This is What Happens When the World is Flat

5 May ’05

Tom Friedman’s new book, The World is Flat, has really shaken me, and I haven’t read it yet. I read the excerpt in a recent Sunday Times and got the gist (the book is on order).

Publisher’s Weekly (from describes the book this way:

Before 9/11, New York Times columnist Friedman was best known as the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, one of the major popular accounts of globalization and its discontents. Having devoted most of the last four years of his column to the latter as embodied by the Middle East, Friedman picks up where he left off, saving al-Qaeda et al. for the close. For Friedman, cheap, ubiquitous telecommunications have finally obliterated all impediments to international competition, and the dawning “flat world” is a jungle pitting “lions” and “gazelles,” where “economic stability is not going to be a feature” and “the weak will fall farther behind.” Rugged, adaptable entrepreneurs, by contrast, will be empowered. The service sector (telemarketing, accounting, computer programming, engineering and scientific research, etc.), will be further outsourced to the English-spoken abroad; manufacturing, meanwhile, will continue to be off-shored to China. As anyone who reads his column knows, Friedman agrees with the transnational business executives who are his main sources that these developments are desirable and unstoppable, and that American workers should be preparing to “create value through leadership” and “sell personality.” This is all familiar stuff by now, but the last 100 pages on the economic and political roots of global Islamism are filled with the kind of close reporting and intimate yet accessible analysis that have been hard to come by. Add in Friedman’s winning first-person interjections and masterful use of strategic wonksterisms, and this book should end up on the front seats of quite a few Lexuses and SUVs of all stripes.

That any of this would happen is not a surprise to anyone who follows outsourcing and offshoring. What has been a surprise is the speed at which it has happened, and the immediacy of the devastation it is likely to cause to the livelihoods of many middle class North Americans as it makes its way through our economies. During the 70’s and 80’s much of the manufacturing sector in North America, and the blue collar employment that it provided, was moved offshore, and our economies tried to restructure to adapt. That’s a difficult proposition at the best of times for blue collar workers in their 40’s or 50’s, but much of the rest of North America sat back and watched the damage done on the evening news, tsk-tsked the problems through supper, and went to their middle class service sector jobs the next day with the problem entirely forgotten.

It can’t happen to us. Is that why we watched, and tsk-tsked, but largely did nothing? Did we think – it’s a blue collar problem – it’s not a middle-class problem. It can’t happen to us …

Well, the message of Friedman’s book is that it can happen to “us”, and it will, and it already has, and there is very little time to adapt. He covered one of the problems we have in adapting in another recent column about our education systems, and how woefully far behind they have fallen:

There is a real sense of urgency in India and China about “catching up” in talent-building. America, by contrast, has become rather complacent. “People go to Shanghai or Bangalore and they look around and say, ‘They’re still way behind us,’ ” Mr. Hagel said. “But it’s not just about current capabilities. It’s about the relative pace and trajectories of capability-building.

“You have to look at where Shanghai was just three years ago, see where it is today and then extrapolate forward. Compare the pace and trajectory of talent-building within their population and businesses and the pace and trajectory here.”

India and China know they can’t just depend on low wages, so they are racing us to the top, not the bottom. Producing a comprehensive U.S. response – encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy – to focus on developing our talent in a flat world is a big idea worthy of a presidency. But it would also require Mr. Bush to do something he has never done: ask Americans to do something hard.

There is opportunity, of course. But there is also great danger. Can we react? Can we adapt? Will we be ready?

I’m inclined to think it is already too late – and I wonder about the children of today, and how well we are going to be able to equip them to lead productive and secure lives.

And so, what are we prepared to do now? Are we prepared “to do something hard”? Or is it just time to change the channel?

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