Bumps in the flat world
December 23, 2005
In his book “The World is Flat,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes forces that are leveling the global playing field. Friedman fails, however, to mention how the world is supposed become flat without the leveling of global wealth.The flat world still has a few bumps in it, given recent talks of the World Trade Organization. Rather than invite the poor and disenfranchised to join in the fruits of the global cornucopia, Western powers put on a Scrooge face for a bleak look at Christmas present.According to a report by Oxfam: “The United States and the European Union nearly wrecked the World Trade Organization’s conference by pursuing their own interests at the expense of poor countries. The WTO meeting was a lost opportunity to make trade fairer for poor people around the world. Rich countries put their commercial interests before those of developing countries.”The U.S. Congress followed a similar strategy by sacrificing the poor and elderly in a massive budget cut that also curtailed support for student loans. Vice President Dick Cheney cast the tiebreaking vote in this Republican effort to demonstrate fiscal responsibility.Democrats are painted as obstructionists for arguing that a more equitable route to balancing the budget lies in the repeal of tax cuts for the rich. The Senate and House, however, chose the more Dickensian method of health-care cuts for poor and elderly Americans.If Friedman’s flat world is to promote the most good for the most people, then a new economic model is needed. To end world poverty, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, governments should adopt the Scandinavian model for a social democratic vision instead of relying on Adam Smith’s free market.The Scandinavian model describes a welfare state with an emphasis on education, which is proven to promote fast, equitable growth. Smith’s “invisible hand” implies that man’s innate selfish nature best asserts itself in business through libertarian-anarchist, laissez-faire freedom.That’s why the rich countries at the WTO threatened a collapse of the organization unless poor countries capitulated to their terms. Similar leverage was applied to the Congressional budget cuts where the poor and elderly received a lump of coal in their stockings, along with a smirk from Ebenezer Cheney.Friedman’s flat world and the expansion of technology and information he cheers are tarnished by the exploitation of cheap world labor. Friedman trumpets the efficiencies of globalization and heralds a rising economic sea upon see andersen on following pagewhich the cruise ship of western affluence floats, while numerous Third World lifeboats rock in the ship’s rough wake.What’s missing from the flat world is a universal value system that can assure equity in labor, in the acquisition of goods, in the consumption of natural resources, and in the environmental costs of industrialization. Friedman’s pie grows larger and larger, but the slices are still cut according to who’s wielding the knife.The strongest caveat in Friedman’s book is a reference to Karl Marx, who warned that the growth of capital will eventually consume the world by homogenizing culture, eroding nationalism, marginalizing religion, exhausting resources and setting the stage for a world uprising.”The workers of the world,” suggests the Marxian forecast, “would unite in a global revolution to end oppression. Deprived of consoling distractions such as patriotism and religion, they would see their exploitation clearly and rise up to end it.”Friedman’s world may become flat through commerce and industry, but Marx saw it flattened further by a violent tectonic drama that could level the social topography. Such a flattened world in Aspen would mean tearing down the mountaintop aeries of the rich and reducing them to a flat and fecund plain.Paul Andersen wonders if we could still ski. His column appears on Mondays.