Gut-check time: a couple pokes as The Great Flattener

It’s going to be a full-tilt sprint until the end of term, and among the tasks on my docket this week is writing 500 words for media consumption on immersive spaces such as Second Life — always fun to write in a state of near-complete ignorance. But I can’t resist pointing at this short piece poking at that great guru Tom Friedman, a somewhat more literal version of the arguments made by Norm Friesen last week:

The meeting was entitled “A Flattened World Hits Home” and billed as an effort to apply the lessons of author Thomas Friedman’s free-trade bible, “The World Is Flat,” to the rural outpost of Montana. Friedman himself could not be there, the panel moderator told us – the town couldn’t afford his $75,000-a-speech fee and first-class plane ticket. But we would just watch a video of a recent lecture the author had given.


…As the New York Times columnist rattled off the wonders of technology – “Isn’t Linux great?” “Wireless is the steroids of the flat world” – the group was dead silent as it listened to an enthusiastic and joyful Friedman telling the story of how, thanks to a “flat” world brought on by America’s “free” trade policy, our country’s workers and small businesses must now compete with slave labor and desperate conditions in places like China and Bangladesh.

Then it was time for panel discussion. How would our community deal with the “flat world” that Friedman gushed about?


…All said exactly what Friedman said at the end of his videotape: “Kids need to learn how to learn” in order to compete in the “flat world.”

Sadly, the hard data tells us that, as comforting as this Great Education Myth is, we cannot school our way out of the problems accompanying a national trade policy devoid of wage, environmental and human-rights protections.

As Fortune Magazine reported last year, “The skill premium, the extra value of higher education, must have declined after three decades of growing.” Citing the U.S. government’s Economic Report of the President, the magazine noted that “real annual earnings of college graduates actually declined” between 2000 and 2004. The magazine also noted that new studies “show companies massively shifting high-skilled work — research, development, engineering, even corporate finance — from the United States to low-cost countries like India and China.”

It’s not that workers in these other countries are smarter, says Sheldon Steinbach of the American Council on Education. “One could be educationally competitive and easily lose out in the global economic marketplace,” he told the Los Angeles Times. Why? “Because of significantly lower wages being paid elsewhere.”

Pundits, such as Friedman and the Washington policymakers who follow him, see the data and understand this reality, and yet continue preaching their “free” trade fundamentalism to the delight of corporate lobbyists whose clients’ profits are expanding under the status quo.

Is it fair to describe Friedman as a “free trade fundamentalist“?

During a CNBC interview with Tim Russert in late July, the acclaimed savant made a notable confession: “We got this free market, and I admit, I was speaking out in Minnesota — my hometown, in fact — and guy stood up in the audience, said, ‘Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?’ I said, ‘No, absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade.’

Friedman’s ignorance extends past the contents of this agreement — it is the Central American Free Trade Agreement, not the Carribbean.

Oh yeah, he’s also the worst sort of warmonger, as blithe about collateral damage as he is about displaced workers and declining wages (and he’s consistently wrong too — see here, here and here). But if I go into that, I’ll be here all day.

About Brian

I am a Strategist and Discoordinator with UBC's Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology. My main blogging space is Abject Learning, and I sporadically update a short bio with publications and presentations over there as well...
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1 Response to Gut-check time: a couple pokes as The Great Flattener

  1. scottie says:

    Just off press …
    The World is Flat?
    Watch a thought-provoking 13 minute Overview on the Web:

    Thomas Friedman’s recent New York Times bestseller, The World is Flat, asserts that the international economic playing field is now more level than it has ever been. As popular as it may be, some reviewers assert that by what it leaves out, Friedman’s book is dangerous.

    “The world isn’t flat as a result of globalization,” say Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, business analysts and authors of a critical analysis of Friedman’s book. “It’s tilted in favor of unfettered global corporations that exploit cheap labor in China, Indian and beyond. Today’s global corporations go to the ends of the earth to employ factory workers for 20 cents an hour and PhDs in science and technology for $20,000 a year,” add Aronica and Ramdoo. In short, “Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution,” says Aronica.

    This epic change has shaken up the way the world does business, and Americans are reluctantly facing a shift of wealth and power to the East. Across the country, a growing number of Americans fear that they could be replaced by someone from a developing country. Recent polls indicate that millions of Americans are preoccupied with the outsourcing of American jobs and the threat of global economic competition. From boardrooms to classrooms to kitchen tables and water coolers, globalization has become a hot topic of discussion and debate everywhere. But by what Friedman’s book ignores or glosses over, it misinforms the American people and policy makers.

    Aronica and Ramdoo’s concise monograph, The World is Flat?: A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, brings clarity to many of Friedman’s stories and explores nine key issues Friedman largely disregards or treats too lightly, including the hollowing out of America’s debt-ridden middle class. To create a fair and balanced exploration of globalization, the authors cite the work of experts that Friedman fails to incorporate, including Nobel laureate and former Chief Economist at the World Bank, Dr. Joseph Stiglitz.

    Refreshingly, readers can now gain new insights into globalization without weeding through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab. “It’s of utmost urgency that we all learn about and prepare for total global competition. If you read Friedman’s book, and were awed, you really should read more rigorous treatments of this vital subject. Globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren,” says Ramdoo.

    Aronica and Ramdoo conclude by listing over twenty action items that point the way forward for America and other developed countries. They provide a comprehensive, yet concise, framework for understanding the critical issues of globalization. They paint a clear and sometimes alarming picture of the early twenty-first century landscape, and present timely information needed by governments, businesses, and individuals everywhere.


    Read more:

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