How Thomas Friedman gets it wrong about globalization. An excerpt from How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008).
Published in Dollars & Sense.
Turn on the TV and flip to a C-SPAN or CNN discussion of the global economy and you are likely to spot the square head and mustachioed face of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who probably will be expressing enthusiasm for the business world’s newest high-tech innovations. With his best-selling book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman stepped forward in the late 1990s as a leading cheerleader of neoliberal globalization. Then, in the wake of 9/11, he made common cause with White House militarists. He became a high-profile “liberal hawk” and supported the war in Iraq—only to distance himself later in the Bush era and return to championing corporate expansion with a second widely read book on globalization, The World Is Flat. For better or for worse, his punditry provides an indispensable guide to how mainstream commentators have tried to defend neoliberalism in the face of challenges from worldwide social movements. Moreover, Friedman’s renewed emphasis on corporate globalization in the wake of the botched war in Iraq may also be a significant bellwether for how the Democratic Party-especially the more conservative “New Democrat” wing of the party-crafts a vision for international relations after Bush.
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You Can’t Stop the Dawn
In Friedman’s view, the end of the Cold War left the world with a single, unassailable ideology. “Globalization,” he wrote, “means the spread of free market capitalism to every country in the world.” He saw this as an unmitigated good: “[T]he more you open your economy to free trade and competition, the more efficient and flourishing your economy will be.” He marveled that “computerization, miniaturization, digitization, satellite communications, fiber optics, and the Internet” were bringing about untold wonders.
Friedman’s conversion into the church of corporate expansion took place over many years. His academic training is not in economics, but in Middle Eastern studies. During the 1980s, Friedman was a respected New York Times correspondent in Israel and Lebanon, winning two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting from the region. In 1994, just at the beginning of the Internet boom, he switched to a beat covering the intersection of politics and economics, and his excitement for globalization began to mount in earnest. By the time he became the Times‘ foreign affairs columnist the following year he was perfectly positioned to evangelize about how unregulated markets and new technology were reshaping global affairs.
Friedman purported to be even-handed, willing to look at the “dark side” of globalization. But any bits of darkness he found were flooded out by his blinding zeal for technological innovation. In his world, “Horatio Alger is not a mythical character but sometimes your next-door neighbor, who just happened to get hired as an engineer at Intel or America Online when they were getting started and ended up being paid in stock options that are now worth $10 million.” Evidence that might suggest a less rosy picture rarely entered into Friedman’s field of vision.
Aware that many people saw him as a modern-day Pangloss extolling the best of all possible worlds, Friedman contended in The Lexus and the Olive Tree that he was “not a salesman for globalization.” But this is precisely what he was. More than any other public personality he was responsible for portraying neoliberalism as an inevitable and laudable march of progress. “I feel about globalization a lot like I feel about the dawn,” he wrote. “[E]ven if I didn’t care much for the dawn there isn’t much I could do about it. I didn’t start globalization, I can’t stop it-except at a huge cost to human development.” By defining “globalization” as a broad, sweeping phenomenon—political, economic, technological, and cultural-he saw resistance as ridiculous. So when massive protests erupted at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in late 1999, he disgustedly derided the demonstrators as “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions and yuppies looking for their 1960’s fix.”
You might think that the deflating of the dot-com bubble that began in March 2000 would have quelled Friedman’s fervor, but you would be wrong. In Friedman’s view, the end of the 1990s boom only led to more advancement. “[T]he dot-com bust,” he later wrote, “actually drove globalization into hypermode by forcing companies to outsource and offshore more and more functions in order to save on scarce capital.” Friedman’s cheerleading, too, would go into “hypermode,” but not before the columnist took a detour to become one of the country’s most prominent liberal hawks in the wake of 9/11. When Friedman did return to the subject of economic globalization with his 2005 book, The World Is Flat, he was once again wowed. Over the course of just a few years, he concluded, “we entered a whole new era: Globalization 3.0.”
Fueled now by wireless technology and ever-smaller microchips, this wave of capitalism was “shrinking the world from a size small to a size tiny and flattening the playing field at the same time.” Hospitals in the United States were sending CAT scans to India for analysis; other corporations opened bustling call centers there to handle customer service calls, training their new South Asian employees to speak in American accents; globetrotting columnists could file their stories from the middle of a golf course in China by using their Blackberries. The march of progress was back on.
