My Head is Flat

My Head is Flat BY GABRIELA BOCAGRANDE The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century By Thomas L. Friedman Farrar, Straus, Giroux 496 pages, $27.50 ou will be glad to know that the world has, in the past five years, morphed into a global Magic Kingdom, according to Thomas Friedman, in his book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). For those of you depressed and distracted by the bloody, nonsensical, and endless “War On Terror,” staggering trade deficits, climate change, and the imaginative outsourcing of torture here in our imperial Homeland, Mr. Friedman breathlessly explains how this happy transformation has occurred. First, millions of deprived victims of central planning walked out from under gloomy, stifling communist regimes in Eastern Europe and Western Asia into the glorious sunshine of capitalist consumerism. Next, the Worldwide Web and the Internet facilitated the transfer of credit card numbers and software expertise to Bangalore, India, where ambitious 20-something “zippies” sat themselves down in their brand new swivel chairs to work the worldwide phones. Finally, boring, mind-numbing North Carolina textile jobs offshored themselves to nimble women in China, who are delighted at the opportunity to work for $2 a day. For Mr. Friedman, the convergence of these phenomena represents the “flattening of the world,” by which he seems to mean the relentless elimination of the political and cultural bumps on the landscape that previously defined nation-states. In describing this reduction of governmental authority in the face of rising corporate power, Mr. Friedman writes with the ga-ga boosterism of a high school cheerleader and the repetitive drumbeat of the practiced propagandist. In his first chapter, Friedman refers to the “flatness” of the world at least 20 times (while comparing himself, somewhat confusingly, to Columbus, and his wife, even more mysteriously, to Queen Isabella). In case you did not realize it, says Friedman, the flattening of the world—the outsourcing, offshoring, insourcing, and homesourcing—benefits us all. Let’s take homesourcing, for example. David Neeleman, founder and CEO of low-cost JetBlue Airways, outlines the virtues of his thrifty personnel policy: “JetBlue now has four hundred agents, like Dolly, working at home in the Salt Lake City area, taking reservations—in between babysitting, exercising, writing novels and cooking dinner.” These home-based agents, are “… 30 percent more productive—they take 30 percent more bookings, by just being happier.” Mr. Neeleman cleverly located his agent base in Salt Lake City, where the vast majority of women are cheerful stay-at-home Mormon mothers. And Dolly, the agent Friedman interviewed, has managed to replace a go-to-work reservation agent whose wages could support a family—not luxuriously, but adequately—by working from the comfort of her kitchen, where she multi-tasks surrounded by her squalling infants. What a lucky gal! Presumably she also has a steady flow of babysitting gigs and novel royalties to supplement her JetBlue wages, which are just about enough to keep her family in disposable diapers. Work that cannot be homesourced to lower wages can be outsourced in our exciting new flat world: Information technology makes it possible for an Indian radiologist, working the midnight shift for $300 a month, to read your X-ray on the cheap while you scan Ladies Home Journal in the waiting room. Meanwhile, the U.S. radiologist, who used to earn $4,000 a month and support a family, has herself fitted out for a perky new counter-girl uniform over at Dunkin’ Donuts. Here is how it works: …The laying of global fiber highways flattened the developed world. It helped break down global regionalism, create a more seamless global commercial network, and made it simple and almost free to move digitized labor—service jobs and knowledge work—to lower-cost countries. Fantastic! As we project into the future in Mr. Friedman’s world, we find that the service and knowledge work outsourced from the United States and Europe, together with the manual work relocated to China, are going to allow these two behemoths of Third World poverty to transmogrify into the bustling and prosperous Wal-Mart World that we ourselves are fast becoming. Very late in the Flat World, we find out that this optimistic projection for India and China is, frankly, overblown: “As exciting and as visible as the flat Indian high-tech sector is, have no illusions,” Mr. Friedman sternly instructs us. “It accounts for 0.2 percent of employment in India.” In other words, 99.8 percent of the workforce still ekes out a living in the invisible bumpy sectors of agriculture, industry, and begging. Mr. Friedman, however, does not grasp the relationship between the flat and the bumpy worlds and seems to say that eventually, the 0.2 percent will pull the 99.8 percent up to a higher standard of living. It is not apparent to him that the existence of the country’s overwhelming poverty is what lowers the wages there and makes the high-tech workers so cheap. Should they, for some cosmically magic reason, begin to affect the wage levels in the country as a whole, they would find that innovative, stimulating, and creative capital investment would flee their shores to Uzbekistan and Mongolia, where people are poorer still, if it has not already gone there. Before writing long, tedious tomes of pop economics like this one, it is useful to know something at least halfway true about history. Here is a historical fact that is very hard for serious economists to ignore: In 200 years of capitalist economic history, there have never been enough jobs for the people who need them. Not in the long term. Have you ever noticed that when unemployment dips below 5 percent in our Homeland, the stock market falls? Whenever a worker shortage begins to materialize and bid wages up, capital starts to invent technology that either eliminates simple jobs or simplifies complex jobs into cheaper and more mobile units. A computer programmer or systems analyst in the 1970s could support a family; an IT specialist in the ’00s cannot. Why is that? Because our system is structured to