Friedman Leaves Me Cold, Flat, and Disgusted

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Friday January 15, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Between the known and the unknown, falls the shadow. Between the surface and reality falls the guess. Between what can be controlled and what cannot, falls the wish. Between the shadow, the guess, and the wish, comes the consultant, a shadowy seller of guesses striving to say truisms that the wishers want to hear. Thomas Friedman, "The World is Flat" (2005) and the World is "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" (2008), recently graced the shores of Taiwan, and demonstrated this process. Unfortunately the more one listens to him, the more one wonders how he ever became a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. Or better yet, what judgment standards does the Pulitzer Prize Board have? In the 14 Journalistic categories awarded only to paid entrants, does cleverness trump content? Does style trump substance?

As Friedman played on truisms and generalities to Taiwan's audience, his success more than demonstrated again the impoverished ability in listening logic of his audiences around the world. They wish for the quick-fix of truisms and control that will also make them rich. Here, playing a double entendre with racial overtones, Friedman let his audience in on a "big secret, there are too many Americans in the world today." He both condemned and advocated a flat world where everyone has a consumptive American lifestyle.

The audience came to hear Friedman because they wished an answer to control their future and become rich. They ate it up. Friedman made them feel that they deserved this lifestyle more than the wasteful Americans. Somehow however, they did not make the connection that what they wanted was that condemned consumptive American lifestyle and that Friedman who lives in palatial digs, getting paid an estimated US$75,000 per lecture, was the quintessential "American." By example more than words, Friedman showed he is one that the planet is not "designed for."

In America, Friedman had preached conflicting truisms. Don't worry that your jobs are out-sourced; just upgrade your skills and all will be well. At the same time he advocated that Americans open their borders to the world's talent so that they can come and compete for the decreasing jobs which the Americans with upgraded skills would be seeking. Filling a decreasing demand with untold supply does not compute.

In Taiwan Friedman cleverly spoke the words of praise that the government wanted to hear. Taiwan was a nation that "drilled its people and not its ground." It "unlocked their creativity and talent etc." but somehow his words did not match the reality that the talent of the nation was running off to Shanghai and foreign markets. He continued that countries that drill the ground and not their people are those countries that tend to be authoritarian; they sacrifice freedom for production. Ironically this also did not compute with how Taiwan's government was pushing greater and greater linkage and investment in the master authoritarian state across the Strait.

Despite this, Friedman marveled at how Taiwan which was supposedly a flashpoint in the world thirteen years ago under the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) could maintain peace without much shuttle diplomacy and US intervention. He missed the reality that nations do not always need US intervention to manage the world. Further he missed the point that the only real cause of the flashpoint was and still is a grasping autocratic China. Just because Taiwan has temporarily acquiesced to its authoritarian neighboring bully, does not mean that the flashpoint has gone away. In this convoluted context, Friedman, (no doubt here at the Taiwan Government Information Office's expense) suggested that Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou and China's Hu Jin-tao should somehow get the Nobel Peace Prize.

Friedman's ability to milk audiences and talk on both sides of the fence is reminiscent of another master at that trade, Ezra Vogel. Vogel, a Harvard academic wrote "Japan as No. 1," (1979) and rode the Japanese horse lecturing American businessmen on how they needed to imitate and learn from the Japanese system. Conversely of course he lectured the Japanese on how they should be proud to have such a great system. True to form, when that system imploded and the horse lost its legs, Vogel wrote another book, "Is Japan Still No.1?" (2001). Seeking a new horse Vogel lectured Japanese on how the system he had previously told everyone to imitate had self-defeating flaws. In turn, he lectured Americans that they should be thankful that they had strengths to overcome the Japanese self-defeating flaws. That is showmanship.

Right now Vogel is, and Friedman will soon be looking for a Chinese horse to keep them on the lecture circuit well into retirement. Reality will give them a challenge. How can they both disguise and sell China's model of a non-transparent, autocratic, Machiavellian system? How do you sell it to the management and the workforce where it is not part of their culture? How do you promote and sell exploitation in exchange for an "American lifestyle?"