Friedman is known for conveying complicated ideas through the use of colorful metaphors. Yet his metaphors consistently get so mixed and muddled as to require delicate linguistic untangling. In the course of his two books on globalization, Friedman goes from seeing the world in 3-D to, remarkably enough, seeing in at least six dimensions. Technological advance, he tells us, has now accelerated so much that we have gone through Globalization version 1.0, version 2.0, and entered version 3.0. Friedman presents ten “flatteners,” four “steroids,” and a “triple convergence,” plus at least seven releases of “DOScapital.” Various steroids and flatteners are meant to have multiplied globalization’s effects exponentially. Journalist Matt Taibbi, who has written the most cutting analysis of Friedman’s peculiar language, notes, “Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.”
If ever Orwell’s warnings that “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” and that the world’s “present political chaos is connected with the decay of language” apply, it is to Friedman. The connection between Friedman’s hazy writing and his suspect conclusions about the global economy shows up even in the very premise of his second book on globalization. During a meeting between Friedman and Nilekani in Bangalore, the Infosys CEO offers that “the playing field is being leveled.” For Friedman, the tired cliché is a revelation. He mulls it over for hours and then, suddenly, decides: “My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!”
Now, it is quite a stretch to take a most routine sports metaphor and superimpose it on global geography—and it is not clear that Nilekani would want credit for such a feat. But not only is Friedman’s interpretation of this conversation suspect, there could be few worse metaphors for talking about a global system that is more integrated and networked than ever before. After all, a flat planet is notoriously treacherous to circumnavigate. It is one where, in order to get from Los Angeles to China, you have to travel east past the Atlantic and then over the whole Eurasian mainland, because trying to cross the Pacific Ocean would mean sailing off the edge of the world.
“Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms,” Taibbi argues. Nilekani off-handedly mentions a level field and Friedman attributes to him the radical idea of a flat world. “This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing ‘launch’ instead of ‘lunch’ in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.”
It would all be funny if it didn’t mask a deeper political problem: For the world’s poor, the playing field is far from level. Our world is not flat.
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Putting on Reagan’s Jacket
With the ideology of neoliberalism steadily losing ground in international discussion, it is important to see how a leading apologist mounts a defense. In Friedman’s case, he does so by holding on to dogmatic assumptions, training his sights on high technology, conducting his interviews largely within the insular world of jet-setting corporate elites, and ignoring a world of evidence that would contradict his selective viewpoint. Some reviewers have applauded Friedman for acknowledging negative aspects of globalization in his books. But for Friedman, this does not mean looking at the realities of exploitation or environmental destruction that have resulted from corporate expansion. Instead, his caveats boil down to two points: that terrorists, too, can use the Internet, and that many countries, especially in “unflat” Africa, are too backward to read the signs that would put them on the high tech, “free trade” superhighway to prosperity. With regard to the latter, it’s not that anything is wrong really, only that the process has not gone far enough and fast enough for everyone to benefit yet.
Needless to say, Friedman’s is hardly a biting exposé. As it turns out, his lack of concern about the busting of the dot-com bubble is typical. In fact, it is virtually impossible to find any evidence that might make him skeptical about the fundamental greatness of corporate globalization. In 1999, even Business Week argued “The Asian financial crisis of 1997-99 shows that unfettered liberalization of capital markets without proper regulation can lead the world to the brink of disaster.” But for Friedman this crisis, too, was all for the best. He writes, “I believe globalization did us all a favor by melting down the economies of Thailand, Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia and Brazil in the 1990s, because it laid bare a lot of the rotten practices and institutions in countries that had prematurely globalized.”
He slams the countries for corruption and cronyism, suggesting that they deserved their fates. But by “prematurely globalized” he does not mean that these countries should have been more cautious about linking their fates to speculative international markets. Rather, he believes that they had not done enough to “reduce the role of government” and “let markets more freely allocate resources.” Friedman’s solution to the dangers of unregulated markets is more deregulation, the remedy for the excesses of unfettered capitalism is even more excess. The argument is airtight.
Missing from this account, of course, is any sense of the social impact of the crisis. In the end, wealthy foreign investors were bailed out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and lost little. The real losers were untold number of middle-class families in places like Thailand and Korea whose savings were wiped out overnight, as well as the poor in places like Indonesia who went hungry when the government cut food subsidies. It takes a very twisted viewpoint to say that the Asian financial crisis did these people a favor.
