A couple of weeks ago, AB sent me this article by Matt Taibbi. In the course of the brief exchange, I learned that AB and I had both bought The World Is Flat and were unable to finish it. The following is an edited, expanded version of one of my emails.
I see Friedman as essentially a trendspotter. He becomes infatuated with something that is already widely assumed among the people closest to the action and tips it over to the arena of conventional wisdom. He makes up with energy (by way of repetition, within in his book and through his columns) what he lacks in writing skills... and integrity. I really didn't like The World Is Flat, but not because I foresaw the economic crisis. Beyond his bombastic, crude writing style, I can't trust him because he won't let the facts get in the way of a good anecdote. In TWIF, he gives two versions of how he broached the idea for the title to his wife. (The editor missed it. Or did he/she?) Worse from a literary point of view, he gives his characters bad, long-winded dialog for mouthbreathers straight out of 1940-50s SF, where the writer sacrifices all sense of narrative and drama with explanations on the pseudoscience behind the story.
Besides, the world wasn’t becoming flatter—not until the financial crisis broke, that is. I mean, imagine the competitive disadvantage of living at the edge of a “flat world”. The transportation costs to bring your wares to the market would be daunting. In fact, a flat world is a variable, maximum-transaction cost world, which is what gave Columbus the one great idea of his life (which was to carry what had long been understood among navigators to its ultimate conclusion). The correct starting point is a sphere, which equalizes transaction costs at every point in the world. Which sphere, as you may have guessed, is shrinking. Or was, until the financial crisis broke. The title of the book then, should have been The Incredible Shrinking Sphere. Which would not have sold the book, since that’s a story that was beaten to death in the 20th Century. So how did he come up with the title? That’s an easy one. It’s an ill-thought out play on the phrase “level playing field”. Suggestion for Friedman: A post mortem of a worst case scenario could be entitled The World Finally Became Flat.
So how to account for Freidman’s success? Always respect the talk show/lunch host. That’s an ideology-free piece of advice—works for Friedman, works for Bill Kristol. (Can you imagine Glen Greenwald appearing on The Daily Show?) I’m tempted to call it whoring, but I don’t want to offend a certain prudish blogger.
I have had the last installment of my Norimitsu Onishi novela in the can for several days, but I’m tired of beating up a squirrel. So why not pee on a big, fat rhino with a little help from cheap whiskey?