Friday, April 28, 2006

Thomas Friedman has at least some good ideas!

I have to confess. I have never read any of Thomas Friedman's books. I know... I know... Some people argue that his writings are equivalent in importance to the Bible, Quran and Torah, combined. But, frankly, I was turned off by all the attention the dude got. So I never bothered.
True to precedent though, Friedman's most recent book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, is now the talk of town. Doha tells me that it is almost required reading at her work place, for example. Personally, I don't plan to read that book either. But, then again, I did attend a lecture Friedman gave at Hopkins, so I guess I cheated.
To be frank, the guy has some interesting thoughts. Most prominently, he is now campaigning to transform the alternative energy issue from a "green, tree-hugger" issue into a "national security" one. He points to countries like Iran, Venezuela, and to the fact that Islamic fundamentalism is essentially funded by US dollars that go to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to make his point.
The message seems to resonate over here. But it’s definitely not a new one. Who knows? Maybe Mr. Friedman’s voice will yield positive results by drawing it closer to the heart of political discourse, as opposed to the fringes – which is where it has been since the late nineties. His most recent contribution to his campaign is an article he wrote in the Foreign Policy Magazine, titled "The First Law of Petropolitics, Why the price of oil and the pace of freedom always move in opposite directions."
The article can be found in the May/June 2006 issue of the magazine (i.e. it just hit the stands). And yes, I did read it. A shame, yes… but, as I said earlier, he did present some good ideas, like this one about politics and development in what he terms as “petro-states”.
Very often in petrolist states, not only do all politics revolve around who controls the oil tap, but the public develops a distorted notion of what development is all about. If they are poor ... it is not because their country has failed to promote education, innovation, rule of law, and entrepreneurship. It is because someone is getting the oil money and they are not. People start to think that, to get rich, all they have to do is stop those who are stealing the country's oil, not build a society that promotes education, innovation and entrepreneurship.

I think Friedman hit it right on the mark with that one. The image of Jumblatt on Kalam en Nass "advising" the Gulfies to "share" their oil wealth a little more generously keeps recurring in my head. Most Lebanese would probably agree with him too – as if it were somehow their god-given right to get a share of petro-dollars.

Unfortunately, the thought of challenging society to create the wealth, and challenging the state to provide society with a suitable environment to do so, simply does not occur to him or the rest of our beloved people! In their eyes, there is nothing wrong with our behavior as a people. Noooo... Our problem is that we need more petrodollars so that we remain the way we are, but drive more BMWs and Mercedes-Benz’s and (we should not forget, lest we anger some of our more principled brethren) fight the Israelis 'til kingdom come!


reem said...

I can't say I am familiar with Friedman's writings either, as I only read his famous 'from Beirut to Jerusalem'. So thanks for the briefing on his new work.
What he says about petro-states can be seen first hand in countries such as Nigeria, where the Ijawi rebels are sabotageing operations of oil majors such as shell as a way to demand what they see as their share of Nigeria's oil wealth...In Bolivia (and increasingly across latin america) it is the state which is going down the nationalization road and recapturing energy resources from foreign investors -also as a way to distribute more of that wealth to the people...
Whether resources should remain in public hands for strategic or budget reasons can be debated. But other countries such as the UK simply tax oil companies to get revenues. So of course it all boils down to whether the state is then capable to transfer that wealth to its citizens... But it can't be taken for granted that the Ijaw or the Bolivian state managing those resources will actually make a real difference for the people. And you can't all blame it on the Dutch Disease (ie the phenomenon in oil/resource rich countries which consists in economic activity moving against non-oil/resource activities = a distortion)or on unequal distribution of oil wealth...I wonder what saudis think though...oil is in the hands of the state, but they can't say that they are effectively enjoying the fruits of that wealth can they? and they can't blame it on any foreigners either...

sarj said...

The Economist ran an article lambasting The World Is Flat (, subscription required) and proposed alternatives: Jagdish Bhagwati's In Defence of Globalisation and Martin Wolf's Why Globalisation Works.


Anonymous said...

I am not sure that Friedman is saying globalization doesn't work. He is simply saying it threatens the American worker... Frankly, I think his is a very miopic view. And I wish he would stop lecturing the Arabs on how to run their lives. Yes, most of what is going on in the Arab world stems from complete ignorance. Yes we need someone to guide us - but not a foreign journalist to patronize us...

ghassan karam said...

"The World is Flat" is a year old!!! It is an interesting read but do not expect to learn anything from it about the laws of motion of the globalization phenomenon or anything about the dynamic forces that have led to its creation. Friedman is a master at telling a story and the book is full of them. If it is anecdotes that you want then you will get your moneys worthbut be forewarned, the man never ever ventures below the surface phenomenon. He is satisfied by offering a good
descriptive presentation. The reader must bear in mind that Mr. Friedman is neither, an economist nor a political scientist, neither is he an anthropologist nor a sociologist. His book is a popular but meaningless defense of a ubiquitous idea.

Bhagwati on the other hand knows his subject. He is one of the premiere international economists in the world, although he is too mainstream for my taste. his treatment is dry, not as lively but more satisfying. It gives you something to chew on. Actually I will be surprised if Bhagwati does not win a Nobel prize in economics within the next 1-5 years.

A better book on this subject and a good read also is "Globalization and its Discontents" by Joseph Stiglitz. The book is already 4 years old but it was one of the few written by a major maionstream economist, a Noble laureate, and yet very highly critical of Globalization. Stiglitz resigned from the World Bank, where he was the Senior Economist, before he published the book. He became the Enfant Teribble of the profession. If one is seriosly interested in this area then "Fair Trade" published only last month is an excellent book by Stiglitz in which he carries on his discussion about the prospect for economic development in the globe.