If Books Could Kill

The World is Flat

June 01, 2023
If Books Could Kill
The World is Flat
Show Notes Transcript

Much has been said about globalization, but perhaps no one has said it worse than Thomas Friedman.

Content Note: Discussions of xenophobic and racist content, especially toward the end of the episode.

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 Thanks to Mindseye for our theme song!

Peter: Michael.

Michael: Peter.

Peter: What do you know about The World Is Flat? 

Michael: Nothing. Not even enough to make a joke. 

[If Books Could Kill theme]

Michael: So, I know the music kicked in, but I'm not making a joke. I really know nothing about this book, [Peter laughs] so I'm excited to talk about it. 

Peter: Well, what do you know about Thomas Friedman? 

Michael: I know that he's a New York Times columnist. I know that a lot of people on the left really dislike him, but I've never really known why. He's always been somebody who's been in the side mirror for me as someone who people like me talk about a lot, but I've never really understood why. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: He's how I regarded Taylor Swift until you told me about 1989. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: It's just like, "I don't know about this person."

Peter: There is no need to know about Thomas Friedman. He doesn't add any value to the world in any meaningful way. The background is actually relatively simple. He made a name for himself covering the Lebanese Civil War in the late-1970s. The Times picks him up. They dispatch him to Beirut for a bit. He's covering the conflicts in the region. He's winning Pulitzer Prizes. 

Michael: Oh.

Peter: And then in the 1990s, he drifts his way over to the op-ed pages, where he has remained ever since. But I think the reason that he's so annoying is not just his ideology, it's his style. 

Michael: Oh, yeah. 

Peter: Malcolm Gladwell was like anecdote guy. He tells this anecdote and then he follows it up with some data that we ended up thinking was maybe some cherry-picked data. Friedman does the anecdote part and then just stops. 

Michael: Oh. [laughs] 

Peter: And then he starts speculating wildly. He could be in a bodega in New York. And if two guys walked in sandals, he would write a column that starts with like, "In New York City, no one wears shoes." 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs]

Peter: That's the level of reasoning that I was reading over and over again for 600 pages long.

Michael: No way. This book is 600 pages long?

Peter: 600 pages. 

Michael: Oh.

Peter: So, let's dive into the book. He starts off on a golf course in India. He's golfing, and he's looking around, and he sees billboards for all big Western companies, IBM, Microsoft. And he's like, "Whoa, I'm in India, but there are signs for companies from America?" This is when he has his revelation about the globalizing world. He goes on to compare his journey to India to that of Christopher Columbus. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: Now, I'm going to send you an abridged quotation, and I think this will give you a good sense of how he writes and the comparisons he likes to draw his style. 

Michael: You love sending vibe setters. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: He says, "I had come to Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, on my own Columbus-like journey of exploration. Columbus sailed with the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María in an effort to discover a shorter, more direct route to India by heading west across the Atlantic, on what he presumed to be an open sea route to the East Indies. I set out for India by going due east, via Frankfurt. I had Lufthansa business class. I knew exactly which direction I was going thanks to the GPS map displayed on the screen that popped out of the armrest of my airline seat. I too encountered people called Indians. I too was searching for the source of India's riches. Columbus was searching for hardware - precious metals, silk, and spices - the source of wealth in his day. I was searching for software, brainpower, complex algorithms, knowledge workers, call centers, transmission protocols, breakthroughs in optical engineering - the sources of wealth in our day." Okay, so he's doing some, like, it's a land of contrast, but this is different in these really obvious ways.

Peter: Right. So, this is like high school term paper level observations.

Michael: Yeah, it's fine.

Peter: But also calling metals, silk, and spices hardware, and then workers and call centers are software for some reason, [Michael laughs] I don't quite-- 

Michael: I love that your brain is fried from 600 pages of this, because I'm like, "This isn't that bad, but I've only read one paragraph of this." [laughs] 

Peter: The compounding effect of this is like, I had a whole section of this episode that I was just writing out and I was like, "Oh, man, this is fucking hilarious." And then I took a day off and read it again and I was like, "Mike is not going to understand why this is funny to me."

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: Like, you need to read 400 pages of Thomas Friedman and then read this, and you'll understand why it's funny. 


Michael: I'm looking forward to you turning my brain into this specific type of mush. 

Peter: So, the section continues, and I've sent you that. 

Michael: Okay. Columbus was happy to make the Indians her met his slaves, a pool of free manual labor. I just wanted to understand why the Indians I met were taking our work, why they had become such an important pool for the outsourcing of service and information technology work from America and other industrialized countries. Columbus had more than one hundred men on his three ships; I had a small crew from the Discovery Times channel that fit comfortably into two banged-up vans, with Indian drivers who drove barefoot.

Columbus accidentally ran into America but thought he had discovered part of India. I actually found India and thought many of the people I met there were Americans. Some had actually taken American names, and others were doing great imitations of American accents at call centers and American business techniques at software labs. Columbus reported to his king and queen that the world was round, and he went down in history as the man who first made this discovery." That's not true. "I returned home and shared my discovery only with my wife, and only in a whisper. 'Honey,' I confided, 'I think the World Is Flat.'" Oh, God, the brain mush is starting to happen.

Peter: Right. Okay.

Michael: He's doing another thing that I feel like I saw in Rich Dad Poor Dad, where it's a very simple concept, but he just overexplains it again and again and again, and you're like, Okay, I get it. Your experience is similar to Columbus in some ways and different in others. I don't know that I needed, what is this, 12 different examples? 

Peter: This is a consolidated version of this passage. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: I can't tell you how much I cut out of this. This is, like, four pages in the book of just going on about the comparisons between Columbus going to America versus me going to India, and it's just drones on. 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: It's the perfect vignette to open the book, because all of the quintessential Thomas Friedmanisms are here. So, yeah, first, you have the glaring factual inaccuracy that you noticed. It's a well-known myth that Columbus was the first person to discover that the Earth was round. 

