Globalize This

The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman

No one adjusts to change easily, especially at the rapid pace required in the modern global market. The Cold War neatly divided the world into two superpowers and their systems, capitalism or communism. Today we have a meshed, interdependent, fast-changing, finance-based, leaderless order known as globalization.

Friedman, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning foreign-affairs correspondent for The New York Times, saw the contradictory results of this New World Order firsthand on his trips around the globe. On one hand, people want progress, economic benefits and technology, as illustrated by a Lexus factory filled with precision robots in Japan. On the other hand, many folks are still deeply rooted in their culture and their history, willing to fight over things as small as an olive tree.

Quite often the Lexus and the Olive Tree conflict. Yet the two worldviews are not entirely discrete: A photo in the book shows an Orthodox Jew at the Western Wall in Jerusalem holding up a cell phone so a relative in France can add a prayer as well.

Friedman is convinced that free-market capitalism is the best option for the world. He concedes that other systems are better (i.e. more fair) about distributing wealth – that’s the main theoretical thrust of socialism and communism. And he admits capitalism isn’t always pretty, especially if you’re one of the little guys. But no system comes close to generating wealth to be distributed like capitalism.

Globalization is frightening partially because no one is running the show – super-empowered individuals like Gates and Bin Laden be damned. While we all applaud the move away from controlling governments and dictators, it’s a scary world where it’s every nation and investor for himself.

At the same time, it’s kinda exciting. Friedman counts all us little-time investors as part of what he calls the Electronic Herd. And the Herd has power. Where we choose to invest gives us influence over companies and over nations. If some country’s leader doesn’t want to play the economic game (or put on what Friedman dubs the Golden Straightjacket), then we’ll just take our money elsewhere.

Admittedly and obviously, some nations and people like their olive trees the old-fashioned way, and they are fighting back against this overwhelming globalization. As a major co-creator, the main proselytizer, even the pusher of free markets and consumerism, America is the king of the hill in this new game, but according to Friedman, that means the U.S. has a responsibility as well.

Friedman doesn’t offer any concrete solutions to the inherent problems of globalization but he does get a bit moralistic about it. He’s also a bit too clever, describing the evolving economic operating systems as DOScapital (Communism was DOScapital 0.0). But the book is a fast, entertaining read, chock-full of amazing observations from his world travels and behind-the-scenes quotes from powerful people he’s interviewed in the past decade.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman (Farrar Straus and Giroux ISBN: 0374192030)

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