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A look through the pipe
on March 15, 2006
In "Slaugherhouse Five", Kurt Vonnegut introduced us to the Tralfamadoreans. These bizarre creatures said humans have a confined view of the world. It's as if we were sealed in a container, looking at the world down a long, narrow pipe. Thomas Friedman fits that description well in this book on how "globalisation" has developed over the past decade. Artfully portraying how large corporations are extending their reach around the globe, what he sees is intense and rewarding. What he misses is depressing and possibly calamitous. Although Friedman's sprightly style and unbounded enthusiasm is initially captiviating, a different feeling arises after you close the final page. The worst thing that can be said about this book is that everything Friedman says in it is true.
What is globalisation? Friedman sees it as technology spreading the wealth from industrialised to developing nations. Collapsing barriers, particularly "trade barriers" help promote economic development for both First and Third World countries. He proposes a ten step historical sequence of forces that promoted globalisation. These forces, in his view, enabled the spread of Western electronic technology, encouraging economic growth. From the fall of the Berlin Wall through "outsourcing" to utilise cheap labour, to wireless communication, these forces converged to give us a true "global village". It's more than widening the labour pool. Friedman cheers the idea of his taxes being done in Bangalore or CAT scans taken in Cape Cod being diagnosed in Melbourne. All that concerns Friedman is that the information be turned around overnight ready for delivery the next morning. He claims that the knowledge needed in New York is goading leaps in education to provide it in places like India and China. That "education" includes language-skill classes to enable "help-desk" staff sound more "American". The staff even adopt names like "Betty" or "Rob" to convince callers that they're "right next door" instead of ten thousand kilometres away.
While plodding through the extensive list of successful ventures around the planet, largely foster-parented by highly competitive high-tech US technology firms, you discern that he's quoting the same people repeatedly. Certain figures in India loom large, but it's hard to see how many of these new entrepreneurs are actually in the global market instead of building up their domestic economy. As you encounter these big players, it's hard not to see a top-heavy, unitarian structure emerging. Although these new firms are portrayed by Friedman as uniformly service agencies, the reader can't help but wonder if more Enrons are in the making. More collapses like that, which don't have to be triggered by fraud, will bring down many affiliated or dependent companies. Friedman argues that the international arrangement of "global supply chains" is so tightly integrated now that wars between states in that complex geopolitical structure have become impossible. But it doesn't take a war to collapse an economic bubble.
Friedman argues that his "bubble" will continue to grow, but takes but the merest peek at the societies underlying the inflationary process. We learn nothing of how widespread the technological advancements in the nations he visits are. In what he supposes is a glowing example, he makes a quick jaunt to an "untouchable" village in India, visiting a school teaching English and journalism. These people have little water, no sanitation and food is scarce. Are these the future "help desk" staff? Later, he laments the "quiet crisis" in the US where science and technology education is teetering. Nearly forty per cent of NASA's technical staff, he notes, is over 50 years old. Where will the replacements come from? India, China and Japan are already advancing in space programmes - a field where heavy rocketry and miniature electronics are necessities. And two of those nations possess nuclear weapons.
Friedman's glee at dispersing high-tech services around the globe totally ignores the many costs incurred. He thinks "outsourcing" is a "good thing" for the US economy because it will drive people to secure new talents. He likes having airline tickets electronically distributed. He extols the US business leaders promoting the "flat Earth" without noting that real wages are declining, wealth is being concentrated and skilled workers remain threatened over job security. He isn't aware of environmental issues being exacerbated by some of the factors he applauds. His rosy view of the world needs serious enlargement. Perhaps he might step along the hall at the New York Times and have a chat with his colleague Paul Krugman. He might actually learn something. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]