Michael: I knew that in ancient Egypt. [crosstalk] 

Peter: I literally learned that was a myth in elementary school. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: So, then second, it has all of these try hard comparisons that you do not need. Columbus was on a wooden ship, but I'm in a big metal airplane. And then third, you have something that makes you feel like maybe it's racist, but you're not sure. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] I too encountered Indians. Yeah.

Peter: And then the last thing we have here is the bizarre metaphor about the world being flat. It's the name of the book, of course, and he uses the idea that the Earth is flat as a metaphor for our increasing interconnectedness. 

Michael: I will defend the concept of it. It's like the fact that the world is becoming more interconnected, and that people can much more quickly and easily travel from place to place and communicate across the globe is genuinely something that has profound impacts on the world. 

Peter: Oh, sure. Yeah.

Michael: He's exploring the impacts. He found a cute metaphor. I think that's fine, having, like, a cute little phrase that you start your book with. 

Peter: I think it's why the book is popular, because he has this metaphor-- Even though it doesn't really make sense, a flat world would be a less connected world, right? 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: I don't want to be too pedantic, because he is just being cute. But I will say my tolerance for cutesy metaphors declined pretty drastically over the course of the book. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: When I first read it, I was like, "Sure, I get it." By the end of it though, I was like, "He doesn't understand shapes."

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: I am not 100% sure that he understands shapes. 

Michael: I also think what he's doing is, it's this performance of intelligence and analysis. He's basically drawing a metaphorical difference between Columbus and himself. In the way that a high school essay would, it seems smart like, "Wow, he's really analyzing this." But then when you actually think about it, he's not really saying anything.

Peter: Right.

Michael: There's no real insight or analysis. 

Peter: See, you understand Thomas Friedman. 

Michael: Yeah. I know what's happening. [laughs] 

Peter: Thomas Friedman has been here with you all along. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: So, Friedman says that when Columbus set sail until about 1800, that era was Globalization 1.0. 

Michael: Oh, we're doing the 1.0 metaphors.

Peter: Which was characterized by nation states driving global integration. 

Michael: Uh-huh.

Peter: Then you had from 1800 to 2000 or so, globalization 2.0-

Michael: Oh, my God. 

Peter: -which is characterized by the rise of multinational corporations. And now, we are in globalization 3.0-

Michael: Oh, my God.

Peter: -characterized by the individual having access to technology that allows them to compete globally. 

Michael: Okay. I understand why people hate this guy now. [laughs] 

Peter: Yeah. Pretty fucking annoying, right? 

Michael: It only took like six minutes. 

Peter: His penchant for oversimplifying this shit. For him, it's a-- Oh, man, I'm going to mix metaphors now. I was going to say, it's a penchant and then it's a thirst that can't be quenched. 

Michael: Oh, you can't do it in the Thomas Friedman episode. Yeah.

Peter: He's ruined my brain. 


Peter: Chapter 2 is called The Ten Forces That Flattened the World. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: I hope that I can do justice to how bizarre this chapter is. It is 150 pages long. 

Michael: Oh, my God. 

Peter: In isolation, a lot of this chapter is perfectly reasonable. But he has this way of talking until things no longer make sense. It's the same thing with the Columbus comparison, where if he had stopped after two sentences, you might have never thought about it again. But he spoke about it for so long that by the end of it, you're like, "What the fuck is this? What is this about?" 

Michael: Right.

Peter: The first section, the first flattener, it's titled, When the walls came down, and the windows came up.

Michael: Oh.

Peter: This is about the collapse of the Berlin Wall, but also Microsoft Windows getting popular. 


Michael: Okay. I don't want to be unfair. 

Peter: He talks about the decline of centrally planned economies, right? 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: He's very anticommunist, and he has all these snarky remarks. He says, "Under communism, everyone is equally poor, and under capitalism they are unequally rich." 

Michael: Yeah. Again, he's this perfect little zing machine. 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: But that's not really insightful or accurate about the levels of inequality in the Soviet Union. 

Peter: Again, for some reason, half of this section is about how the Windows PC also helped precipitate the flattening of the world. But the discussion is completely detached from the Berlin Wall discussion. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: He combines them into one flattener, and from what I can tell, it's just so he can have that cute little title about the wall coming down and the windows going up, even though it doesn't make any sense, because how would you put windows up on a wall that went down?

Michael: [laughs] You're going to just apply pure literalism to every single thing that he says, aren't you? You're like, "No cuteness, Friedman."

Peter: There's only so many times you can do this. You know what I mean? 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: If someone just had the occasional metaphor like this, you'd be like, "All right, whatever. It doesn't quite work. It's a metaphor." But when someone does it 20 times in a row, by the end of it, you're like, "You can't put a fucking window on a wall that came down."

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: So, the next flattener is the Netscape IPO.

Michael: Okay.

Peter: He uses that as something that's symbolizes the rise of the internet, of the worldwide web. Pretty inoffensive conceptually, although there are long sections that are like, "What is the world wide web?"

Michael: Right. 

Peter: It was 2005. 


Michael: Yeah. We've all been searching for pornography rather than trading it with people in AOL chatrooms for seven years at that point. 

Peter: [laughs] So, the next one is Workflow Software. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: So, we get such insights as, "The first big breakthrough in workflow was actually the combination of the PC and email." That was one of many times that I just wrote, "Thank you, Tom" in the margin. Like, "Very helpful, Tom." 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: All right. The next flattener is Uploading, which is what it sounds like the ability to upload things to the internet where other people can download them. He gives the example of Wikipedia and blogs. 

