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The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization by Thomas L. Friedman Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 394 pages. $27.50.

Have you ever read a book that's such a collection of cliches, generalizations, and superficial observations that you felt like you would choke? If you want to indulge in this masochistic exercise, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman's paean to globalization--much of it a rehash of his columns--is a good place to start.

Friedman uses his title imagery far past the point of exhaustion. He has the Lexus car represent the modernizing free market global economy, which, in his view, will inevitably deliver a higher standard of living to the planetary masses. The Olive Tree, by contrast, represents a sense of identity and of place that is so important to people all over the world. For Friedman, globalization is the interaction and tension between these two.

He tries to fit almost everything that has happened in the past few years into his Lexus and Olive Tree paradigm, so much so that he sometimes slips from the inappropriate into the insensitive: "Rwanda was all Olive Trees and no Lexuses, a country that was all gnarled roots choking one another, and no flowering branches," with "Tutsi and Hutu tribesmen taking turns downsizing each other." Not only is this crass language for describing one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, but it is also inaccurate. As Philip Gourevitch points out in We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories From Rwanda (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), a sharp decline in the Rwandan economy in the late 1980s exacerbated tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis. The collapse in the world market of Rwanda's principal exports--coffee and tea--and a subsequent structural adjustment program pushed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund added economic hardship to ethnic strife. So it wasn't all Olive Trees.

Friedman lauds the supposed democratizations of technology, information, and finance, which have apparently brought the benefits of globalization to more people than ever before. But how democratic are these processes? Consider finance. Even in the United States--at the top of the global economic order--shareholdings are disproportionately distributed. As for global information and technology, in most instances, such as television programming, motion pictures, and publishing, these media are controlled by a small clique of Western multinationals purveying a limited set of opinions in an insatiable quest for profits.

Flitting from one country to another, Friedman hobnobs with the wealthy and political elites of developing nations in five-star hotels and convention centers, and then records their observations on the benefits of globalization as if they were bits of Socratic wisdom. So he chats with the Indian head of Salomon Brothers-Smith Barney while at the swimming pool of the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi and treats her comments as profound insights into the functioning of the global economy.

On some occasions, Friedman ventures out of his rarefied environs, observes people on the streets, and twists these incidents to fit his thesis of how wonderfully globalization is working for the multitudes. He meets a woman in Bangkok who sells cigarettes and dumplings on the street for a living, learns that she owns bank shares, and concludes that globalization must be working if people of such modest means are buying into it.

The main opposition to this process comes from people who cling too closely to the Olive Tree, Friedman says. He dismisses critics of globalization as losers in the game ("turtles," he calls them) who are angry at the process because they can't make it in the "Fast World." He includes people from the middle and lower-middle classes (government bureaucrats are a favorite target), since they have lost the benefits available under the old, closed economic systems. And he identifies the worst sort of demagogues as the primary opponents of globalization, be it Pat Buchanan, or Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, or Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East.

Friedman does not bother to mention progressive Third World critics of globalization such as the Philippines' Walden Bello, Malaysia's Martin Khor, or India's Vandana Shiva. For Friedman, people like them do not exist.

On his journeys, Friedman embodies the stereotype of the Ugly American so aptly that he almost becomes a caricature. By the end of the book, his arrogant assumption that the United States is a beacon to other countries becomes insufferable. He calls the United States the "ultimate benign hegemon" and compares it favorably to the British Empire and Russia in the nineteenth century.

Along the way, he invents phrases that he thinks are brilliantly cute but are mostly downright silly. According to Friedman, countries refusing to adjust to globalization by embarking on the free market path are eventually afflicted by MIDS, i.e., Microchip Immune Deficiency Syndrome: "A disease that can afflict any bloated, overweight, sclerotic system in the post-Cold War era.... usually contracted by countries and companies that fail to inoculate themselves against changes brought about by the microchip, and the democratizations of technology, finance, and information." He also coins the term the "Golden Straitjacket" for free market economics, which he describes as "the defining political-economic garment" of the globalization epoch. The "Electronic Herd" is the interconnected world of investors who roam the planet looking for places to invest their money. All this, according to Friedman, has led to "Globalution"--the revolution caused by globalization.