Friedman holds that the Internet age has created a “flat” world with opportunity for all. Yet he freely admits that the system he describes is founded on the Reagan-Thatcher model of extreme, “trickle down” neoliberalism. This happens to be one of the most unequal methods of distributing social goods ever devised. Friedman writes: “Thatcher and Reagan combined to strip huge chunks of economic decision-making power from the state, from the advocates of the Great Society and from traditional Keynesian economics, and hand them over to the free market.” Countries now have one choice for economic policy: neoliberalism. They must radically deregulate and privatize their economies. Friedman calls this the “Golden Straightjacket.” It’s “golden” because the model supposedly creates widespread affluence. But it’s a “straightjacket” because it radically constricts democracy.
Sounding a lot like Ralph Nader in 1999, Friedman writes:
“Once your country puts [the Golden Straightjacket] on, its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke-to slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy, slight alterations in design… but never any major deviation from the core golden rules. Governments-be they led by Democrats or Republicans, Conservatives or Labourites, Gaullists or Socialists, Christian Democrats or Social Democrats-that deviate too far away from the core rules will see their investors stampede away, interest rates rise, and stock market valuations fall.”
The difference between Friedman and Nader is that the New York Times columnist approves of this situation. He does not condemn it as an assault on democracy; he says it’s just the way things are. Of the Democrats, he writes, “Mr. Clinton effectively kidnapped the Democratic Party… moved it into the Republican economic agenda — including free trade, NAFTA and the WTO for China — while holding onto much of the Democrats’ social agenda.” Any Democrat who would try to move it back meets Friedman’s wrath. In the new global age, all those to the left of Ronald Reagan on economic policy are simply out of luck.
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Sitting On Top Of The World
Those being subjected to corporate globalization have good reason to ask if the straightjacket is golden after all. Friedman tells us, “Every law of economics tells us that if we… promote greater and greater trade and integration, the global pie will grow wider and more complex.” Putting aside the question of whether one would want to eat any pie that has been growing “more complex,” recent history has shown that economics is more complicated than neoliberal textbooks would suggest. In fact, Friedman’s contention that everyone benefits when countries bind themselves into market fundamentalism is based less on a careful review of the evidence than on blind faith. In July of 2006, he made a startling admission during a CNBC interview with Tim Russert. He said:
“We got this free market, and I admit, I was speaking out in Minnesota-my hometown, in fact, and a guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.”
That a nationally prominent columnist would gloat about such ignorance is a sad statement about the health of our political debate. “Free trade” is a pair of incredibly politicized words, with little concrete meaning. CAFTA (which actually stands for the Central American Free Trade Agreement) includes provisions designed to protect the monopoly rights of giant pharmaceutical companies rather than to create “free” commerce.
But the larger point is that neoliberalism does not make winners of everyone. Its global track record for producing GDP growth is dismal. In fact, its main accomplishment may be to produce inequality. Today the gap between the world’s rich and poor has widened to obscene proportions. A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research reported that, in 2000, the richest one percent of adults worldwide owned 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and the richest 10 percent possessed a full 85 percent. The bottom half, on the other hand, owns scarcely one percent of global wealth. In terms of income, those at the top are raking in a far greater share than before neoliberalism. In 1980, the average CEO in the United States earned 42 times the salary of his average worker. By 2001, the average CEO made 411 times as much.
Friedman’s own position amid this global divide is telling. He regularly represents himself as just an average guy from Minnesota trying to make sense of the world. The real picture is far from average. In July 2006, the Washingtonian magazine reported that in the 1970s Friedman married into one of the 100 richest families in America-the Bucksbaums-who have amassed a fortune worth some $2.7 billion, with origins in real estate development. The magazine noted that he lives in “a palatial 11,400-square-foot house, now valued at $9.3 million, on a 7.5-acre parcel just blocks from I-495 and Bethesda Country Club.” Given that the uber-rich, those with huge stock portfolios and investments in multinational corporations, have benefited tremendously from corporate globalization, commentators like David Sirota have suggested that Friedman’s vast wealth represents an undisclosed conflict of interest in his journalism—it is as if multimillionaire Richard Mellon Scaife were to write about the repeal of the estate tax without revealing that he stands to profit handsomely from such a policy change.
Whether or not that is the case, Friedman’s position at the very pinnacle of global prosperity is certainly reflected in his view of the world. He relates early in The Lexus and the Olive Tree that his “best intellectual sources” about globalization are hedge fund managers. This is a telling admission. Hedge funds are elite, largely unregulated investment pools that handle money for individuals of extremely high net worth. Their managers are among the highest paid individuals in the United States. In 2006, the top 25 hedge fund managers in the country made in excess of $240 million each. This means they each pulled in $27,000 per hour, 24-hours per day, whether waking or sleeping, whether at the office or teeing off on the ninth hole at the country club. Corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers may indeed be well informed about certain aspects of the global economy. But if that is where you get your information, you end up with a very partial view of the world. You get the winner’s view.