Michael: Those aren't even really uploading though.

Peter: If you've been paying attention, the last three were Netscape, Workflow Software, and Uploading, which could probably just be consolidated into the internet.

Michael: Yeah, the internet. Yeah. 

Peter: And then, the next three flatteners are also just one thing framed slightly differently. Outsourcing, where you move a function of your company to another country. Offshoring, where you move an entire operation to another country, which is outsourcing at a larger scale. And insourcing, where a company takes on a function from another company, which is literally just outsourcing from the other company's perspective. 

Michael: Right. [laughs] 

Peter: Whatever. The eighth flattener is supply chaining, which just means improving supply chains in various ways. The ninth flattener is informing, which is his term for how Google and Yahoo and other search engines have given us a wide array of information at our fingertips.

Michael: That's just the internet again. 

Peter: It's the internet again. 

Michael: It's the internet again. 

Peter: And then, his 10th flattener is what he calls the steroids. All of the various technologies that he says are turbocharging the other flattener. They include wireless technology, voiceover IP, file sharing, and more widespread use of personal digital assistance. Again, basically just the internet again. 

Michael: Over the internet. 

Peter: So, those are the flatteners. If the metaphor of flattener with steroids isn't quite working for you, the next chapter is about what he calls The Triple Convergence. 

Michael: Okay. 

Peter: He says that three simultaneous convergences have occurred to drive globalization. The first is the convergence of the 10 flatteners with one another. The second is the convergence of the 10 flatteners with new business practices. The third is the convergence of the resulting new economy with new people- 

Michael: Oh, my God. 

Peter: -from China. India. Russia, similar countries. 

Michael: Peter, I'm exhausted. 

Peter: So, to synthesize, you have the 10 flatteners ranging from The Fall of the Berlin Wall to Outsourcing to blogs. And then you have the steroids that turbocharge the flatteners, which are themselves also counted as a flattener, and one of which wireless technologies Friedman describes as the icing on the cake. 

Then, you have The Triple Convergence where the flatteners, including the steroids and the icing on the cake converge with one another and also new business practices and new populations, and all of that is Globalization 3.0. 

Michael: This is like the part of being John Malkovich where he goes into his own brain. 


Michael: That is, nothing makes sense in there. 

Peter: Later in the book, there's a part where he says that, "The next generation of products and services are the great synthesizers." 

Michael: Oh, my God. 

Peter: I was like, "It never ends. It never ends."


Michael: This is, again, why these books should not be 600 pages long, because I feel like he could have pulled it off if it was just like the 10 flatteners. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: It's an excuse to talk about various ways the internet is changing the world. Fine. 

Peter: Yeah. Right.

Michael: But it seems like he's gilding the lily and then throwing in these other like, "Well, this is like the acceleration of the flattening." And then the unflattening and the re-flattening at the same time, it's like, "Thomas, calm down." 

Peter: That's the thing is, there are all these little data points in here where he's describing some business practice that has evolved over the last few years, and I'd be like, "Oh, that's fascinating." But then, he builds it into these metaphors in a way where you can't actually appreciate them on their own, because he's trying to just jam it into this narrative in a way that is clunky and just doesn't quite work. It's just so fucking annoying. I don't even know what the difference between flattening and converging is. Several of the flatteners and convergences are the same thing from what I can tell. Like, outsourcing to India and China is a flattener, but then people from India and China participating in the economy is a convergence. I feel like he fundamentally doesn't understand why we use metaphors. 


Michael: It's funny because I'm like a big storytelling structure guy. I think the way that you outline chronological events is really important. What information you give to the audience at what time is really important. A lot of stories can be understructured where they feel aimless and you're like, "Why is this person telling me this?" But then, things can also be overstructured where it's like, "Okay, there's this rule and then there's these 10 things and there's the three ways that the 10 things interact with each other." The whole point of this is to make it easier to absorb the actual information. But it doesn't seem like he's giving you much actual information. It seems like he's just spinning his wheels and giving you more and more and more metaphors. Did you feel like you learned anything? Like, does he have interesting sequences in this book? 

Peter: The book is basically a string of anecdotes packed into metaphors. There are times within the anecdotes where you're like, "Oh, that's interesting." At one point, he was talking about the bursting of the dotcom bubble and how that actually helped drive globalization in certain ways, because allocations of resources changed after the crash in [crosstalk] way that benefited India. 

Michael: That's interesting. Yeah. 

Peter: Yeah. There's a lot of good writing about how economies are often shaped by market crashes. There are plenty of little things like that. It was like, "Oh, this is, in and of itself, not the least interesting thing." His problem is that he's just bitten off way more than he can chew, and his ability to boil this stuff down to a clean narrative is just not there. I was yearning for Gladwell. 

Michael: That is the sickest bird of this book that it made you miss Gladwell, [Peter laughs] like, "Deliver Me, Malcolm." 

Peter: Look, Outliers was the first book I read for this show, and I didn't realize how good I had it. 

Michael: Yeah, we retract our previous episode. It's fine. 

Peter: [laughs] So, that is the first half of the book, basically. He's describing how and why globalization 3.0 is happening. I think maybe we can pause here and talk about the concept of bullshit, because this kept coming into my brain. Friedman is super light on data. There are no charts or graphs in the book. There are only a couple of sections where he finds any data at all to support his conclusions. The primary vibe you get is just like a guy talking out of his ass, just like telling you a story and then telling you what you should extrapolate from the story without really justifying that extrapolation. So, I'm going to give you some of my favorite examples. 

Michael: Oh, yeah.

Peter: I want to be clear. I chose these off the cuff. These are probably not anywhere close to the worst things written in this book. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: The first one. 

Michael: America in the 1990s, under President Clinton, was perceived as a big, dumb dragon, pushing people around in the economic and cultural spheres, knowingly and unknowingly. We were Puff the Magic Dragon, and people wanted to vote in what we were puffing. Then, came 9/11, and America transformed itself from Puff the Magic Dragon, touching people around the world economically and culturally into Godzilla with an arrow in his shoulder, spitting fire and tossing his tail around wildly, touching people's lives in military and security terms, not just economic and cultural ones. Oh, my God. I get it, Peter. I see it. I see it-

Peter: What the fuck is he talking about? 

Michael: -clearly now. [laughs] 

Peter: All right, so first of all, the overall lesson of this is supposed to be that prior to 9/11, we weren't impacting other countries militarily.

Michael: So true. 

Peter: But then, also Puff the Magic Dragon? What is this metaphor? 

Michael: [laughs] It really feels like he came up with this cute contrast between Puff the Magic Dragon and Godzilla.

Peter: Right. Godzilla with an arrow in his shoulder? 

Michael: With an arrow, I don't know where that comes from. Who's big enough to shoot an arrow that would harm Godzilla? Yeah, my brain is melting trying to think of this, because all he's really saying here is that America before 9/11 had soft power, and then that became more hard power after 9/11, which I guess you could make the argument for that. But he's not even really making the argument with data or anything. He's just making the argument with this fucking metaphor. 

Peter: That's why it's so quintessentially Friedman. The underlying point is super vague and probably not correct. Then also, the metaphor he's using is baffling. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: Like, people wanted a vote in what we were puffing?

Michael: Yeah, this makes you miss Gladwell. This makes me miss Huntington, [Peter laughs] where Huntington would just say what he fucking means.

Peter: All right, I'm going to send you another one. 

Michael: Okay. He says, "Analysts have always tended to measure a society by classical economic and social statistics. Its deficit to GDP ratio, or its unemployment rate, or the rate of literacy among its adult women. Such statistics are important and revealing. But there is another statistic much harder to measure that I think is even more important and revealing." Oh, my fucking God. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: "Does your society have more memories than dreams or more dreams than memories?" What? 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: Peter, you talk about GDP, but I talk about dreams and memories. 

Peter: Let's talk about your memory to dream ratio, baby. 

Michael: This is worse than Rich Dad. This is pay yourself first levels of just like, "All right, man. Sure." [laughs] 

Peter: What he's ostensibly talking about is like, "Is your country living in its past glories, or does it have a plan for the future?"

Michael: Right. But he's trying to contrast it with other statistics, even though it's not meaningfully a statistic. 

Peter: It's harder to measure is that you cannot measure it. 

Michael: Right. It's like saying, "Other people measure their health by how often they're going to the gym or how many carbohydrates they're eating, but I measure it with my ratio of excellence to laziness."

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: It's like, fine, but that's a different category of things. 

Peter: I think what I see in this is just a guy who, every time he thinks of a metaphor, has to put it in the book. 

Michael: [laughs] He's never like, "I'm just going to save that for my wife. I've got a couple of bangers I'm leaving on the table."

Peter: It really struck me that. I was like, "Maybe this is why he's a popular op-ed writer." Because if what you were doing was just turning each of these into a punchy little op-ed column. 

Michael: Totally. 

Peter: I could see how that works. I could see how someone would be like, "Oh, dreams and memories. Sure." 

Michael: It's also, a low-key indictment of the rest of his career, because are we a dream society or are we a memory society is like a perfect 600- to 800-word op-ed? But it's also totally meaningless. 

Peter: Right. 

Michael: You can find anecdotes that pad that out, but these are just totally qualitative categories. You can't say in any definitive or interesting way what we are. 

Peter: But there's also a degree to which his bullshit more directly impacts his thesis. One of his worst tendencies is that he will squeeze any little anecdote that he can find into his thesis. There is a section that starts off with, "In the fall of 2004, I went out to Minneapolis to visit my mother and had three "world is flat" encounters right in a row. 

Michael: Okay. 

Peter: Right when I read that, I was like, "Fuck, yes." 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] Here it comes. [crosstalk] 

Peter: This is about to be some good Friedman. [Michael laughs] He says, "First, before I left home in Washington, I dialed 411, directory assistance to try to get a friend's phone number in Minneapolis. A computer answered, and a computerized voice asked me to pronounce the name of the person whose number I was requesting. For whatever reason, I could not get the computer to hear me correctly, and it kept saying back to me in a computerized voice, 'Did you say--?' I kept having to say the family name in a voice that masked my exasperation. Eventually, I was connected to an operator, but I did not enjoy this friction-free encounter with directory information. I craved the friction of another human being."

Michael: Representative. [Peter laughs] That's what you got to deal with the phone, Thomas.

Peter: So, he's saying that automation of 411 directory assistance, is an example of the world flattening? 

Michael: Yeah. And also, being bad and not working. 

Peter: I don't really understand. I think it is part of a mistake that he makes consistently, which is, just folding any technological enhancement or innovation into the flattening concept. 

Michael: Right. He's just saying ways in which the world is changing, basically. 

Peter: Yeah. The next two "world is flat" encounters in this part are, one, a friend of his is annoyed that his clients prefer email. And two, another friend of his in marketing is upset that advertising firms are increasingly "selling just numbers, not creative instinct." 

Michael: What? 

Peter: So, one of those is at least about email, I guess. The story was about his clients preferring email bids rather than bids over the phone and it's like, "Is this about the world flattening or is this just like someone is like, 'Can you shoot me an email?'" And this guy's like-- [crosstalk] 

Michael: This is just boomers, complaining that things are different.

Peter: Right. And the other guy is just complaining about a trend in advertising pictures. 

Michael: [laughs] Welcome to me reading fucking Nudge, Peter, where you're like, "This is not a nudge." [laughs] 

Peter: [laughs] Yeah, he has this-- there's no anecdote too thin for him to lean on. This made me think of the famous essay on bullshit, Harry Frankfurt, where he describes bullshit as not simply lies. What he says is that people who tell the truth and people who lie are both concerned with the truth. The people who are telling the truth are trying to describe the truth, and the people who lie are trying to obscure the truth. Bullshit is people who have no concern for the truth. Now, I'm not sure that I would go so far as to say that Friedman, in general, is bullshitting. But what I think he is doing is prioritizing telling this narrative. So, he packs every story he can into the narrative, no matter how clumsy it is. By the end of it, you're not even really sure what flattening actually means, right? 

Michael: Right. It's similar to David Brooks' schtick too, where he's like, "They eat Thai food in blue states, and they watch Home Shopping Network in red states." And then when people debunk it, that like, "Yeah, there's plenty of immigrants in red states, and Home Shopping Network is extremely popular in blue states." He's like, "Da, da, da, come on, don't be pedantic."

Peter: Yes. 

Michael: "You know what I'm getting at. You know the vibes." Well, it seems like your whole book is a vibe then. You're not really meaningfully doing any research. You're throwing everything into your book and just leaving people with an impression without really interrogating whether that impression is true. 

Peter: Right. There's this phenomenon that I first noted when we were discussing Fukuyama, The End of History. And then, we discussed when we were talking about Nudge. That's that a lot of these pop science, pop politics books are correct only when you zoom out so far that their thesis is no longer interesting. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: So, if the claim is, "Hey, look, technology is creating a more interconnected world." Sure, that is true. That's what Freeman can always fall back on as the obvious truth underpinning the book. But then it's something that no one needed a book to tell them in 2005, right? 

Michael: It would be very funny to be friends with one of these opinion columnists where every single story you tell at dinner, you're like, "Oh, it's going to be in the fucking book."

Peter: Right.

Michael: You're like, "I was at the bank today, and somebody's eating a banana in line." And then two years later, you're like, "Oh, goddamn it. [Peter laughs] It's in that book. It's not even a good anecdote, man."

Peter: Right. You're like, "Fucking advertising firms these days, they're all numbers centric." You look over at Friedman and he's just wide eyed looking back at you. 

Michael: He's jotting notes furiously, "Slow down, slow down."

Peter: What's interesting about The World Is Flat is that if you look at it with a little more granularity, the basic claim is actually a little more nuanced than it might seem. A couple of years after The World Is Flat was published, there's this economist critical of Friedman, Pankaj Ghemawat, who wrote a piece foreign policy called Why the World Isn't Flat. He says, "In truth, the world is not nearly as connected as these writers would have us believe. Despite talk of a new wired world where information, ideas, money, and people can move around the planet faster than ever before, just a fraction of what we consider globalization actually exists. The portrait that emerges from a hard look at the way companies, people, and states interact is a world that's only beginning to realize the potential of true global integration. And what these trends backers won't tell you is that globalization's future is more fragile than you know."

Michael: What does he mean by that? 

Peter: So, what he says is, if you actually look at the data about the flows of capital, 90% of global direct investment is still domestic, and the level of cross border migration, for example, is surprisingly small. 4% of people live in a country other than the one that they were born in. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: One interesting thing is that the volume of cross border flows has consistently increased, but the geographic reach of those flows has not increased much since the turn of the century. So, the flow of information, capital, trade people is highly regionalized, meaning that these things flow relatively freely within certain smaller regions, but not globally. 

Michael: This actually came up a lot in the debate over Brexit. The Brexit campaign was saying like, "Oh, we're going to do all these great trade deals with China and India, and we'll replace all of our European trade." 

Peter: Uh-huh.

Michael: But then people pointed out that the UK's biggest trading partners are Germany, Netherlands, France, Ireland.

Peter: Right.

Michael: America's biggest trading partners are Mexico and Canada. It's like, "Yes, we can do all these things, border flows, skype, moving money around," whatever. But most of what is actually happening is fairly proximate. 

Peter: Right, which is not to say that globalization is not happening. It's just that it's much more complex than the world is getting flatter. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: I think that that's important, because the book is about globalization and how our world is becoming more interconnected. It's one of the most popular books about globalization ever written. But also, by the time it was published in 2005, there was actually already a cottage industry about globalization. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: There's a hack op ed piece that is ubiquitous by the end of the 1990s that's like, "I used to send paper mail, and now I send email," right? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: He's pitching this flatness concept as if it's novel, when in fact, it's actually just an affirmation of everyone's preexisting intuitions about globalization, which is the opposite of what insight is. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: This isn't just academic. There are policy decisions that are impacted by perceptions of globalization. There are surveys showing that people tend to vastly overestimate the amount of global integration. And that matters in a lot of ways. Just for example, there's polling that shows that people want to restrict immigration less when they learn how low actual levels of immigration are. 

Michael: Yeah, exactly. That's the thing is, he's not thinking like, "Oh, I have this impression of what's going on," or "It feels like globalization is happening in this way. I should check into this. I should talk to actual experts. I should look at statistics." He's basically just reifying how it feels.

Peter: Right.

Michael: But that's what journalism is supposed to do. That's the number one fucking thing you're supposed to do as a journalist. It's like, "This thing that feels true, I'm going to double check it."

Peter: Yeah. That's also just what makes for compelling journalism. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: Just as like a selfish reader, like, "Tell me something interesting, please."

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: I'll say that about Gladwell. He told me some interesting stuff. Even if it turned out to be weird, racist lies, [Michael laughs] I was compelled," all right? 

Michael: And who can fault him for telling you like, "Racist lies that were wrong as long as it was entertaining."? 

Peter: So, I do have a more specific criticism of the book and Friedman, in general, which is that he is, like, endlessly sycophantic and deferential toward corporations, and generally just presents his narratives through The Eyes of Elites. Again, I've said that the book is a string of anecdotes, and each has a little lesson that you're supposed to take away. A huge percentage of those anecdotes come through interviews with corporate executives. The result is that this is really the story of globalization as told by corporate elites. There's a segment where Friedman is discussing Walmart as an example of how flattening forces can create tension between workers and consumers. 

He says, "In pursuit of the world’s most efficient supply chain, Wal-Mart has piled up a list of business offenses over the years that has given the com­pany several deserved black eyes and that it is belatedly starting to address in a meaningful way." I am talking about everything from Walmart's recently exposed practice of locking overnight workers into its stores to its allowing Walmart maintenance contractors to use illegal immigrants as janitors, to its role as defendant in the largest civil rights class action lawsuit in history. One can only hope that all the bad publicity Walmart has received in the last few years will force it to understand that there is a fine line between a hyper efficient global supply chain and one that has pursued cost cutting and profit margins to such a degree that whatever social benefits it is offering with one hand, it is taking away with the other. 

Michael: Walmart never violated workers' rights against to Thomas.

Peter: Yeah, I read that. I was like, "Actually cool. Yeah, that's true." There is tradeoff between these things. This was the first time I saw him openly taking a company to task. But then he writes this, which I have sent you. You can read what's highlighted there. 

Michael: Okay. "The successor generation to Sam Walton's leadership seems to recognize that it has both an image and a reality to fix. How far Wal-Mart will adjust remains to be seen. But when I asked Wal-Mart's CEO, H. Lee Scott, Jr directly about these issues, he did not duck. In fact, he wanted to talk about it. 'What I think I have to do is institutionalize the sense of obligation to society to the same extent that we've institutionalized the commitment to the customer,' said Scott. The world has changed, and we missed that. We believed that good intentions and good stores and good prices would cause people to forgive what we are not as good at, and we were wrong." "In certain areas," he added, "we are not as good as we should be. We just have to get better." This sucks. 

Peter: This is literally the last word on the subject in the book. Just actually running PR for Walmart unreal. By the way, the lawsuit, the largest civil rights lawsuit in history that he was referencing, how did Walmart handle that? They ran it up to the Supreme Court and got it tossed on a technicality. Walmart de-dukes.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: The fact that he would outline all of this and be like, "Let's see what the CEO has to say."

Michael: Yeah. Good God.

Peter: Or, "How are you a fucking journalist, dude?"

Michael: I loathe this constant baby brain naivete of these journalists who are like, "We talked to a CEO, and he said he's going to institutionalize their social impact to the same extent they institutionalize good prices." But this is a company. It's a profit maximizing company. It's publicly traded. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: The CEO cannot prioritize social impact over profits. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: This is how we've decided to structure our fucking economy. You can't constantly pretend that this is not the case. 

Peter: I talked to the CEO, and he said that Walmart rules. 

Michael: There's also a weird, pooping back and forth element to this too, because when I worked in Human Rights, I always worked on corporate Human Rights violations. And part of my job was dealing with corporations directly. Like, I would go to these meetings and have to put on a suit and go talk to corporate types and go to these corporate dinner type things. A lot of C-suite people fashion themselves as thought leaders. But then a lot of the actual punditry that they're doing and things that they talk about at these dinners, it's stuff that they're regurgitating from Thomas Friedman columns. 

Peter: Right. I guess at some point, he's talking to CEOs. He's also, by the way, talking to elite government officials at times, right? 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: He takes their thoughts, pumps them into the New York Times with a metaphor. Those guys read it, they make policy based on it, and then they talk to Thomas Friedman again. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: It's hard not to see that perhaps Thomas Friedman is a pawn in the games of powerful people. 

Michael: Right. 

Peter: If he's just going to regurgitate what they tell him, that can be useful, right? When Tom Friedman is going to publish your little screed about how Walmart is going to do better in his book, that's useful for a CEO. 

Michael: I cannot believe he actually listed out all of the problems with Walmart and then was like, "The CEO told me they're going to do better." I cannot fucking believe it. 

Peter: It's insane. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: I guess, I knew this because he's constantly talking to CEOs and other people and interviewing them. But I want to point out that if you look at the book, he is interviewing tons of people. His acknowledgments are extremely lengthy. He put in a ton of legwork. So, I don't want to say that he's phoning it in really. He's not just doing this cash out book. He's trying very hard, which is what makes it even worse and more embarrassing. 

Michael: Yeah. It's so dark, dude. This is the best that he can do, basically. [chuckles] I'm going to spend months and really put my whole pussy into this book, as the kids say. 

Peter: [laughs] What kind of kids are you hanging out with, Michael? 

Michael: This is on Gay Twitter. This is what they say on Gay Twitter. She really put her whole pussy into that chorus. You never heard this?

Peter: You say the kids, you just mean gay 24-year-old men. [laughs] 

Michael: Yes, 100%. And the gay 41-year-olds who thirst follow them. 

Peter: So, there's actually a part a little closer to the end of the book where Friedman is talking about how we should be conceptualizing the government's role in a globalizing world. He says, "The social contract that progressives should try to enforce between government and workers and companies and workers is one in which government and companies say, 'We cannot guarantee you any lifetime employment, but we can guarantee you that we will concentrate on giving you the tools to make yourself more lifetime employable.'" 

Michael: We're teaching people to code. 

Peter: Right. "In the flat world, the individual worker is going to become more and more responsible for managing his or her own career risks and economic security. And the role of government and business is to help workers build all the muscles they need to do just that." 

Michael: Okay. 

Peter: Now, Friedman considers himself a progressive, but I do think that he is envisioning a much more atomized world, right? 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: He believes the welfare state as it is constructed is inadequate to address Globalization. 3.0. I find that relatively disconcerting. Again, this is a guy that's just talking to CEOs and elite government officials about what's happening. And part of his takeaway is like, "Well, we might have to transform the way that government aids people to make it less about giving them money and more about giving them skills." 

Michael: It's funny how all of these big ideas' books lead to just cutting welfare for people regardless of what the actual topic is. It's like, "Well, going to have to make some tough choices."

Peter: Yeah, that's probably a good transition into the second part of the book, which is really dedicated to the downstream effects of all of this globalization. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: He says that we will experience the great sorting out essentially the process by which globalization creates certain winners and losers. He starts to talk about America experiencing what he calls a Quiet Crisis that consists of several parts, which he calls our dirty little secrets. Number one, the numbers gap, which is the relative lack of young scientists and engineers in America compared to China and India. 

Michael: Okay. 

Peter: Number two is the education gap, meaning that American schools don't push or invest in math and science education enough. And three is the ambition gap, meaning that our youth are less ambitious than youth in China and India. 

Michael: Oh, no.

Peter: The evidence for which per Friedman is one teacher who told him that his students were lazy, and another teacher who said that her students were lazy. 

Michael: Finally, we're talking about how the kids don't want to work anymore. 

Peter: It always eventually gets to the lazy kids. 

Michael: Jesus Christ.

Peter: This is also the part of the book, the very long part of the book, that is basically like, "We need to become a STEM country. We need to pile resources into science and engineering. If not, we're screwed, because manufacturing, we're getting out competed. So, what do we need to do? We need to be the managers and IT experts, et cetera. We need to educate our way to the top of the global hierarchy." He says, "Every young American today would be wise to think of himself or herself as competing against every young Chinese, Indian, and Brazilian. 

Michael: That's a fucked-up way to think about your life. I'm like, "Just competing against these little these spry little Chinese kids, 14 years old." It's a fucking weird way to think about the world. 

Peter: Later he says, "JFK wanted to put a man on the moon. My vision is to put every American man or woman on a campus."

Michael: [laughs] He does love his little phrases. 

Peter: He loves it. 

Michael: "I want to put a man on the campus." 

Peter: I would love to just watch an editor go through a Thomas Friedman book draft and just write, "Do you need this" [Michael laughs] right next to everything that he doesn't need to say. Remember how I said he talks to CEOs about where business is going. In this part, he talks to the Chinese vice-minister of education, and that person is obviously touting Chinese education, and he's like, "Oh, my God, they're good." And I was like, "You're literally absorbing propaganda and telling it to me." Whatever. So, you're starting to see his pivot in this book. What started out as a book that's just like a shallowish dive into the many ways that globalization has impacted the world becomes a book about how to retain America's global hegemony.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: That's what actually becomes the takeaway of the book, right? Not just like this stuff is happening and it's interesting but we must act now, or we will be overtaken by India and China. Built into this is like a lot of pretty aggressive fear mongering about, like, America is getting weaker, other countries are going stronger. He has a chapter called This Is Not a Test, where he compares the modern moment to the Cold War. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: So, he says, what this era has in common with the Cold War era is that meeting the challenges of flatism requires as comprehensive, energetic, and focused a response as did meeting the challenge of communism. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: I am sending you a couple of paragraphs. I know it's long. This is his Cold War comparison. 

Michael: He says, "Getting Americans to rally around compassionate flatism is much more difficult than getting them to rally around anticommunism. Economics, as noted, is not like war because economics can always be a win-win game. But sometimes I wish economics were more like war. In the Cold War, we actually got to see the Soviets parade their missiles in Red Square. We all got to be scared together from one end of the country to the other." 

Peter: Don't you wish that we had an all-encompassing, pervasive sense of fear in this country?

Michael: [laughs] About Chinese people and Indians getting educated? [laughs] 

Peter: You know what I miss about the Cold war? Always being scared. 

Michael: "But today, alas, there is no missile threat coming from India. The hotline which used to connect the Kremlin with the White House has been replaced by the Help line, which connects everyone in America to call centers in Bangalore. Nicely done, Thomas. While the other end of the hotline might have had Brezhnev threatening nuclear war, the other end of the helpline just has a soft voice eager to help you sort out your AOL bill or collaborate with you on a new piece of software. No, that voice has none of the menace of Nikita Khrushchev pounding a shoe on the table at the UN, and it has none of the sinister snarl of the bad guys in From Russia with Love. There is no Boris or Natasha saying, "We will bury you" in a thick Russian accent. No, that voice on the helpline just has a friendly Indian lilt that masks any sense of threat or challenge. It simply says, 'Hello, my name is Rajiv. Can I help you?'" God, dude,-- [crosstalk] 

Peter: Wait. Come on. You got to read the last line. 

Michael: Oh, man. No, fuck, I didn't even see that. "No, Rajiv, actually you can't."

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: God. Peter, is every paragraph like this? He just extends it and goes and goes.  

Peter: The helpline. The line between the Kremlin and the White House and a call center helpline. 

Michael: Yeah.

Peter: Again, if he thinks of anything-

Michael: Yeah, anything.

Peter: -any comparison, any metaphor, it is in the book. There is no editorial process to speak of. It's so fucking bizarre. Like, A, you forget that he is advocating for a heightened sense of fear and terror about all of this. But that's what's happening. He's basically being like, "Oh, we should be more scared by the fact that people in Indian call centers are helping us out. 

Michael: Yeah. It doesn't even make sense to say, "No, Rajiv, you can't help me."

Peter: He's helping. 

Michael: He can. If you want to contest your Comcast bill, you call and Rajiv is like, "Oh, yeah, we'll get that fixed." 

Peter: Right.

