Gaurav Sood, Stanford.edu
 

I started off writing for Blogcritics.org with my own critical analysis of Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat -- A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century It has been over an year and a half since I wrote that review and in that interim, Friedman's book has managed to be on the New York Times Bestseller List for most of the time, and more spectacularly, managed to sell about 2 million copies. Those figures don't take away from the fact that Friedman's book is deeply flawed, and riven with factual and argumentative inaccuracies.

Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo have tried to set the record straight with their blistering critique of Thomas Friedman in their new book, The World is Flat? -- A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times Bestseller While Aronica and Ramdoo's book is not full of Friedmanesque anecdotes, or anointed by a catchy title like the ones Mr. Friedman is so adept at coming up with, just to take the two examples, Lexus and the Olive Tree to The world is flat, or the newspaper plain speak that Mr. Friedman offers, what this new book does offer is a deeply satisfying, encyclopedic, richly supported, step by step dismantling of each of Friedman's arguments.

Friedman's vision of the globalized world is a deeply skewed account of globalization, according to the authors, often obsessed with the successful multinational corporations of India, the teeming engineers, the 'level' playing field, the limitless opportunities for profit for people who are intelligent or choose to invest in schooling, all the unmitigated fascination with gadgetry, and unbridled confidence in technology. Even the familiar hinder some olive tree or the culture is missing, only rearing up its head in the Middle East to let you in on the fact that its only the backward culture that's holding the Arab civilization back from the wonderful riches on the flat world. There are no losers in the flat world, only people who will see a time lag in seeing their riches come their way for the global underclass will be able to educate its kids better and they will eventually be able to get better jobs and better pay but as the authors astutely point out, there is a vast global underclass whose resources are being pillaged and leeched ruthlessly by global corporations leaving them with little or nothing to proceed with.

Friedman is an acknowledged master of glib phraseology and his utopic visions often times OD on the pointless anecdotes that he hears from his CEO friends, according to Ramdoo and Aronica. Friedman's book is a testament to how you can be a peripatetic and still be basically a resort town to resort town peripatetic who never really visits the vast global ghetto made of upwards of 3 billion people with limited access to potable water and surviving on $2/day. Ramdoo and Aronica spend time explaining to the readers the vast underclass that dots the globalized world. The simple fact is that the world is not flat because it is patently laughable to compare the opportunities of the millions born into starvation and penury with children from the first or third world elites who get to buy $100 sneakers (made of course by the starving children).

Ramdoo and Aronica are concerned about the shrinking white collar jobs, the vanishing health and retirement benefits, and the simultaneous mass exploitation of the poor in the global third world. This attrition, this slide to the bottom, on both sides of the globe, argue the authors, is due to one single mechanism -- the transnational corporations whose gargantuan profits have been fuelled by leeching the job security from the white collar workers in the west and extorting labor and resources from the unprivileged.

The message that I could distill from this book is that this kind of rampant predatory capitalism is not sustainable. The global economic regime is trying to cut off its nose to spite its face or in other words, corporations are willing to sacrifice the middle class to temporarily this short term hunt for profit. Profit is not the global good but often times pursuit of it is left unmonitored based on the argument that it somehow is.

There is this popular saying that a capitalist will even sell you the rope that you need to hang him with and that seems to be becoming increasingly true. We must disassociate global good from corporate profit and argue and work stridently towards a sustainable future before it is too late.

Aronica and Ramdoo's book is an important addition to the literature of globalization and a necessary therapy for all those whose minds have been in touch with Friedman's glib phrases.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? -- A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman's New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman's book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business.

Then, in 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold, influencing (and misinforming) leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat

Globalization is so important to all of us that we need to become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned -- that success of US from the 1950's onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first--century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists (robber barons) kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalism creates, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which, in turn, would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong Global Middle Class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America's middle class heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic/trade agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than domestic businesses operating in their home country have. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples: 1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations. 2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent. 3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe 4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity. 5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors). 6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position. 7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies. 8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements). 9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods. 10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans). 11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)). 13.Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast -- the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade (good)” versus “protectionism (bad).” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say, adding that “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers' rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government's growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What's currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005). Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages, with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children for a whopping 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap--labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people's trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don't live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Of course, his daughter attends Yale, and there Friedman found more insights for planning our futures while munching pizza, “In October 2005, my wife and I went up to New Haven to attend parents’ weekend at Yale. We went out for a pizza lunch with our daughter and her roommates, and one roommate’s boyfriend. I sat across from the boyfriend, Eric Stern, who was getting a PhD from Yale in biomedical engineering, with an expertise in nanotechnology. Eric is precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.”

Eric’s father is a medical doctor and a science professor at Columbia. If only every kid in America had Eric’s background and advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe rarified air, Freidman tells ouir children to use their imaginations.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air in Chindia (China and India). The haves and have nots are growing further apart across the globe, in rich countries and poor. But, as Indian entrapeneur, Rajesh Jain, points out in the foreword to the book, Extreme Competition, in India there is great hope across the land. Just take microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2006 for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, Jain’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia (China and India) will take them global at Chindia prices —it’s called blowback (e.g. Tata's $2,200 car), and its being driven at the bottom of the pyramid, and not in the chrome and rosewood halls of the WTO or World Bank or Wall Street.

Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America -- Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8--10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s. By 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site (http://dorgan.senate.gov) to see the kind of legislation that’s needed to put America’s industrial policy on track: 1. Antisweatshop legislation--barring imports produced under internationally defined "sweatshop" conditions and holding companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize. 2. Free riders legislation--repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being "American" (government services and subsidies, the protection of the US military) while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country: jobs, economic investment and paying a fair share of the tax burden. 3. Legislation to Cap trade deficits--stopping the $800 billion a year hemorrhaging. These bills don't deal with every disorder of globalization, but they just could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And these bills are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz clearly pointed out in his book, Three Billion New Capitalists, China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not. 

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population.

Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right (it's hard to get "stories" wrong). But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And it's important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work [sarcasm intended] ... for example, if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh? We are all profiting from a record high stock market, right?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman's flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.

Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman's astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’ We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It's called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization have to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t tell cute stories about zippies, friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy. Thus, we hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat

Our message is “Wake up!” It’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and you cannot "outsource" your thinking on this subject to celebrity pundits.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that?

Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand's social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn't make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.