Understanding Globalization – A Book Review of The World Is Flat

Initially written after the tragic events of 9/11, and before the Great Recession of 2008, Thomas Friedman’s economic treatise and The World is Flat (published in 2004) is seen as the blueprint on exploring modern Globalization: what it is, how it has come to be, and how to deal with both the good and the bad that this flattening of the world will bring.

Highly approachable and easy to understand, though slightly repetitive at times, much of this book has well been able to stand the test of time so far despite its age (13 years as of this writing, old for an economic/business book). One note before jumping in, it should be noted that much of the valuable ideas come in the back half of the text. For the modern reader, I wouldn’t be critical of anyone’s choice to gloss over, if not entirely skip, the first third of the book, which is mostly spent defining what Globalization is (rise of the internet, outsourcing work overseas, etc.). However for anyone that is looking to learn more or solidify their understanding of the term and the history of how globalization has unfolded, Friedman gives a solid accounting and starting point.

The broad strokes of Friedman’s definition of Globalization is that there has been a convergence of large groups of previously unconnected people with the rest of the developed world, mostly due to the fall of political borders and the rise of the internet. This has given rise to the empowerment of the individual to set their own fate, as we now have the ability to collaborate with anyone in the world on virtually any project or business idea. The obvious flip side of the coin is that companies have the same abilities, and your job security is no longer just due to the fact that you live in close proximity to the factory or office. Everything is connected, and therefore everything is mobile.

Overall, Friedman sees this as a net positive, as developed countries are able to “free up people and capital to do different, more sophisticated work,” while developing countries are able to give their citizens access to better and more stable jobs that provide the strong income that formed the basis of America’s economic strength in the first place. Much has been written on the merit of this argument, and Friedman spends that first portion of the book going into greater detail that I won’t touch on here.

The second half of the book which I found more interesting is spent on how to successfully execute this vision across social, economic, and political spectrums. The core ideas that Friedman explores is not just how do individuals and companies adjust to this new global economy, but also how do we help ensure equal access to the pie for those that will be left behind? For as we have seen play out over the 13 years since publication, globalization has not dealt out an even hand to all citizens. For the sake of not just political stability, but for humankind, Friedman argues that this is our duty; to understand and address the negative implications of globalization, and to advocate for programs (or create your own) that provide equal access and opportunity to all.

There are a lot of rabbit holes here, but Friedman’s core argument is that to ensure globalism is indeed a positive force for as many people as possible, what is needed is what he calls compassionate flattism, where “the individual worker is going to become more responsible for managing their own career, risks, and economic security, and the job of the government and business is to help workers build the necessary muscles to do that.” The role of business is to provide employees with the opportunity to access classes and trainings to improve current skills and develop new ones, while for government the role is to provide the proper framework which enables individuals to compete on as stable and level a playing field as possible (infrastructure, legal systems, business and permit law). However, Friedman is adamant that none of this should become welfare, and it is still the responsibility of the individual to take advantage of these programs as they see fit. Empowerment is the objective, not blind support. Individuals have to look out for themselves, but they don’t have to do it alone.

If this compassionate view of those who would be left behind, from outsourcing and the like, does not come to fruition, Friedman gives a prescient warning against the eventual political backlash that will unfold from that impacted group, one which we have seen unfold across the developed world over the past year. In what is probably his most strongly worded statement in the entire book, Friedman states: “Some might ask, Why be compassionate at all? Why keep any fat, friction, or barriers? Let me put it as bluntly as I can: If you are not a compassionate flatist- if you are just a let ‘er rip free-market flatist – you are not only cruel, you are a fool. You are courting a political backlash by those who can and will get churned up by this flattening process, and that backlash could become ferocious if we hit any kind of prolonged recession.

For Friedman, the discussion should not be whether to globalize, for our economies are far too entangled already to try and sort them out, though he readily admits it is far from 100% certain that globalization is the economic and cultural future of humanity (there are many things that could derail it, such as terrorism, nationalism, and large-scale war). Instead, the discussion should be how to globalize, so that everyone enjoys a slice of the widening pie. It is up to our imagination, and hope for a better tomorrow, whether globalization will become a force for good or evil. Instead of fear (loosing jobs, spreading terrorism), we must empower people so that our next generation becomes “the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.

Overall, this book is a great starting point for understanding modern globalization and economics, though it is not without its faults. The book is written largely for the viewpoint of Americans, easily and quite frequently flipping between economic and cultural assessments with hardly any data to back his assertions up, preferring a compelling narrative over hard numbers. It often comes off as one-sided and unbalanced, and he freely admits he is a die-hard globalist. And Friedman is all too willing to throw his political two cents into his arguments, speaking highly critically of then-President Bush, and also devotes a small portion on how people should parent their kids. While I do not doubt the good intentions behind these moments, they come off as a bridge too far that almost ensures the only people who will take this book seriously are liberally-leaning individuals who are probably already in the choir, which is a shame. For this book is more relevant now that it has even been before. As history progresses and the world continues to come together, it is books like this one that help us grapple with our own understanding, and try to truly comprehend how to best do so, for the benefit of as many people as possible.