Friedman's 'Lexus': The future is here

April 11, 1999|By Robert Ruby | By Robert Ruby,Special to the Sun

"The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization," by Thomas L. Friedman. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 382 pages. $26.

The skills we needed for success as individuals were reading, writing and arithmetic applied with diligence. A nation was strong if it had a large standing army and missiles with a large throw-weight. A corporation could thrive if it had a well-made or cleverly priced widget to sell. Those were the equations for every type of security. You could bank on them, and we did and many of us became comfortable and rich.

And now the equations are defunct. Might as well insist the Earth is flat, might as well sail your wooden ship through the Northwest Passage as depend on the old maxims. There is a new calculus. A fast modem will benefit your society more than will another missile. A people would do well to seek capital and computers rather than more land. Give a corporation information, let every worker gather and share knowledge, and that's how we will thrive.

The New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman confronts you with the new verities. What creates wealth, he convincingly argues, has suddenly changed. For national or corporate success, you now need a sort of triple democracy. Democratization of technology (computers), of finance (credit cards) and of information (the Internet). Those are the demands of globalization, which is the brave new interconnected world.

Information is its most important currency. The more information you have the better you can make or market your widget, or so the argument goes. Information will reign and woe to the nations that try to block its path. Think the old Soviet Union. Think Afghanistan. You can no more hide from the changing source of wealth than you could in earlier times escape the influence of the Romans. Globalization is part of the culture, Friedman says. Our culture of PCs and Big Macs is what globalization is making the norm world-wide.

This is a profoundly American book. It sees a silver lining, even when describing a lessening of economic security. Friedman tells the story of a Minnesota wheat farmer who began relying on a custom software package to learn how much wheat he harvested from his land on an acre-by-acre basis. The aggregate amount was never a mystery -- count the total number of bushels -- but his software measured the yield in smaller units. He "democratized" his fields; each acre individually informed him what it could do. He adjusted the seeding, irrigation and fertilizer accordingly and thereby increased his yield.

Information set him free. It increased his production. It also tyrannized him -- given more information, you have more decisions to make. In larger organizations, the torrent of information changes the role of top managers, because no one or two people can know it all and make all the decisions. With globalization, concentrating power at the top will not work any better for Acme Inc. than it did for the Politburo.

How you react to Friedman's brisk portrait depends in part on your computer skills. The book is not altogether alarming for anyone with a home computer and a modem; you finish the book believing you have some small hope of economic success and thank your lucky stars for being American rather than, say, a member of the surly workforce in France. But anyone upset by rapid change or lacking confidence on-line will close the covers frightened and feeling old beyond his years.

"When it comes down to the question of which system today is the most effective at generating rising standards of living, the historical debate is over," Friedman writes in his straight-ahead style. "The answer is free-market capitalism. ... So ideologically speaking, there is no more mint chocolate chip, there is no more strawberry swirl, and there is no more lemon-lime. Today there is only free-market vanilla and North Korea. There can be different brands of free-market vanilla and you can adjust your society to it by going faster or slower. But, in the end, if you want higher standards of living in a world without walls, the free market is the only ideological alternative left. One road. Different speeds. But one road."

He is exhoratory, fervent, convincing. At times he shouts, and his penchant for catch phrases is maddening (countries wear "Golden Straightjackets" to satisfy the "Electronic Herd" -- and so on). His using a Lexus as the symbol for prosperity and modernity seems all wrong even when he explains it, but that is a quibble. "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" makes alarming good sense, it educates and provokes.

Robert Ruby, an editor on leave from The Sun, spent five years in the Middle East as the paper's correspondent there. He is author of "Jericho: Dreams, Ruins, Phantoms," and is working on a second nonfiction book.

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