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Customer Review

229 of 251 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Why should we read this?, September 17, 2005
This review is from: The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Hardcover)
Tom Friedman is a well connected journalist. His columns appear on the op-ed pages of the New York Times and his previous works LONGITUDES AND ATTITUDES and THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE are part of the "conventional wisdom" of most American decision makers. This new book, THE WORLD IS FLAT will also find its way into the "conventional wisdom." Unfortunately, it is at best a misdiagnosis of the factors that have lead to the ability to substitute labor across geographical boundaries. However, although it is as wrong as could be, many of our power elites will read or hear of this, and will base their decisions on the assumption that this book contains the truth. The reason that you should read it is that it is conventional wisdom and you are perhaps better off understanding this and how it is wrong.

Friedman's explanation is a simple one - the world has transformed from a three dimensional phenomenon, a sphere, to a two dimensional flat plane where there are no entry barriers into the labor market. So, a radiologist in Boston can be easily substituted for a radiologist in Bangalore. Oh, how it would be nice if it were this simple. But alas it is not. Friedman, I believe, is well intentioned, but he mistakenly believes that he can find the truth through anecdotes. So, his empirical evidence comes from stories of things that he does not understand instead of the use of reliable demographic and economic databases.

He believes that 10 exogenous forces can explain how "the world became flat." While doing this, he solely looks at the labor market and ignores the effects of the consumer, monetary, raw material/energy, and fixed investment markets. He cannot distinguish between a symptom and a cause. These 10 forces that he claims changed the labor markets are not causes but merely symptoms.

Friedman is a name dropper par excellence, and rubs elbows with the elite. Unfortunately for him, he cannot detect competence or incompetence. One reason that this book will not age well is that when he wrote it in 2004 he was rubbing elbows with the incompetent elites such as Carly Fiorina who botched the merger between Compaq and Hewlett Packard and Nobuyuki Idei, the incompetent chairman of Sony. He praises these folks to win their favor, but reading this in 2005, demonstrates how little he knows.

A major problem that Friedman ignores is the inability of any government to impartially referee our global economy. No country has good corporate governance laws, and the US is becoming increasing unable to protect both intellectual and physical property rights. This problem creates new barriers and instead of flattening the world, it adds new walls and new traps. Poor corporate governance promotes crony capitalism and not the meritocracy capitalism that Friedman thinks it is supporting. Just look at the disconnect between executive pay and performance as evidence that many incompetent corporate chieftains are keeping their jobs and continuing to make poor decisions. American law is ineffective, the inability to sentence Health South's Scrushy shows that Sarbanes Oxley is not working, and the inability to put Ken Lay, Michael Eisner, and Michael Ovitz in prison shows how little protection the share holders have. Things are worse in China, India, and Japan where "transparency" is not even a part of the vocabulary.

The book is filled with inconsistency. It derides the inflexibility of the European welfare state, but calls for an American safety net to protect those from globalization. He calls for the enactment of "Hillary care" but cannot explain the reason that it failed passage in 1993. He praise the Asian "rote learning" systems, but later on calls on American youth to think unconventionally. He is calling on the federal government to do contradictory things such as keep minimum wages and promote market efficiency.

America's increasing indebtedness is not given one sentence in this book. Not only are jobs being exported to Southeast Asia, but claims and control on American assets are also being transferred. Increasingly, the important capital allocations in America will be directed by foreign executives who will be even less accountable than the Bernie Ebbers and the Ken Lays.

In short, Friedman is not qualified to write on this topic, but like the incompetent overpaid executive that he hangs with, he will be over paid and over read. At best, we might be able to profit if we understand how this "conventional wisdom" is wrong and then short sell the companies whose leaders make bad decisions based on this wrong analysis.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 12, 2008 8:28:23 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Mar 12, 2008 8:28:43 PM PDT
Among his inconsistencies, I love how he praises people who work 14-15 hours a day and on weekends, while calling for us to be well-rounded and good, attentive parents. Maybe he doesn't sleep, and has extra time to fit in his practice with his chamber music ensemble.

Posted on Aug 2, 2009 6:50:41 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 2, 2009 6:51:39 PM PDT
Dimitri says:
I like Friedman's other books, and intend to read this one, but I really liked Ralf Bradley's review. Regardless of the number of stars, it was interesting to read and informative.

Posted on May 8, 2011 10:41:19 AM PDT
Torofresco says:
I only wanted to say that you summarized 99% of my thoughts about The World is Flat, and Tom Friedman in general, with your 1-star review. Anecdote-obsessed, prone to sweeping journalistic narratives with no basis in causality, providing incomplete (or simply not reporting) details when things get complicated (as you noted about his tendency to focus on the development of macro concepts like outsourcing through the eyes of an overpaid/underqualified CEO, as though that were the optimal perspective), Friedman tells stories that put global events in an optimistic light that end up being cherubic and false.

... And regarding globalization, I'm one of the biggest optimists I know. But that doesn't mean I ignore the negative or difficult aspects that come with all this global change. Friedman seems to choose to ignore, or at best gloss over, the harder truths about the new globalized world. I find that the greatest disservice Friedman does in his account of globalization is the lack of any substantial discussion on blue-collar jobs and public service careers (e.g., teachers, officers), given his penchant for focusing on labor markets (as you mentioned in your review). There is significant backlash from all of this unchecked international outsourcing by corporations in our domestic labor market, with corporate union-bashing expanding to government-sponsored union-bashing; with exacerbated income inequality as most people's salaries lag behind inflation and executives' continues to ascend toward heaven; and with the blatant inclusion of inspired corporatist strategies in state and national governance, further rewarding the wealthy at the cost to all taxpayers and the services they were initially promised.

All that to say, excellent review--it made me ponder and make firm my own thoughts about Friedman and his role in incompletely informing people about globalization.
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