does America Need a Foreign Policy? Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century By HENRY KISSINGER (THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of U.S. MARINES IN LEBANON 1982-1984 By Benis M. Frank (Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of UNDER SIEGE P.L.O. Decisionmaking During the 1982 War. By Rashid Khalidi (Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of PERSONAL WITNESS Israel Through My Eyes. By Abba Eban (Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of LEBANON'S PREDICAMENT By Samir Khalaf (Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times Book Review)
-GERGEN DIALOGUE : Thomas L. Friedman : They discuss "Revolt of the Wannabes," Friedman's article examining the spread of free markets throughout the world, and the pressure on every country to compete for limited capital. (Online Newshour, FEBRUARY 13, 1996, PBS)
-DIALOGUE : Dueling Globalizations : A DEBATE BETWEEN THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN AND IGNACIO RAMONET (Foreign Policy, September 22 1999)
-PROFILE : The education of Thomas L. Friedman (Daniel Pipes , Jewish World Review)
-PROFILE : The life and times of Thomas L. Friedman (Noah Stoffman, University of Toronto Varsity)
-ESSAY : Short Take: The Times' own brownshirt (J. D. Tuccille, About.com)
-ESSAY : Amazon vs. the ants : Sure, David can beat Goliath on the Web -- if he's got a New York Times columnist in his corner. (SCOTT ROSENBERG, Salon)
-ESSAY : Global fields of green : The electronic herd is grazing on globalization. Who's being left out and left behind? (Elizabeth Grossman, April 28, 1999, The Oregonian)
-ARCHIVES : "Thomas L. Friedman" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES : "Thomas L. Friedman" (Mag Portal)
-ARCHIVES : "Thomas Friedman" (Salon)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree By Thomas L. Friedman. (Richard Eder, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree. (Josef Joffe, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (New Statesman, Francis Fukuyama)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Commentary, October 01 1999 by Christopher Caldwell)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (Christopher Farrell, Business Week)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (David S. Landes, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (David J. Lynch, USA TODAY)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (HOLMAN W. JENKINS JR., Policy Review)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (SCOTT WHITNEY, salon)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree ( Jacob Weisberg, Slate)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree.(Tikkun, July 01 1999 by David C. Korten)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Business Economics, Robert D. Shriner)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (The Progressive, Amitabh Pal)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (Robert Dunn, Challenge)
-REVIEW : of Lexus (Antony Banett, The Observer)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Dr. Terry J. van der Werff, Global Future Report)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Lauren Bain, The Laissez Faire City Times)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (Thomas Frank, Harper's)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree (The Christian Century, John B. Jr. Cobb)
-REVIEW : of The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman (Paul Krugman, Washington Monthly)
-REVIEW : of Lexus (D.R. Chaudhry, Sunday Tribune of India)
-REVIEW : of From Beirut to Jerusalem By Thomas L. Friedman (1989) (Conor Cruise O'Brien, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of FROM BEIRUT TO JERUSALEM By Thomas L. Friedman (Roger Rosenblatt, NY Times Book Review)
-AWARDS : SKETCHES OF PULITZER PRIZE WINNERS (NY Times, April 19, 1983)
-AWARDS : Toni Morrison's Novel 'Beloved' Wins the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (DENNIS HEVESI , NY Times, April 1, 1988)
-AWARDS : Book Awards Honor Novelist and Journalist (Edwin McDowell, NY Times, November 30, 1989)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd