Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The World is Flat


I'd heard about Thomas L. Friedman's The World is Flat long before I got to read it of course. Living in Singapore, a nexus of the flattening world, makes for a daily self-evident truth.

Finally sitting down to read it, I was totally engaged way beyond my expectations. Friedman's views are well though out and strongly held. It's an impressive analysis, but not dry as a result. By taking us on somewhat of a travelogue with interesting characters and stories along the way, it is a neat voyage of discovery and illumination (although I must I admit to skipping some of the discussion of US domestic issues).

A warning though. This can be a frightening read. Helping you see further down the road does not necessarily mean you are comfortable with the destination! It depends from whence you come, and how prepared you (and your children) are for the journey.

There is one thought that increasingly niggles however.

It strikes me that there is an inherent contradiction between the conventional response of developed nations to the forces flattening the world. We seek to move from sunset to sunrise industries, transform our citizens into high-value knowledge workers. But how sustainable is that? In a flattening world, increasingly it's like trying to hold back the ocean as historic educational and environmental/economic advantages are washed away.

At least, this would be a contradiction if we do not lean on a "hidden assumption" that I think Friedman doesn't directly address: the regulation of people and labour that sovereign states and our tribal nature still demand as our right.

To me, this seems to be the last frontier of globalisation:
  • The freedom of financial markets. Capital can move around the globe in milliseconds. Nations may tax and regulate, but fiscal policy generally does not "control". Check
  • The freedom of goods and services. Check
  • Freedom of labour. Work in progress
In other words: while we may invest and trade together, I will control whether you can live or work with me.

This is border protection in action. The structural mechanism that maintains the "impedence" between nations. It is what helps to maintain differential standards of living, wages and opportunities. Sovereignty.

Logically one would think that this is a barrier that must eventually come down as the flattening process proceeds inexorably. Utopia! ... if it wasn't for human nature. One wonders whether there is any possible future in which this could be played out peacefully. Or will politics, tribalism, and xenophobia overcome our more lofty tendencies?

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