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TheStreet Open House

A Humane Call for Balance

  • Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999, 416 pages (Hardcover, $27.50)
  • As foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, Thomas Friedman sees the world from an enviable position. He is paid to watch the world work -- financially, economically, politically, environmentally, technologically and culturally. He considers his job the best in the world, and perhaps he is the best person for it. With a journalist's skill, he weaves together disparate dots and creates a whole picture. With a storyteller's ease, he explains complex ideas through simple anecdotes. If you read his column, the book is still worthwhile because it gives him a chance to explain his theories thoroughly.

    Friedman's original ideas and his deft use of storytelling make The Lexus and the Olive Tree an intriguing book. In the post-Cold War era, Friedman reminds us, three forces are creating fundamental changes -- the democratization of technology, information and finance. As more and more people have access to the television, telecommunications, the Internet and electronic trading, the world is becoming more interconnected.

    In fact, the world is now linked so tightly that a disaster in one corner of the world -- Russia's financial meltdown last year, for instance -- ripples around the globe. This interconnectedness also creates opportunities for new interaction and wealth. A female Arab journalist can tell the world about her closed and secretive country through the Internet. Financial markets can force a company -- or a country -- to dump its corrupt cronyism and adopt Big Five accounting principals. It's no longer the First World, Second World and Third World, Friedman writes; it's now the Fast World and the Slow World.

    Friedman uses the symbols of a Lexus and an olive tree to explain himself: The Lexus represents the drive for technology, speed, modernization and wealth. The olive tree represents family, tradition, culture and individuality. The threat today is that the Lexus will mow down every olive tree in sight. In other words, as the rest of the world adopts America's technology, pop culture and financial systems, ancient cultures and beliefs could be obliterated. The world could become one big homogenized Disneyland.

    Although Friedman's writing is clear and uncluttered, the book's subject matter is thick and full of paradoxes. "If there is a common denominator that runs through this book it is the notion that globalization is everything and its opposite," he writes. The system empowers and dehumanizes people; it can create opportunity and panic. Friedman explains the potential of globalization and the backlash against it. His main argument: There is no viable system other than capitalism, and globalization is the impending growth of capitalism throughout the world, like it or not.

    The book's only real flaw is Friedman's constant reliance on catch phrases and jargon. Sometimes his writing disintegrates into self-created jargon, forcing the reader to translate. Friedmanisms include the Golden Straitjacket, Microchip Immune Deficiency and DOScapital 6.0. A glossary would have been helpful.

    Jargon aside, the book is a humane call for common sense and balance as the world screams into the next millennium. While Friedman breathlessly describes how globalization shapes politics, finance and economics, he is not a cheerleader for this system. "I feel about globalization a lot like I feel about the dawn," he writes. "I didn't start globalization, I can't stop it ... and I'm not going to waste time trying. All I want to think about is how I can get the best out of this new system, and cushion the worst, for the most people."

    By writing a compelling primer for the accelerating new world model, he has succeeded.

    Christi Dunn is a Houston-based financial writer. Previously, she was a high-tech business reporter for The Tribune in Phoenix, business editor of the Democrat-Gazette in Arkansas, and editor of the San Antonio Business Journal and the San Diego Business Journal. TheStreet.com has a revenue-sharing relationship with Amazon.com under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon.com purchases by customers directed there from TheStreet.com.

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