Sunday, May 30, 2010

The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman

Review by Bill Doughty

“The Curse of Oil” is one of the final subchapters of the CNO-recommended The World is Flat - A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century.

Oil-rich regions of the world have the most fundamentalist, least democratic and most warlike countries. Friedman shows how political and religious leaders in these countries often substitute critical thinking and creativity with supersition and intolerance.

In a world of growing population and diminishing resources, Friedman plants the seeds for new ways of thinking about energy, education, economic competition and, ultimately, the environment...

The World Is Flat, first published in 2005, follows in the footsteps of Friedman's earlier works, especially The Lexus and the Olive Tree, and recalls the works of Alvin Toffler (Future Shock) and John Naisbitt (Global Paradox - the Bigger the World Economy, the More Powerful Its Smallest Players).

A flat world means a level playing field, with opportunities opening to every person on earth who is willing to meet the challenges of competition and innovation.

Friedman’s book is very typically first-person, has lots of examples from his family and, in his trademark style, includes travel vignettes and recent economics history lessons. His book is on the Navy Professional Reading Program's "Division Leaders Collection" of recommended titles.

He walks the reader through three phases of American history. The first he calls "Globalization 1.0," lasted from 1492 to 1800. Globalization 1.0 was characterized by power and muscle of individual countries, according to Friedman.

Globalization 2.0, he says, was an expansion of global integration through increased trade and opening of markets, thanks to steamship, trains, and the wiring of the world through phone lines and computers.

Now, he says, we're living in 3.0, where people - individuals - are empowered and pushed by "not horsepower, and not hardware, but software (and a) global fiber-optic network that has made us all next-door neighbors."

In The World is Flat, Friedman gives examples of the new wired globalization at work. At a McDonald's near Cape Girardeu, Mo., the person taking your order at the drive-through is actually at a call-center 900 miles away in Colorado Springs. If you call JetBlue to make a reservation, you might be speaking with a homemaker in Utah, working part time. Many of us have talked to a customer service representative who identifies himself as "Bob" or "Mike" but whose real name might be Rajendrakumar-prakash.

Friedman puts numbers to what we all suspect: 5,000 of Wal-Mart's 6,000 suppliers are from China. But the wires go both ways. On Oct. 17, it was announced that Wal-Mart had the winning bid ($1 billion) to purchase Trust-Mart, one of the biggest retail chains in China. This makes Wal-Mart one of the biggest retailers in the fastest growing market in the flattened world.

Friedman sees the globalization and leveling of the playing field less as a threat and more as an opportunity. More consumers may mean more investment by developing countries, not just in the world's economy, but also in world peace and dealing with the world's problems. We're all invested in the future, after all.

Friedman is not a blind optimist. He questions how globalization trends will impact cultures, fundamentalist religions, and nationalism.

He challenges Americans to address the erosion of mathematics, science and technology. Nearly one in five scientists and engineers in the United States is an immigrant, and foreign students now earn slightly more than half of U.S. doctorates in engineering.

Friedman tells his daughters - and all Americans - to do their homework, study and read!

He describes an eye-opening moment at one of India's huge outsourcing companies, Infosys, watching hundreds of employees. He stood `'at the gate observing this river of educated young people flowing in and out . . . They all looked as if they had scored 1600 on their SATs. . . . My eye kept . . . telling me . . . `Oh, my God, there are just so many of them, and they all look so serious, so eager for work. And they just keep coming, wave after wave.

How in the world can it possibly be good for my daughters and millions of other young Americans that these Indians can do the same jobs as they can for a fraction of the wages?'"

Everyone will not agree with Friedman's views, style, or premise, but he is right that we cannot ignore or stop the waves of change, the waves of history, or the realities of a world under “the curse of oil.”

The Navy's new professional reading program's list is packed with titles about history and, in the case of The World is Flat, books that put history - and current events - in context.