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The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
Thomas L. Friedman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

This interesting book explains in detail what many people already know: that advances in technology — and in politics to some degree — have made the world a smaller place. Not only have manufacturing jobs been moved overseas, but white-collar jobs such as accountant, computer programmer, radiologist, and many others can be done from anywhere in the world. Even a McDonald’s restaurant is not immune. At a McDonald’s drive-through in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, the person you speak to when ordering is not present in the restaurant you’re visiting. Instead, the person you’re speaking to is in Colorado, a long way from Missouri. But when considering telecommunications India, as a practical matter, is no farther away.

There are some who don’t like this globalization, and they urge the restriction of trade in the name of protecting American jobs. Mr. Friedman believes, however, as I do, in the free-trade theory of competitive advantage developed by David Ricardo. This holds that the wealth of everyone is increased if each nation specializes in that which it possesses comparative advantage, and trades with other nations for other things.

The problem is that the wealth is not spread equally. Some people are hurt when their jobs are outsourced overseas. While the wealth of America and India or China as a whole increases, some people lose. We, both as a nation and as individuals, need to be adaptable and realize that the jobs we trained for in school may not be around forever. Speaking from personal experience, my career as a software engineer is one that is often mentioned as susceptible to outsourcing.

Although the issues dealt with in the book are mostly national and international, there is one in particular that is local. Mr. Friedman lays out the problems with American K-12 education, particularly education in science and math. And while America excels in the teaching of science and engineering at universities and graduate schools, that will start to change as more foreign scientists and engineers stay in their home countries.

This problem with education is a local issue, as that is where the primary control over schools rests. We can either continue with the steady downhill slide of our schools (as compared with the rest of the world), or we can do something to change their course. If you believe that more spending by the state of Kansas will do the job, I hope for the sake of our nation’s children that you are correct. But we have spent more and more on schools only to see them worsen. It is time for Kansas to allow freedom and competition to work in schools.

While increased global competition may worry some, it holds much promise to others. Mr. Friedman traces the complex interaction of many companies, located in many countries, that was necessary to build the Dell notebook computer he recently ordered. This complex supply chain comprises what Mr. Friedman calls “The Dell Theory of Conflict Resolution, the essence of which is that the advent and spread of just-in-time global supply chains in the flat world are an even greater restraint on geopolitical adventurism than the more general rising standard of living that McDonald’s symbolized.” (The reference to McDonald’s is from the “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” advanced in his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which held that no two countries which both had McDonald’s had gone to war with each other.) As countries become more intertwined, as our livelihoods and investments become dependent on worldwide cooperation, the risk of war declines. That, along with the increased wealth that free trade brings, is good news for everyone.

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