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Finished the World Is Flat

As I mentioned elsewhere, I finished The World is Flat.

First things first, I must call this a Whiggish [1] interpretation of the globalization of the world. There’s definitely a na?ve belief that things are getting better and will continue to do so, and, quite necessarily, they must continue to do so. Whether you will like this book hinges on your ability to tolerate such a perspective.

Whiggish attitude aside, what’s Friedman on about? Well, Friedman notices that during the years after 9/11 we may have missed the fact that it’s now incredibly easy to get data across the globe. For all intents and purposes data may be considered as equivalent to highly-liquid wealth, malleable power structures, and influence.

The first section denotes ten forces, foundation behaviours or technologies, that enabled a unique event: the triple convergence. Examples of ten forces would be: release of Windows as a standard platform, ubiquity of MS Office, the Open Source model of collaboration, global decision to pursue capitalism, etc.

This triple convergence is characterized by a single global playing field, business re-aligned to reap productivity benefits from technology, and more players than ever entered this singular playing space (from India, ex-USSR, China).

This makes for confusing times and we’re living through a sorting-out. Friedman gives a series of anecdotes that describe situations where “sorting out” is very difficult. A primary example was in Indiana where an Indian firm came in cheaper to implement the state’s unemployment (the irony gods are cruel and swift) program (an IT project). When the political fortunes shifted, the cheaper bid and the Indian company was kicked off in favor of a local firm. “Sorting out” who’s exploiting, who’s winning, and who’s losing is quite messy. The taxpayers lost (by paying more), the unemployed lost because additional services funding was allocated into a more expensive solution (versus community college stipend, say), the politicians seem to have won, but at what cost? These questions are bonded to the “sorting out”.

Friedman then tracks the relations to key players to this converged world. How will America, developing countries, companies, the aggregate global community relate to this space? Alternatively, it could be seen as how will these large institutions “sort themselves out” against the triple-converged world.

What drove me to buy the book was in an interview Friedman made a very interesting equivalence between disparate institutions. The collapse of geographic space makes it possible for IBM to sell its entire personal computer operation (Lenovo); Dell to pull parts from Israel, Malaysia, and China for a computer built and shipped in Taiwan; and Osama bin Laden to harvest capital from Saudi / American / Jordanian / Syrian backers while sitting in a cave. Friedman notes that an incredibly powerful genie is out, but which way it will steer: to our end or to our transcendence, is yet to be determined.

Friedman also asserts that the US had done a piss-poor job of growing its bench strength or building a culture where intellectual achievement is celebrated: “In China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears, in America Britney Spears is Britney Spears.” I’m no Indian culture specialist, but when I think about the yoga (discipline) of acting with “proper intention” in one’s work as a cultural foundation, I have no doubt their culture produces more people focused on others' success (key in a services-based economy) and their personal improvement than we do here.

Friedman also makes an assertion that I would not have associated with a Whiggish, pro-capitalist author. He rightly gives Marx credit for foreseeing globalization’s net effect: everyone turns into a wage-slave in the factory. Marx was only wrong in pinning phenomenon to the factory age versus the information age.

By ‘blessing’ Marx’s (arguably Hegel’s) working of history, Friedman gives credence to the central theses of Hardt and Negri’s Empire, which predicts that after corporations supersede nation-states in right to sovereignty ( and to what extent is Microsoft an American company versus American politicians beholden to Microsoft?) and everyone becomes a wage-slave, then the time is right for The Communist Revolution.

Friedman doesn’t envision the future in his book as much as explain “up to this point”. After all, the man is a journalist, not a philosopher or an economist. I should think it a worthwhile experience for him, or some other writer, to take his book as foundation and then ask. I see Empire as a pro-Marxist interpretation of “What happens after the world goes flat”; the side of capital needs to explain how it proceeds.

And speaking of “foundation” - it’s fascinating to me that all these realities of supply lines, cultural imperialism, etc. were all worked out in science fiction a half-century ago by Isaac Asimov in his brilliant Foundation short stories. Asimov said all these concepts were obvious is reading Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. If we know our history, we’ll know where we’re going.

Nevertheless, the book was accessible, macroeconomic, and cogent. I’d highly recommend reading it.

Here are some key quotes I scribbled in the book notebook:

  • Government funding for science via the NSF has fallen 37% between 70-04 thus requiring us to import engineers from India, China, etc. Why does the government not consider a strong scientific bench important?

  • Chinese leadership is made of engineers, not lawyers. They do not seek the embarrassment line to get a one-up on the other guy. They are united in the pursuit of Chinese ascension. (Do the Chinese spin? Is that possible or necessary w/o a free press?)

  • Mexico and Egypt (huge unemployment, cheap mfg.) are getting undercut by CHINA. The virgin of Guadalupe statuettes for sale on the side of the road in the barrio were born in China.

  • Countries w/o natural resources are more likely to flourish, because they must! (cf. Asimov’s Foundation) Taiwan, HK, S. Korea, China

  • China is not focused on beating Mexico, they’re focused on beating America

  • “The question is not why am I selling X to my competitor so he can sell me higher-value Y which uses X as a component, but how can I sell more X to him? - Modeled on a quote by E. Zedillo

  • Out of clutter, find simplicity / From discord, find harmony / In the middle of difficulty, find opportunity - Einstein

  • The Islamic dissonance:

    • We practice the true faith

    • The infidels' lands prosper, we are poor, unemployed

    • Which to choose? Either Allah is not great, or we’re being punished

  • Spain’s GDP > Sum GDPs of the Middle East

  • Ironically the West’s success is rooted in the tolerant, scientific, trade based model begotten by Muslim Spain. Go OPEN!

  • The hijackers saw the tall buildings of NYC and wanted to knock them down because they could not be tall themselves

  • No Indian Muslims in Guantanamo, part of 9/11 - India is highly prosperous in comparison to ME, no coincidence

Here are some thoughts I had:

In capital’s eyes, all boundaries are inefficiencies: paying duty, weigh-in, sorting, filing, religious proscription of stem-cells.

It is the codex of the boundaries that creates the non-flat world. Ultimately the question is which inefficiencies - cultural, religious, etc. will we choose to prune.

In a world with non-standard morals, those that refrain from moving to the profit maximizing opportunity will have their financial backs broken. Ultimately immorality will be encouraged, or moral convenience will be celebrated for the sake of the bottom line.

Europeans are forced to modify their work week to American (better, Indian) model. If you make Rome hustle and bustle like NYC, is it still Rome, is it still Italian? Will some places profit by saying “here we are inefficient” - will those be our vacation spots?

There is schizophrenia in the Republican party. Which values must be forsaken. It’s possible to see the teamsters and the evangelicals teaming together for a ‘small worlder’ party. Jesus and jobs are more important than….

The ‘big world’ party. The .com liberals of Silicon Valley join with the Free Market ideologues of the Libertarian-ish Republicans….

Where is the left’s schizophrenia? Has it already been forced historically or is it yet-to be forced?

  1. By Whiggish I mean in the sense of Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History which is marked (chiefly) by it’s tendency to see all of history unfolding as a necessary series of improvements to society. BACK