The World is Flat? Globaloney!

Originally posted: May 29, 2005

“The World is Flat,” according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

That’s the title of his new book, which argues that the collapse of communism and the rise of the Internet has broken down the barriers to global competition.

It’s a level playing field, he says, and those smart guys in Bangalore are out to get your job. And they’ll do it, too, unless America gets smart and invests more in education and innovation.

Flat world. It’s a nice metaphor, but it’s wrong. The world is round, not flat. And it’s a good thing it is.

Friedman argues that the world has become not just smaller, as time and space are compressed, but flatter, too. Workers and businesses around the world can compete for U.S. jobs and U.S. markets.

This should scare the hell out of us, Friedman suggests. He compares the economic threat today to the military threat of the Cold War. We need to do today what we did in the 1950s when the Soviets launched Sputnik — recognize the threat and commit ourselves as a nation to invest more in science and technology. That’s the only way to keep from falling off — or being pushed off — the edge of the flat world.

What’s wrong with this argument? Well, not the conclusion. The U.S. really does need to save more and invest more for the future. It’s especially critical that education and training rise to the top of the list of national priorities. I agree.

The problem is that the rhetoric — the flat-world metaphor and the Cold War images that Friedman uses to sell his ideas throughout the book — is what I call globaloney.

Friedman’s “flat world” threat — start spending more on schools or some poor guy in India will take your job — will be hijacked by protectionist interests and used to promote the sort of destructive, divisive attitudes and policies that both Friedman and I oppose.

Globaloney is dangerous because it can so easily be turned against you. That’s how the term “globaloney” was invented.

Clare Boothe Luce coined the word in her 1943 maiden speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Vice President Henry Wallace had proposed that the United States take advantage of the way that technology — and especially the airplane — was shrinking the earth and transforming the postwar world.

Wallace’s plan used the opportunities created by the possibility of “open skies” to promote a number of sound domestic and international programs.

Clare Boothe Luce hijacked Wallace’s rhetoric, however, calling it “globaloney” of the highest sort. That small world is dangerous, she said, and those open skies are full of threats.

Luce turned the rhetoric of Wallace’s expansionist, internationalist programs against itself and in favor of her own protectionist and isolationist agenda.

That’s what I fear will happen to Friedman’s flat world. A clever, contemporary Clare Boothe Luce could easily turn the argument around. The flat world is a threat, and the only way to keep out threats is to close our borders and close our minds.

Friedman’s vision of a race to the top, driven by more and better education everywhere, could instantly be transformed into a beggar-thy-neighbor nightmare. We see this sort of argument in the newspaper every day.

The case Friedman makes in “The World is Flat,” like his argument in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree,” is constructed from powerful metaphors and vivid images backed up by a few personal anecdotes. The images and anecdotes are persuasive, especially to Americans, because they strike American notes.

Friedman’s narrative reflects an American traveling the world looking for America — and finding it wherever he goes.

Friedman finds people speaking English (or perhaps “American”) and using technology to connect in one way or another with America. It is exactly what an American looking for America would see.

Friedman generalizes from these selective observations, however, imagining that American language and American technology (and competition for American jobs) are everywhere — that the world is really flat and that technology has made it so.

But of course it is not true. The real facts, which would undermine the flat-earth metaphor, remain invisible or nearly so, because we are so conditioned to connect the American-image dots.

In the round world, some countries have too few resources and so find it almost impossible to survive, much less compete. Others have so much natural wealth that they have become what author and journalist Fareed Zakaria calls “trust fund” states (like certain oil-rich Arab nations): rigid, corrupt and undemocratic.

The world is decidedly unflat for ordinary citizens in the super-rich and superpoor countries. Opportunity for them is anything but equal.

Government, I think, it the ultimate reason the world remains persistently round. Brazil is a country blessed by natural and human wealth. In a truly flat world, Brazil would be filthy rich. But Brazil has been cursed by decades of bad government, and that has created an environment where it’s nearly impossible to start a business, much less develop one that can compete in the global marketplace.

The world is in fact filled with cultural, natural, political and economic barriers that keep individuals and nations from competing on a level playing field.

No, the world is not flat — and that’s a good thing. The way to get ahead in a flat world is to push your competitors off the edge, which is what everyone tried to do in the protectionist 1930s with disastrous results.

The world is round. What goes around comes around. The prosperity that we created in the United States by investing in education, technology and innovation has come around the world, as we always knew it would.

If we want to know how to get ahead, we have only to turn around and look to the past to see what made us — and now the world — successful.

Who stands in our way? Those smart guys in Bangalore are the threat if the world is flat. In the round world that truly exists, we know that Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us.

We are the enemy, if we don’t look around and learn from our own past how best to face the future. And that’s not globaloney.

Michael Veseth (www.MichaelVeseth.com) is a professor of international political economy at the University of Puget Sound. He is the author of “Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization,” recently published by Rowman & Littlefield.

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