Friedman keeps describing his vision for a flat, unliveable world

Eric Garland Uncategorized Leave a Comment

Thomas Friedman is a still telling us all how flat the world is, describing how amazing it is that managers can hire anybody from anywhere at rock bottom prices or even just replace people altogether with a robot. His recommendations to the common people were detailed when I heard his live keynote on this subject: get a liberal arts education, be creative, invent your job, and by all means, don’t be average! Never mind the fact that his recommendations are ridiculous. Creative sociology majors are the winners in the new flat world? Please. But the really bothersome part is Friedman’s underlying assertion that we are all passive actors in this new flat world, and if we don’t like it, too bad: “What can be done, will be done.”

Stowe Boyd has picked up on this same weird, cruel theme, noting that Friedman repeatedly leaves out the major actors in the story, their free will, the implications, the repercussions, and the humanity in his piece “Friedman Blames the Victims, Once Again.”

Friedman is the amiable, avuncular front man for an avaricious and uncaring business culture. He dresses up the disaster that globalization has caused in the US, hollowing out the middle class and nearly ending manufacturing here, using high-minded rhetoric about the inevitable flattening of the world, casting it into as an immutable law of nature, like gravity or the tides.

Do not listen to his vague pronouncements, especially when his sentences are passive: he is leaving out the actors, the corporations, the wealthy, and the politicians of far-away countries, those that benefit from world flattening.

His message always comes back to this formula:

  1. The world is flat. [meaning, let’s pretend that globalization is not a choice, that it is a given, like the gas laws. Let’s not discuss the political and societal decisions made locally that enable globalization, or who benefits by globalizing.]
  2. Look at the way that some companies are benefiting from the flat world, and see what we can learn. [Here’s how businesses are cutting costs by moving work from western countries, like the US, to other places. Look at the money that can made! Let’s couch this in terms of efficiency and innovation, to make it more palatable. Forget the fact that these companies are polluting in faraway countries, working with governments that provide little or no health care or retirement investments for the faraway workers.]
  3. Blame the educational system and the lack of critical skills of the local workforce for the work going overseas. [Blame the victims, even when the jobs being created in China and elsewhere require no greater skills and often less skill than US workers possess. Make it seem like this is simply a fair marketplace for work, and those that are unemployed have no one to blame but themselves, so we have no moral obligation to do anything for them.]

I’m not certain that Friedman is that important an intellectual figure given the way his books are now mostly loose analyses strung together between anecdotes of conversations he has with cab drivers. His view of the tension between Muslim and Western values was predictive when it came out thirty years ago. Today, he seems to lack the insight and compassion necessary to understand where the flattening world is leading us.