I am in the midst of reading Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat. I should have read it months ago when it first came out. It’s the rare book that I can go for long stretches reading, but this is one. I was up until 5 AM last night and into this morning read it.
I have never felt so optimistic about where the world is going. There is unprecedented development in East Asia where literally another 1.5 billion people are coming onto the free market playing field the west has been enjoying for decades. Furthermore, they’re joining at a point where there are a whole new host of tools that Friedman so aptly details–not the least of which is the Internet, workflow and supply chain innovation, new devices and skyrocketing computing power and storage capability. This isn’t just new technology; it’s a shift where people are no longer constrained by the nation/state they happen to be born in (or at least less and less so). Individuals drive economic development with their own ideas and innovations.
That is really the great story behind this, and also one of the disappointments of Friedman’s book. He makes all these great observations, and then almost completely ignores them in his next chapter “America and the Flat World” where he gives policy advice for the United States. In one breath he’s saying you have all these new tools and opportunities and then in the next he’s saying George Bush needs to champion energy independence. Well to some extent he already has, but regardless: don’t wait for him to do it! Anyone who wants to make a difference and enjoy wealth has to make their own choice to get in the game, engage and add value. Waiting for congress or the president to act is a waste of time. If anything, their focus should be on getting out of the way.
Anyway, Friedman is redeeming himself in my mind now, because in the next chapter he talks about how simply advocating capitalism wholesale isn’t enough, as a country you have to create the stability and environment where people can succeed. If it takes 6 months to start a business in your country and 2 weeks in China, guess who’s going to win. If it takes 2 years to recoup losses from a breach of contract in your country and 3 months in America, guess who’s going to be more competitive. This is so dead on, and why it’s more than just lip service to free markets that is needed. Ironically, I took a break from reading to see an interview with Milton Friedman on Charlie Rose from last night, and he was saying the very same thing: that for all of America’s problems, this is still a great place to do business because of the stability of an investment here.