"The Lexus and the Olive Tree"

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman offers an important message about the new world economy: Globalize or die.

Published April 19, 1999 12:45PM (EDT)

This is an important book; not since Nicholas Negroponte's "Being Digital" has a volume come along that so well explains the technical and financial ether we are all swimming through. Like fish oblivious to the surrounding water, we need a Negroponte or a Thomas Friedman to give us some instruction in basic hydrology -- or, in the case of "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," in globalization. Friedman sees globalization as the one big thing, the defining theory of the post-Cold War era. He cites the Lexus as the pinnacle of the high-quality production that the forces of globalization make possible, the olive tree as the symbol of wealth in pre-modern, "slow" economies.

By "globalization" Friedman means the cluster of trends and technologies -- the Internet, fiber optics, digitalization, satellite communications -- that have increased productivity and cranked up the speed of international business since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. During this period, the declining cost of communications has led to the "democratization" of finance, information and technology. If your company has replaced the switchboard operator with an automated phone menu, if you have ever received a FedEx package or sent an e-mail, you have felt the effects of globalization.

There is hardly a page in the book without an underlineable passage. (For example: "In the Cold War, the most frequently asked question was: 'How big is your missile?' In globalization, the most frequently asked question is: 'How fast is your modem?'") Globalization has created what Friedman calls the "Electronic Herd" -- investors and speculators whose roving hot money "turns the whole world into a parliamentary system, in which every government lives under the fear of a no-confidence vote." Brazil knows the effects of such a vote all too well; so do Thailand and Indonesia.

Sometimes Friedman can be a rather grandiose name-dropper: "As I was traveling with Secretary of State Baker"; "when I interviewed former Indian Prime Minister I.K. Gujral"; "I ran this by James Cantalup, president of McDonald's International." But as foreign-affairs columnist for the New York Times, he really has talked to all these people. And he has used his remarkable vantage point to provide a readable overview that no academic or narrow-beat reporter could have given us. Occasionally, the habits he has developed as a columnist get in the way. His imaginary arguments between such people as Warren Christopher and Syrian President Hafez el-Assad are a little too cutesy-chatty, and his overly clever chapter titles ("DOScapital 6.0," "Microchip Immune Deficiency," "Globalution") can be annoying. Still, these are quibbles about a genuinely important book.

I have one reservation, though, that isn't a quibble: I would be embarrassed to lend this book to friends overseas. Friedman gets very rah-rah as an American apologist, and he poses no serious objections to the worldview that regards globalization as an international extension of Manifest Destiny. In the gushy tribute to American values he offers on his final pages, you can almost hear the Boston Pops swelling under the patriotic fireworks.

His message, though, can't be easily ignored. According to Friedman, there is no longer a first, a second and a third world; there are just the Fast World and the Slow World. And his message to the Slow World is simple and a bit chilling: Speed up or become road kill.

By Scott Whitney

Scott Whitney is a freelance writer and assistant editor for Island Business and Honolulu magazines.

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