The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Friedman
Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times. So, he gets to talk with lots of people around the world from the most senior government officials to academics to business leaders. His book The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (1999) is recognized as one of the definitive books in describing globalization and its effects and implications on various populations. Fortune magazine also just profiled Friedman in an article called Rockin’ in a Flat World.
In his latest book, Friedman argues that a number of changes have conspired in the late 1990’s to define start a new chapter in human history which opened at the dawn of the twenty-first century. He argues that 10 forces (from Berlin Wall coming down on 11/9/89 to the global Internet wiring to outsourcing/insourcing/offshoring to supply-chaining/workflow software to digital/mobile/personal/virtual revolutions) have created a new “flatter” world where it matters less where you live for your economic opportunities than any time in human history. In walks through how all of these changes have dramatic, change-the-rules implications about how we should think about the world.
He emphasizes how certain countries have benefited most from this flattening of the world – specifically India and China. He describes how countries like China have integrated themselves into the global supply chain and are continuing to advance up the value-added ladder from simple value-add to original design. He describes how India has (after opening its markets in the past 20 years) has unexpectedly become an IT development and services powerhouse.
“The World Bank reported that in 1990 there were roughly 375 million people in China living in extreme poverty, on less than $1 per day. By 2001, there were 212 million Chinese living in extreme poverty, and by 2015, if the trends hold, there will be only 16 million living on less than $1 a day. In South Asia – primarily India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – the numbers go from 462 million in 1990 … down to 431 million by 2001 and down to 216 million is 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, by contract, where globalization has been slow to take hold, there were 227 million … in 1990, 313 million in 2001 and an expected 340 million by 2015.” p. 315
Wow! What a contrast on the big picture impact of globalization.
Friedman also describes that forces which counteract this world “flattening” trend. There are still 3 billion people who are not connected to the new global economy. Africa is the single biggest block and much of Asia (including massive populations in India & China) and most of the Middle East are also “round” world economies. He suggests that 9/11 represents the opposite of 11/9 (the falling of the Berlin Wall). So, he describes a world where there are forces to flatten the world (globalization) which allow more people to join the world economy and move ahead economically. He then describes forces which are focused on “unflattening” the world. The unflattening forces fear the changes for various reasons but often because they are feeling left behind in the benefits of flattening.
One example he describes is the most recent national elections in India where the incumbent government was thrown out mainly by the rural vote. He interprets this vote not as an anti-globalization vote, but much more as a vote by the rural citizens that they too want to participate in the globalization benefits. The current Prime Minister of India is now implementing reforms intended to spread the wealth benefits of globalization more widely to the rural populations.
Friedman primarily focuses on the better off 3 billion people in the world and how the best educated and/or geographically privileged (e.g. those near ports where exports are booming) are now making gains that were once only possible if you lived in a developed country. So, poverty hawks may be frustrated by his lack of articulation of the deep challenges of those who are still born in the wrong “zip code” and don’t have access to infrastructure and education upon which they can have the opportunity to participate in the globalization wave. I think, though, that his observations about the positive aspects of globalization as an empowering and leveling opportunity for hundreds of millions (if not eventually billions) of the world’s poor are very helpful.