Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Book #11: The Lexus and the Olive Tree

Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and The Olive Tree, written 10 years ago, examines the effects of a nascent globalization on the world. None of it is new to someone in the year 2010, but it is useful as a contemporary source of post-cold war American (and global) optimism. If nothing else, it's nice to look back and see how people thought in the year 2000 and the sort of future they envisioned for themselves. I bought the book for its explanation of the IMF crisis of 1997, so crucial to the country where I am now, and a topic about which I know nothing.

(Fun fact: such was the impact in Korea of the 'Asian flu' or IMF crisis of 1998, that in my neighbourhood, there's a convenience store named 'IMF Mart')

Among the book's weaker aspects, Friedman's sometimes grating, saccharine writing style aside, are that it reads like a love letter to free-market capitalism, the buzzword that is globalization and "benign american hegemony". Friedman writes a chapter or two explaining why America is the greatest country in the world, why Europe or Japan simply can't compete, and why this won't change for any foreseeable reason in the foreseeable future.

Ten years later, of course, this looks ridiculous. Friedman acknowledged as much in his subsequent books (The World is Flat), which tend to lean toward ushering in Chinese and Indian supremacism while compiling an anthology of everything that's wrong with America. Friedman is an unrelenting, unabashed optimist and romanticist, albeit a romanticist of free markets and democracy, which he believes will always carry the day.

If, for some reason, you come across the Lexus and the Olive Tree (I bought it for $7 in a used-book store) and find yourself either not well-versed on how the Internet works or the fact that the Cold War has ended, it's a good read. It's also nice as a kitschy source from the late '90s, but a better guide to the broad issues (but not the carefully-considered nuances) of globalization would be Friedman's subsequent books.

The World is Flat discusses economic globalization, while Hot, Flat and Crowded argues that renewable energy sources are the key to global economic success in this century. Both are not without their flaws, but they're easy reading about politics and economics. If you don't know much about the topics, you'll learn something. If you know something about them, hopefully you'll be able to come up with better ideas than Friedman.

I enjoy reading Friedman's books and columns, partly because they're easy-to-read and partly because Friedman can explain complex issues with sometimes cheesy humour and easy-to-follow narratives. Of course, there are flaws and dangers in explaining complex issues with humour and simple narratives. Still, he's close to the mark and his optimism and desire to come up with solutions to problems is something to admire.

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