Monday, April 18, 2005

Thomas Friedman, the flat world and geo-greens

I'm not really a fan of Thomas Friedman, but I've been paying more attention to him since he introduced his "Geo-Green" label. If you haven't seen his columns, the point is that an interventionist, globalist, even neocon agenda should be combined with support for alternative energy and conservation. Alternative energy could become a huge industry with the right incentives from government, and if America did this quickly, those jobs would be created here, and we would regain some global respect. Meanwhile, less reliance on foreign oil potentially undermines undemocratic regimes in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, etc. Combine this with support for democratic movements in these countries, and it might lead to bloodless revolutions (as in Ukraine) rather than wars (Iraq). He is now promoting a book that discusses these issues, along with the broader question of how globalization is changing the world and impacting American competitiveness.

Today Robert Wright offered an extension of Friedman's argument in Slate:

[Friedman] shows us some of globalization's beneficiaries—such as Indians who take "accent neutralization" classes and who, so far as I can tell, are as decent and worthy as the American airline reservation clerks and tech-support workers whose jobs they're taking (and who seem to prefer "exploitation" to nonexploitation). What's more, even as some Americans are losing, other Americans are winning, via cheaper airline tickets, more tech support, whatever. So, with net gains outweighing net losses, it's a non-zero-sum game, with a positive-sum outcome—a good thing on balance, at least from a global moral standpoint. (I've argued that this is the basic story of history: Technological evolution allows the playing of more complex, more far-flung non-zero-sum games, and political structures adapt to this impetus.)

Even globalization's downsides—such as displaced American workers—can have an upside for liberals in political terms. A churning workforce strengthens the case for the kind of safety net that Democrats champion and Republicans resist. (Globalization-induced jitters may help explain why President Bush's plan to make Social Security less secure hasn't captured the nation's imagination.) Friedman outlines an agenda of "compassionate flatism" that includes portable, subsidized health care, wage insurance, and subsidies for college and vocational school. You can argue about the details, and you can push them to the left. (He notes that corporations like to put offices and factories in countries with universal health care.) But this is clearly a Democratic agenda, and, as more and more white-collar jobs move abroad, its appeal to traditionally Republican voters should grow.

Globalization's domestic disruptions can also be softened by global institutions. As the sociologist Douglas Massey argues in his just-published liberal manifesto Return of the L Word, the World Trade Organization, though reviled on the far left as a capitalist tool, could, with American leadership, use its clout to enforce labor standards abroad that are already embraced by the U.N.'s toothless International Labor Organization. For example: the right of workers everywhere to bargain collectively. (Workers of the world unite.)


Like Friedman, I accept Bush's premise that spreading political freedom is both morally good and good for America's long-term national security. But is Bush's instinctive means to that end—invading countries that aren't yet free—really the best approach? Friedman's book fortified my belief that the answer is no.

Friedman, unlike many liberals, has long appreciated that, more than ever, economic liberty encourages political liberty. As statist economies have liberalized, this linkage has worked faster in some cases (South Korea, Taiwan) than in others (China), but it works at some speed just about everywhere.

Wright seems to be writing for a Democratic audience, and he ends his long (for Slate, very long) article with an ad hominem attack on "Naderite nationalists" who oppose globalization. Whether the label is fair or not -- I have always been an internationalist; isn't the attack on lefties always that we blame America first? -- the point is that globalization is a fact, and we should embrace the aspects of it that make the world a better, more peaceful place, and attempt to fix the parts that don't. Greens should push progressive policies that address Friedman's "compassionate flatism" agenda--education, health care, job training, research investments -- as well as connected issues of alternative energy, immigration reform and support for Democratic movements.


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