Thursday, May 25, 2006

“The Lexus and the Olive Tree” by Thomas L. Friedman – A Review

A few months ago, I began to read Friedman’s popular work, “The World Is Flat.” I got about two thirds of the way through the book, and then managed to leave it somewhere – probably on the seat of a subway car on the Green Line of Boston’s infamous “T.” I was not pleased with myself. Senior moments can be so annoying!

I few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about my need to pick up another copy of “The World Is Flat,” and finish it. This friend advised me to first read Friedman’s earlier work, “The Lexus and the Love Tree,” before resuming my trek through “The World Is Flat.” I tool his advice, and herein offer a few comments about this recently updated 1999 seminal work on the phenomenon of globalization.

Reading this work in 2006 felt almost quaint. Things have changed so dramatically in the few years since this book was first published that I was astonished at how “out of date,” this book has become in less than a decade. The phenomenon of off-shoring was so new that Friedman almost gushed in a “Gee whiz” kind of way at the phenomenon of dialing a customer service number for a company in Minneapolis, and having the call answered by a customer service representative in Bangalore, India.

At another level, the book is timeless – giving a solid historical understanding of the dynamics at work that have led to an ever-escalating frenzy of economic and cultural globalization. Friedman’s 1999 warnings about the potential destructive powers of a Super-empowered individual like Osama Bin Laden were eerily prescient in light of the subsequent events of 9/11/2001.

Friedman uses history as a solid foundation for establishing an understanding of emerging globalization:

“Thucydides wrote in his history of the Peloponnesian War that nations are moved to go to war for one of three reasons – ‘honor, fear and interest’ – and globalization, while it raises the costs of going to war for reasons of honor, fear or interest, does not and cannot make any of these instincts obsolete – not as long as the world is made of men not machines, and not as long as olive trees still matter. The struggle for power, the pursuit of material and strategic interests and the ever-present tug of one’s own olive tree continue even in a world of microchips, satellite phones and the Internet. This book isn’t called The Lexus and the Olive Tree for nothing. Despite globalization, people are still attached to their culture, their language and a place called home. And they will sing for home, cry for home, fight for home and die for home. Which is why globalization does not, and will not, end geopolitics. Let me repeat this for all the realists who read this book: Globalization does not end geopolitics.” (Page 250)

The author does an excellent job of explaining the backlash against the perception in the world that globalization is often synonymous with Americanization:

“There is no more Canadian music, theater, film, culture or language. It has all been Americanized.”

“When I asked him why this issue was so important to him, Gujral, who was dressed in traditional Indian garb, basically said that unless you preserve some of your own olive trees in your own backyard, you will never feel at home in your own house. ‘What are my roots?’ he asked aloud. ‘My roots are not only the fact that I live here in India. My roots are the fact that I hear someone reciting a couplet in my native language, I hear someone singing a song in my native language when I walk down the street. My roots are when I sit in my home with you in my native dress. Our traditions are a thousand years old. You cannot just let them go like that. The world will be much richer of the colorations and diversities are sustained and encouraged with different cultures.’ (Page 292)

Friedman brilliantly illustrated the plight of the unskilled worker, that Friedman terms ‘turtles,’ in the rapidly changing global economy as he alludes to the Broadway musical, Ragtime, based on the novel of the same name by E.L. Doctorow.

“In the Broadway musical Ragtime, there is a scene in which Henry Ford explains the genius of his assembly line. I always remember the verses because they capture so well the world that was once safe for turtles – but is no more. The Broadway version of Henry Ford sings:

See my people? Well, here’s my theory
Of what this country is moving toward;
Every worker a cog in motion.
Well, that’s the notion of Henry Ford.
One man tightens and one man ratchets
And one man reaches to pull one cord.
Cars keep movin’ in one direction.
A genuflection to Henry Ford!
(Speed up the belt, speed up the belt, Sam!)
Mass production will sweep the nation,
A simple notion the world’s reward.
Even people who ain’t too clever
Can learn to tighten a nut forever,
Attach one pedal or pull one lever . . .

Today, alas, people who ain’t too clever can’t learn to make microchips forever. Good jobs require any skills.” (Pages 332-332)

Friedman makes a comment about immigration to America that I find particularly timely and poignant in light of the fact that our Congress today continues to grapple with how best to treat this controversial topic from the vantage point of policy and legislation.

“The more knowledge workers we can attract to your shores, the more successful you will be. As far as America is concerned, I say bring ‘em in, and not only the rich, educated entrepreneurs. I would never turn back a single Haitian boat person. Anyone who has the smarts and energy to build a raft out of milk cartons and then sail across the Atlantic to America’s shores is someone I want as a new immigrant.” (Page 371)

No matter what your politics or your views on the current immigration brouhaha, this is a point worth considering.

Friedman is an observer of the changing global landscape whose observations and ideas, while I may not always agree with all of them, are worth reading and pondering. I found this book a very worthwhile investment of my time, and I recommend it enthusiastically as an instant classic.



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