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Thomas L Friedman: The World is Flat (2.0 edition)

I have been wanting to read The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century since I read The Lexus and the Olive Tree for one of my first MBA courses. Friedman is a big picture guy and he tells stories and communicates ideas with a real sense of energy and enthusiasm. I finally made the time to read the book over my holiday break and I am very glad I did. Though the book is somewhat repetitive, Friedman does an excellent job describing the current political, economic, social and technical landscape. By flat, Friedman means interconnected: a world without borders. In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman put forth a Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention. Over the course of his research, he discovered that no two countries had gone to war since both had opened McDonald’s franchises. He updated the theory in The World is Flat to The Dell Theory of Conflict Prevention which says that no two countries that are a part of the same global supply chain, like Dell’s, have gone to war with each other nor are they likely to. What makes this book a pleasure to read is Friedman’s overarching acumen which enables him to make these kind of high-level, Freakonomic-like observations and then condense and synthesize the complex ideas into an easy to consume theory.

Reading the book now amidst the 2008 presidential caucuses is particularly interesting. I could’ve sworn Giuliani was quoting from the book during the New Hampshire debate Saturday night. He spoke eloquently on the need to promote innovation by educating students in science and math and of becoming less dependent on foreign oil. Huckabee was on the same page by proposing to give “a billion-dollar bonus for the first person who can produce a car that can get 100 miles per gallon”. Friedman repeatedly bashes President Bush for using 9/11 to pursue an unwise agenda. Bush could and should have made becoming energy independent his man on the moon. What the president claims the war in Iraq can do for the liberation and democratization of the middle east, Friedman believes can better be accomplished by an energy independent United States. At once, oil-rich dictators would lose their wealth and power and would need to consider joining the flat world, which comes with standards that would elevate human rights conditions, pollution concerns, etc.

The flat world isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Friedman speaks at length on the dichotomy of flat-world forces and he puts them in the framework of 9/11 vs 11/9 (when the Berlin wall fell). Bin Laden and al-Qaeda employed flat-world tools and techniques to carry out the 9/11 attack. It is Friedman’s hope that those same tools are used for 11/9 activities, activities that are creative and imaginative and drive innovation.  Sadly it seems most of the presidential candidates are still working within a 9/11 framework and will perpetuate the exportation of fear, rather than hope – a Bush policy that Friedman continually bemoans.  Even worse some are still talking about “American jobs” and are wanting to build walls to protect American workers.  That kind of myopic thinking is just what India and China need to fly by us on their way to leading the global economy.

I don’t mean to frame Friedman’s book as overtly political: it is not. Anyone curious about globalization should read it as should all parents, educators, students, and (aspiring) business leaders.

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