Friday, January 13, 2006

Reading Over the Holidays: First Book Report

Having spent a lot of time traveling over the past three weeks, I was able to get through several books. These included Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter, Steven King's On Writing, Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook and Donald Miller's, Through Painted Deserts: Light, God and Beauty on the Open Road, as well as the book highlighted below. Quite a variety of genre, eh? I will attempt to highlight with a brief report on each. If you read any of these books, I’d love to hear your insight. I’d also like to know of others you’d like to suggest for me to read (warning, there are always 20 or more books on my reading list).

Thomas L. Friedman, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

I had seen this book quoted and referred to many times prior to having been given a copy. So when given a copy, I quickly dug in. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper columnist. He’s published three other books, two of which like this one deal with economic changes to the global economy. He is a free-market capitalist, but not without compassion and a concern for global issues such as the environment. Friedman’s thesis is that a number of changes in the past 15 years have brought the world closer together (hence making it flat). These changes began with the fall of the Berlin Wall and include such things as rapid advancements with technological including the internet and search engines which has allowed changes in production and engineering and consumerism. In explaining his thesis, he takes us around the world to places, like Bangalore, India, where he can demonstrate these changes first-hand. (I wish I had his travel budget).

My biggest critique in Friedman’s book is that he has so many "Ah-Ha" moments where he’s discovering how connected the world has become in the last ten year. You’d think he was the only one coming up with these thoughts which occur on his globetrotting experiences. I had to force myself through the first couple hundred pages of the book, dealing with Friedman’s arrogance, to get to the real meat. That said, there is some interesting stuff in the first two hundred pages.

As a free-market promoter, Friedman believes the real benefits of this New World in which political borders are becoming obsolete is that the "pie" will get bigger and everyone will benefit with a larger slice. He does, however, raises important environmental questions of sustainability (I’m not sure he really has a good answer here) as well as political questions including a long discussion of the role of terrorism in the flat world.

Friedman lists a number of dangers to this new global economy—protectionism being one, terrorism, over consumption of non-renewable resources, corruption and disease being others. He criticizes Arab nations for their lack of innovation and suggests that they (along with Venezuela) are "cursed with oil." He links oil resources as a cause of dictators and has an interesting turn the phrase from the American Revolution, "there is no representation without taxes." This rings true, for if leaders don’t have to tax people and can depend on money from sources like oil, then the people will be less critical of the government and there will be fewer checks and balances. However, it is also true that many of these nations have been crippled by their colonial experiences and by the meddling of international oil companies and western governments who are in need of oil.

Friedman is critical of President Bush and the GOP Congress for cuts in science programs. He feels that after 911, the USA has gone from being an exporter of hope in the world to an exporter of fear. He chastises Bush for not calling on American to sacrifice after 911, suggesting that America should have immediately began working toward becoming less energy dependent which would not only help our economy, but would also cut off a source of funds for the terrorist. This last suggestion sounded a lot like a newspaper opinion column I wrote back in 2002.
I also appreciated his warning (as many others have also done) the dangers of misinformation and conspiracy theories rising from the use of the internet. The emotional nature of much of the discussion that is carried out over the internet leads often to irrationality and encourages conspiracy theories (see my previous blog entry).

The New York Times listed The World is Flat as the fourth most blogged about book of 2005. Many, on both the right and left, have been critical of what he says. And the case can be made that the book contains little new information, and some of his conclusions are over-stretched, but I still glad that I read it. For a take of Friedman’s book by Daniel Dezner at the University of Chicago, click here.


  1. I purchased a fixer upper a year and a half ago which has turned into my second job. With what is left to fix up and a new baby coming this summer, I have almost given up hope of getting through all but a few books. I'm hoping that once I finish the house, I can sit down and read to the baby giving me an excuse to read as well. I hope the baby likes books like the one that you reviewed.

    Only 20 books in your "to read" pile? I've got about 100 if I counted them. But I order them according to my interest so some are perpetually on the bottom.

  2. "The Notebook" is one of my all time favorites.

  3. The book I always take away is Wild Swans by Jung Chang.

    It's an ice-breaker, everyone always asks me about it....

    hi sage - returning your visit :-)

  4. Great blog!

    I'm a fan of Friedman's as well but I certainly share your hesitancy in over-praising him. In other words, I have a few problems with Friedman's view of thinking as well ... but on the whole of it we're very close.

    If you enjoyed the subject matter I would recommend World on Fire by Amy Chua. She's a Yale Law School Professor and makes an incisive, insightful point on the realpolitik of a "flatter" world. In the end she agrees with Friedman but she points out how in the beginning the gap between rich and poor in developing countries will increase before creating a sizable middle class.

    PS - great book post, I'll be linking it shortly!

  5. Ed, I should say that I have 20 books to read--I have a list that is much longer--I normally only buy books that I am ready to read shortly unless it is something on my list that I haven't been able to find.

    Poopie--the Notebook is the closest thing I've read to chic lit since the Bridges of Madison County, but I will say that the book was moving for several reasons which I'll explore when I write about it.

    CQ and tg8, thanks for the suggestions.

  6. On Writing is on my list of things to read when I ever get around to reading anything! I think I spend all my reading time either writing or sleeping.

  7. The real estate is one sector that features as one of the most badly hit sectors following the global economic meltdown. Especially in developing countries like India, where real estate was going great guns, so to say, faced a steep downfall following the recession and inflation. Especially in the metros and the developing cities like Bangalore, real estate suffered dearly as the demand for the residential units, though increasing became a pent up demand. The badly hit economy particularly the IT sector that has a strong foothold in Bangalore, and the high rates of interest in home loans made the demand for residential units go down or at best become a pent up demand. It is believed that once the situation stabilizes the demands would start surfacing. Another very problematic issue that the real estate dealers are facing is that patrons of the currently booked flats are not willing to pay the original price that they had agreed on but the current price that is less than the original amount owing to the current economic condition. Not only the residential units but the commercial properties like the hotels in Bangalore have also naturally seen a drop in their occupancy. The ITC hotels in Bangalore that registered the highest occupancy, as high as 83%, have been forced to cut down on their tariffs by almost 20% as the occupancy has also gone down by 20%. On the contrary, the business hotels in Bangalore are surviving the tough times as the number of business travelers has not been affected as hard as the umber of leisure hotels. The budget hotels in Bangalore have seen a hike owing to the obvious reasons.