The World is Round

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Monday, March 27, 2006

Book Review: "The World is Flat"

The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries brought a drastic increase in productivity, and standard of living. "The World is Flat," by Friedman, claims that we have entered a new era that is just as, or more, significant than the industrial revolution was 200 years ago. Friedman calls it, "Globalization 3.0," in which the world is becoming ever more integrated, connected, and interdependent.

Friedman attributes this flattening to some political, but mostly economic factors. He describes 10 key flatteners (some of which are much stronger than others such as "steriods"), ranging from the fall of the Berlin wall to "supply chaining," tells how they converged, and describes the innovative technologies involved that allowed the development, and access to previous undeveloped world markets. Just like the industrial revolution made physical strength no longer a competitive advantage, the flattening of the world makes physical location no longer an enabling or prohibiting factor. Individuals, corporations, and nations are finding themselves competing with, collaborating with, selling to, buying from, and employing people around the world. The global "playing field" is being leveled.

Most of the book is dedicated to describing how different countries, developing and developed, corporations, groups, and individuals can cope and/or take advantage of the opportunities that the flattening of the world presents. Friedman makes many credible arguments, and it is hard to disagree with most of them. They are well researched, and backed by first-hand interviews with well-known successful executives and intelligent minds from around the world. Despite the fact that Friedman's ethnocentrism rears its head throughout the book, and he tends to be biased at times, he makes a conscious effort to present/consider both sides of the story.

I found his analysis of America's current position in the "flat" world spot-on. The United States must not get complacent with it's current position in the world market, get off its high horse, and get back to some of the core strategies and values that got the U.S. to where it is today. Specifically, Friedman discusses at some length the "Quiet Crisis" that America is faced with. The "Quiet Crisis" refers to the fact that the United States has a shrinking information base in the fields of science and mathematics; many of the United States great minds are of the baby-boom generation and getting older, the percentage of college graduates in these fields is declining in comparison to China and India, and we are no longer attracting foreign students at the same rate to study domestically. The point is that we won't see the results of this decline until 20 years down the road, but by that time it will be too late.

The power to fix this problem lies in the hands of U.S. policy makers. Unless they recognize this problem and, like JFK, make science and mathematics a priority, the U.S. risks losing much business to rapidly developing countries that have already recognized this need and have put programs in place to satisfy it. Friedman compares this crisis to the way America confronted communism, "What this era has in common with the Cold War era, is that to meet the challenges of flatism requires as comprehensive, energetic, and focused a strategy as did meeting the challenge of communism."(p. 277) Another great quote, "The job of the politician in America, whether at the local, state, or national level, should be, in good part, to help educate and explain to people what world they are living in and what they need to do if they want to thrive within it."(p. 280) "Politicians can make us more fearful and thereby be disablers, or they can inspire us and thereby be enablers."(p. 283) Our current administration continues to be disablers to America's progress and uses fear, instead of information, to motivate their policy decisions.

Although "The World is Flat" is full of useful information and insightful comments, Friedman tends to simplify the world by focusing solely on the effects of economic factors. This fault is most evident when he discusses that he believes no two countries in the DELL global supply chain would go to war with each other. (This is very similar to his discussion in the Lexus and the Olive Tree when he says that no two countries with a McDonalds have ever gone to war with each other). I agree that economic interdependence can positively effect foreign relations, however, there are a myraid of other factors that are just as important. Take for example WWI and WWII. France and England were two of Germany's largest trading partners, yet war still occurred.

Another section of the "World is Flat" that I questioned was Friedman's discussion of the "disempowered" people of the world that are stuck between the flat and the un-flat world. Specifically, he discusses how he believes that the central reason for Muslim radicals and fundamentalists hatred of the West stems from their inability to access information and the resulting lack of opportunity. He overlooks years of war, invasions, the crusades, and other deep rooted factors that are much more influential on Muslim thinking than the "flattening" of the world. However, he still does present a credible argument by citing outside sources.

As I first starting reading The World is Flat I questioned whether the contents really deserved to be a book, as opposed to a long magazine piece. I thought that much of Friedman's book was intuitive and repetitive, but as time goes on, I realize how much quality information is packed within the 473 pages. I find myself quoting different elements and stories in the book to friends and colleagues all the time. I refer to what a great company UPS is, the problems the United States faces, and the threats that China and India pose to the U.S. Despite my earlier disagreements with a number of Friedman's points, I believe that it would be a mistake for anyone who wishes to understand the world around them and the economics of the 21st century, not to read this book. At the very least, "The World is Flat" will open the eyes of aging Americans and baby-boomers that have missed the boat when it comes to the latest innovations in communication and information sharing.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good. - Prof. Carr

1:15 PM  

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