In an eloquent critique of The World Is Flat, Indian eco-feminist Vandana Shiva writes:
“Friedman has reduced the world to the friends he visits, the CEOs he knows, and the golf courses he plays at. From this microcosm of privilege, exclusion, blindness, he shuts out both the beauty of diversity and the brutality of exploitation and inequality…
“That is why he talks of 550 million Indian youth overtaking Americans in a flat world. When the entire information technology/outsourcing sector in India employs only a million out of a 1.2 billion people. Food and farming, textiles and clothing, health and education are nowhere in Friedman’s monoculture of mind locked into IT. Friedman presents a 0.1 percent picture and hides 99.9 percent… In the eclipsed 99.9 percent are the 25 million women who disappeared in high growth areas of India because a commodified world has rendered women a dispensable sex. In the hidden 99.9 percent economy are thousands of tribal children in Orissa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan who died of hunger because the public distribution system for food has been dismantled to create markets for agribusiness.”
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A Race to the Top?
The corporate globalization that Friedman champions has alarming changes in store not just for the poor of the global South, but also for working people in the United States and Europe. One of the things that Friedman particularly lauds about Reagan and Thatcher is their success in breaking unions. He writes: “it may turn out that one of the key turning points in American history, going into the millennium, was Ronald Reagan’s decision to fire all the striking air traffic controllers in 1981. No single event,” he notes with satisfaction, “did more to alter the balance of power between management and workers.” Echoing the trickle-down, Reaganite logic, he argues that everyone wins from this since “[t]he easier it is to fire workers, the more incentive employers have to hire them.” Because America busted its unions and Western European countries did not, he contends, the U.S. developed a more dynamic economy.
What Friedman fails to note is that real wages for working people in the U.S. have been largely stagnant since the early 1970s, while working hours have skyrocketed. When compared with workers in Western Europe, the average American works 350 hours more per year, the equivalent of nine extra weeks. A study by the International Labor Organization reported that in 2000 the average U.S. worker put in 199 more hours than in 1973. Dramatizing such realities, a group of union and nonprofit activists now observe “Take Back Your Time Day” every October 24. On that day, if the U.S. workload were on par with the rest of the industrialized world, Americans would have the rest of the year off.
Friedman utters not a word of protest about the trend toward more work; in fact, he celebrates it. He argues that European social democracies are obsolete, even though they are successful capitalist countries. These nations are running on the wrong version on “DOScapital,” Friedman contends, and need to shift to U.S. standards. Never mind that economies like Sweden’s have performed very well over the past decade, all while maintaining a much higher quality of life for their citizens.
He has a special hatred for the French, who, he writes, “are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day.” In what he calls a “race to the top,” Friedman predicts a turbulent decade for Western Europe, as
“aging, inflexible economies—which have grown used to six-week vacations and unemployment insurance that is almost as good as having a job—become more intimately integrated with Eastern Europe, India and China in a flattening world… The dirty little secret is that India is taking work from Europe or America not simply because of low wages. It is also because Indians are ready to work harder and can do anything from answering your phone to designing your next airplane or car. They are not racing us to the bottom. They are racing us to the top…. Yes, this is a bad time for France and friends to lose their appetite for hard work—just when India, China and Poland are rediscovering theirs.”
It is unclear what Friedman sees as getting to the “top” if paid vacations, unemployment insurance, and retirement-benefits traditionally regarded as signs of a civilized economy-must be sacrificed. In The World Is Flat, he approvingly quotes a Microsoft “team member” in China describing his group of recruits: “They voluntarily work fifteen to eighteen hours a day and come in on weekends. They work through holidays, because their dream is to get to Microsoft.”
That Indian and Chinese workers are willing to sell themselves into bondage for Microsoft, of course, is a dubious sign of global progress. But, Friedman tells us, that is the new reality. His recipe for success in this climate is to “work harder, save more, sacrifice more.” To what end is unclear. Bumper stickers remind us that the activists of the labor movement were the “folks that brought you the weekend.” In Friedman’s account, corporate globalization is the force that will take it away. Yet we are supposed to be happy about it.