invent technology that lowers wages and raises profits. But Friedman writes as if the Web, the Internet, and informatics were gifts from God that fell from the sky. He does not locate the motivation that developed them, other than to refer in google-eyed wonder to the ingenuity and inventiveness of smart people—all over the world! Nor does Friedman seem to know anything whatsoever about trade unions, which are also a worldwide phenomenon that pops up to protect and raise wages whenever urban employment hits a critical mass. They appeared in the United States, Europe, Brazil, and Mexico, for example, as well as India now. So manufacturing capital flees to China, where they are not allowed. As he discusses the miracle of Chinese industrialization, Friedman makes only glancing references to the nastiness of the repressive government, which systematically disallows any autonomous organization that protects workers from exploitation. Like many of these books, this one is more interesting for what it does not say than for what it does. Let’s have a look at Mr. Friedman’s interviewees, shall we? Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys Technologies; General Richard Meyers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Jim Barksdale, former Netscape CEO; Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft; Rajesh Rao, CEO of Dhruva Interactive; Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico… Larry Summers. We all know who he is. You get the picture. Nowhere is there an interview with Andy Stern, for example, the President of the Service Employees International Union, or with John Sweeney, President of the AFL-CIO, or anyone who represents unions in India. Certainly, workers’ organizations in China could not be interviewed because they must operate clandestinely. Workers themselves are not interviewed, except for the aforementioned Dolly, who surely knew that her boss was also on the line. Although everyone knows that capital leaves the United States and Europe to escape high wages and environmental regulation, environmental concerns are barely mentioned in The World is Flat. When they are, it is only in the context of a potential energy shortage caused by the oceans of stuff now manufactured in China, where environmental regulation does not exist. Friedman at one point does say, “One area that is going to need sorting out is the area between global corporations and their moral consciences.” One question. What moral conscience? Global corporations do not have consciences. They’re corporations: legal entities established to protect individuals from the financial liabilities or criminal penalties that might result from the risks they took or the damage they wrought in the name of group profitmaking. Nonetheless, we are treated to a short anecdote about how McDonald’s and Conservation International collaborated in 2002 to bring environmentalist values to the McDonald’s supply chain. Three years later, it is “too early to tell whether this is really having a positive impact.” Here’s my guess: No. Of course, no book like this one is complete without a few jabs at the “anti-globalization” movement, which here, is the usual composite straw man set up to be knocked down by Friedman. Anti-globalizationists in the flat world are: upper-middle class Americans who feel guilty because they are so wealthy and privileged, rear-guard Old Leftists (socialists, anarchists, and Trotskyites) a.k.a. the Coalition to Keep People Poor, anti-Americanists around the world, and serious, well-meaning, but overwhelmed and misguided NGOs. According to Friedman: You don’t help the world’s poor by dressing up in a turtle’s outfit and throwing a stone through McDonald’s window. You help them by getting them the tools and institutions to help themselves. It may not be as sexy as protesting against world leaders in the streets of Washington and Genoa, and getting lots of attention on CNN, but it is a lot more important. Just ask any Indian villager. Curiously, Friedman himself did not ask any Indian villager anything. He talked instead to the CEOs. And like a good scout, he seems to have believed everything they told him. Besides, who wants to talk to Indian villagers? They don’t play golf. Any serious effort to talk about globalization should include an informed assessment of analyses done by organizations that oppose unrestricted, corporate-driven access to the markets and investment possibilities in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. These organizations include global union federations, Transparency International, Consumers International, Public Citizen, and many accessible others. All of them point out that corporations are neither charitable nor democratic institutions. They need regulation by national governments with comparable authority—governments that are also representative of the interests of citizens, workers, and future generations. Institutions, such as the World Trade Organization, that now set the rules for international commerce and investment from behind closed doors in favor of corporate capital need a countervailing force that protects people from the worst excesses committed in the name of moneymaking. Friedman at one point quotes Karl Marx, surprised that the old German foresaw globalization from his distant post in the 19th century: All old established industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life or death question by all civilized nations. For industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose production is consumed, not only at home but in every quarter of the globe. Marx was a visionary economist, that much is certain. He was also an astute, if uncharitable judge of character with an eye for the opportunistic intellectual personalities spawned by capital to explain its expansion in deceptively benign terms. He called them “sniveling sycophants of the ruling classes.” He would have made short work of Tom Friedman. Gabriela Bocagrande, a native of Houston, who now lives in Washington, D.C. is the Observer’s first line of defense in the battle against flat-headed, knee-jerk globalizers.

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Published at 12:00 am CST