Friedman carries his analysis to the level of asininity when he starts treating countries as if they were corporations. He titles one chapter, "Buy Taiwan, Hold Italy, Sell France." Countries that want to profit by globalization need to follow the lean, mean, free market path forged by his heroes--Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. This has to be accompanied by adequate laws and a regulatory framework, such as enforceable contractual laws and honest oversight agencies, to ensure that the process goes smoothly, he says.

The process of globalization is leading not only to higher living standards but also to increasing democratization, he argues, citing the examples of Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea following the Asian financial crisis. But even here, Friedman oversimplifies to the point of absurdity. Most Western countries and institutions barely blinked at the genocide that Indonesia's Suharto initiated in East Timor in 1975. It was only when his monumental corruption and mismanagement threatened his country's financial structure, including the profits of international investors, that some voices started calling for him to reform or to resign. And there are legions of counterexamples. In countries as varied as Yeltsin's Russia and Fujimori's Peru, free market reforms have enfeebled, rather than enhanced, democracy.

Friedman also asserts that conflicts between countries are prevented by globalization, a concept he calls "The Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention." He says no war has ever been fought by two countries with McDonald's in them. NATO's war against Yugoslavia has proven this thesis plain wrong, since Washington and Belgrade both have McDonald's.

The book is also loaded with cultural references, ranging from the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup to Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath. Few of them work.

Those rare times that Friedman employs data, it is almost always either grossly misinterpreted or flat-out wrong. He says that NAFTA has been a win-win deal for the United States, Canada, and Mexico. But he manages to ignore the 1995 economic crisis caused by Mexico's adoption of the free market model, and neglects the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States due to NAFTA. He claims that according to the U.N. Human Development Report, poverty has fallen more in the last fifty years than in the last 500, a phenomenon that he attributes substantially to globalization. This is a misinterpretation. Global growth rates are considerably slower in the 1980s and the 1990s--decades of free market globalization--than in the period from the 1950s to the 1970s, an era of mixed economic systems and fixed exchange rates. The World Bank recently warned that the war against global poverty is in danger of stalling. Unemployment rates in Latin America--a darling of globalizers--are significantly higher today than at the start of the decade.

Friedman also never adequately addresses the question of what a society composed of a community of hustlers obsessed with selling their wares on the market would look like. Concern at the fashioning of such a planetary society has caused criticism of the ultra free market model from such unlikely sources as financier George Soros (The Crisis of Global Capitalism, PublicAffairs, 1998) and conservative analyst Edward Luttwak (Turbo Capitalism, HarperCollins, 1999). Thanks to the values of the market, American society is suffering from what sociologist Richard Sennett calls a "corrosion of character." It is becoming a society defined by alienation, isolation, and shortterm profit considerations. Is this the sort of world Friedman wants?

He does raise a question that bedevils progressives around the world: What's the alternative? Friedman says there's no alternative. But he doesn't acknowledge that many progressives--including Bello, Khor, and Shiva in the Third World and Dean Baker and John Cavanagh at home--are offering blueprints built upon values such as compassion for one's fellow beings, instead of the selfishness and greed at the center of the corporate-driven globalization model.

Friedman acknowledges shortcomings in the globalization process, such as ecological destruction, inequality, and cultural homogenization. Unfortunately, his recipes for solving these problems are often more of the same--a further application of the market. If soybean production for export is harming the Brazilian rainforest, Friedman's answer is to get self-interested multinationals to help improve farming techniques, if only as a public relations exercise to promote an environmentally conscious image.

This book is definitely worth a miss. Friedman's few insights in the book that are original aren't profound; the fewer that are profound aren't original. Much of this territory has been covered before by far superior books, such as William Greider's One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Benjamin Barber's Jihad vs. McWorld (Random House, 1995).

So why even review the book? Because Friedman is a pooh bah of the foreign policy elite. Whatever he says, even in such a sloppy book, carries weight in lots of circles. It has already received some laudatory reviews and has been chosen by The New York Times Book Review as worthy of note (although it was dismissed in The Wall Street Journal by free market economic guru Jagdish Bhagwati as being too superficial).

The emperor has no clothes, but this is not common knowledge when it comes to authors like Friedman writing on sacrosanct issues like globalization. The danger of such a badly written, illogical treatise is that people may actually believe it.

Amitabh Pal is Editor of the Progressive Media Project, an affiliate of The Progressive magazine.
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Author:Pal, Amitabh
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1999
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