Ultimately, the “race to the top” is another of Friedman’s botched metaphors. In the long-standing progressive argument that corporate globalization creates a “race to the bottom,” it is not Indians or Chinese workers that are doing the racing at all. It’s capital. Deregulation allows corporations to wander the globe in search of ever lower wages and environmental standards. The moment workers stand up for their rights, refusing to tolerate a “35-hour day,” a company can pick up and move elsewhere. The governments that might curb such abuses are in straightjackets. The unions that workers might have organized themselves into have been busted. All Friedman can offer is this cryptic and seemingly masochistic advice: “When the world goes flat-and you are feeling flattened-reach for a shovel and dig into yourself. Don’t try to build walls.”
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Globalization From Below
An interesting aspect of Friedman’s renewed focus on corporate globalization at the end of the Bush era is that governments and international financial institutions have faded from his picture of the integrating world. Even corporations are becoming less relevant. In his view, the new era of “Globalization 3.0” is all about individuals. Today, it is up to all people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. He writes, “every person now must, and can, ask: Where do I as an individual fit into the global competition and opportunities of the day, and how can I, on my own, collaborate with others globally?”
Conveniently enough, accepting this idea makes it impossible to oppose neoliberalism. In a world of extreme individualism, no one in particular is responsible for setting the rules of the world order. It is pointless to protest governments or international financial institutions. Globalization is unstoppable because people want it.
In truth, these arguments are not new. With scant evidence, Friedman has long claimed that there is a “groundswell” of people throughout the developing world demanding corporate globalization. Of course, the massive protests of the past decade would seem to contradict his assertion. But he does not see this as a problem. He dismisses global justice activism by arguing, “from its origins, the movement that emerged in Seattle was primarily a Western-driven phenomenon.” The backlash that does exist in poorer countries, he argues, is not rational politics but simple lawlessness: “what we have been seeing in many countries, instead of popular mass opposition to globalization, is wave after wave of crime-people just grabbing what they need, weaving their own social safety nets and not worrying about the theory or the ideology.” In the end, Friedman seems ideologically incapable of accepting that people in the global South could organize their own movements or articulate a coherent politics of resistance.
Today, with much of the world in open rebellion against neoliberalism, this fiction is getting harder and harder to maintain. That Friedman has perpetually failed to spot the vibrant network of grassroots organizations that has built a worldwide campaign against the Washington Consensus is not a sign of widespread support for corporate globalization. It is an indictment of his reporting. Well before Seattle, there had been protests of millions of people throughout the global South against the “Golden Straightjacket.”
These have continued into the new millennium. In their book, Globalization From Below, authors Jeremy Brecher, Tim Costello, and Brendan Smith note that in just a two-month period, in May and June of 2000, there were six general strikes against the impact of neoliberalism. In India, as many as 20 million farmers and workers struck, protesting their government’s involvement with the WTO and the IMF. Twelve million Argentineans went on strike in response to fiscal austerity policies imposed by the IMF. Nigeria was paralyzed by strikes against neoliberal price hikes on fuel. South Koreans demanded a shorter workweek and the full protection of part-time and temporary employees by the country’s labor laws. Finally, general strikes in South Africa and Uruguay protested increasing unemployment rates, which resulted from IMF austerity policies. All of these escaped Friedman’s notice.
In truth, they are only suggestions of wider resistance. The people of Latin America have certainly not joined the groundswell of support for neoliberal ideology. In country after country they have ousted conservative governments since 2000 and elected more progressive leaders, redrawing the region’s political map. The columnist has yet to comment.
There is a way in which Friedman perfectly matches the politics of our times. “Like George Bush, he’s in the reality-making business,” Matt Taibbi argues. “You no longer have to worry about actually convincing anyone; the process ends when you make the case. Things are true because you say they are. The only thing that matters is how sure you sound when you say it.”
As much as he might resemble Bush in this respect, however, Friedman also tells us something important about the post-Bush moment. As a new administration takes over, an increasing number of politicians will seek to move the United States away from the aggressive militarism of imperial globalization and back toward a softer approach to ruling the world. Following Friedman, many will look to revitalize corporate globalization as a model for international affairs.
This is especially a danger within the Democratic Party. Never admitting their own complicity in the war, politicians from the more conservative branch of the Party will talk about the damage Bush has done and the importance of restoring our traditional alliances. These “New Democrats” will promise a fresh approach to foreign affairs. But really, they will return to something old: a Clintonian model of corporate globalization. Like Friedman, many will proclaim it as the best of all possible worlds, a global order both exciting and unavoidable. It will be up to the world’s citizens to demand something better.
Photo credit: Charles Haynes / Wikimedia Commons.