Michael: It just is like a metaphor that completely breaks down and doesn't make any fucking sense. It's like, "These two things are the same, but actually they're the opposite of each other because one of them was missile threat and the other is just like me calling a phone number."

Peter: People helping you.

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: Is it unfair to show you all of his metaphors? 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: Maybe it's rude of me to center so much of my critique around the fact that every time he tries to say something, he can't say it good. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: He can only say it through these completely asinine metaphors and comparisons. 

Michael: Then he mentions like, "It's not like Nikita Khrushchev. It's not like from Russia with love. It's not like Boris and Natasha. I don't need three examples of things that it's not like. [Peter laughs] I get it on the first one." 

Peter: Also, did you notice that he basically compares the harsh and scary Russian accent to the soft Indian lilt? 

Michael: [laughs] I know.

Peter: You might notice that his accent is less scary. Like, "What the fuck--?" [crosstalk] 

Michael: Putting the casual xenophobia aside.


Michael: I have a little bit of sympathy for this, because sometimes when I'm editing the show, I'm like, "Okay, this section doesn't make that much sense, but there's a good joke at the end of it, and I want to leave in the joke."

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: I feel like he's doing the thing where you could tell he thought of the helpline hotline thing. It was like, "Damn, that whips." Then he has to build this whole fucking preamble to it. I wish economics were more like war. In the Cold War, and then it's like da, da, da, and then he finally gets to the fucking helpline metaphor, and it's like, "Okay, that's why you were saying all this. You thought it was cute."

Peter: That is the best explanation of why the book exists. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: So, one of the more interesting things I read about all of this was an academic article by Kathleen Abowitz and Jay Roberts, who point out that this is essentially just a replication of a moral panic that we had in the early 1980s about how American students were being overtaken by students in Russia and Japan. And that panic was driven by a report. Ronald Reagan formed a committee to evaluate American education. And in 1983, they put out a report titled, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. The report very famously declared that the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people. 

That report, very influential, continues to drive a lot of education policy, despite the fact that other government-initiated reports have called many of the conclusions into question. So, one of the things the report found was that SAT scores had been steadily declining for 20 years leading up to the early 1980s. And in 1990, there was a report that said, "Yeah, that's because poor people are applying to college in greater numbers. We had increased access to the SATs. You segment out the populations, scores are going up, not down.

Michael: Right. 

Peter: You can maybe say that Friedman is identifying some real trends here. He's also tonally and substantively replicating a moral panic that we have experienced before, where you have people fretting about being overtaken by these foreign others. He just replaces Russia and Japan with India and China. 

Michael: Right. Although, I have to say, branding wise, the war on mediocrity is incredible branding. 

Peter: Oh, yeah. 

Michael: I actually think that we do have a huge problem with fucking mediocrity in this country, but it starts at the top, not at the bottom. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: That's where I would aim. It's like, people running institutions who just suck shit.

Peter: Yeah. There's definitely a lesson you can learn about mediocrity from Thomas Friedman. 

Michael: Exactly.

Peter: It's just not this one. 

Michael: The fucking New York Times opinion page. [crosstalk] first stop on that tour. 

Peter: So, we can't wrap up Thomas Friedman episode without talking about the Iraq War. 

Michael: Oh, yeah. 

Peter: I'm going to send you a clip that I know you have seen. 

Charlie: Now that the war is over and there's some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing? 

Thomas: I think it was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie. I think looking back at the 1990s, I can identify, but there are actually three bubbles of the 1990. 

Michael: Oh, no. Three bubbles. 

Thomas: There was the NASDAQ bubble.

Peter: Classic Freidman. 

Thomas: There was the corporate governance bubble. Lastly, there was, what I would call, the terrorism bubble. 

Michael: Oh, God. 

Thomas: The first two were based on creative accounting. The last was based on moral creative accounting. 

Michael: What?

Thomas: The terrorism bubble that basically built up over the 1990s said flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, that's okay. 

Michael: Oh, the Arab mind. 

Thomas: Wrapping yourself with dynamite and blowing up Israelis in a pizza parlor, that's okay. And that built up as a bubble, Charlie. And 911 to me was the peak of that bubble. 

Michael: Peak of that bubble. 

Thomas: What we learned on 911, in a gut way, was that bubble was a fundamental threat to our open society. 

Michael: Bubble threat. 

Thomas: Because there is no wall high enough, no INS agent smart enough, no metal detector efficient enough to protect an open society from people motivated by that bubble. What we needed to do was go over to that part of the world, I'm afraid, and burst that bubble. What they needed to see was American Boys and girls going house to house from Basrah to Baghdad and basically saying, "Which part of this sentence don't you understand?" You think this bubble fantasy, we're just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this. 

Michael: He's really cooking there. 

Peter: This is another thing that you wouldn't understand is funny until you've read the whole book, [Michael laughs] but when he says three bubbles, I was like, "Tom, you, son of a bitch."

Michael: You've done it again, Tom.

Peter: You can't stop him. You can't stop him. At all times, he's thinking of metaphors.

Michael: But also, it's the same thing where it's completely fucking incoherent what he's saying. He's basically saying that Muslims have a culture of violence, and so we're going to go over there and bomb them to fix their culture. 

Peter: This clip is somewhat famous, because he is literally characterizing the Iraq War not as an effort to oust Saddam or to protect anyone from WMDs, but to enact revenge on the Muslim world for fostering illiberal ideas. I think that was so revelatory. Like, he's just putting it on the table and being like, "Yeah, this was revenge on Muslims." Everyone was like, "So, you fucking admit it."

Michael: Because at the time, the justification was all about saving these populations from their dictator. 

Peter: Exactly. 

Michael: We have to get him out of power to save these people. And then it's like, "These people are basically fucking animals, and we should just kill them until they behave better." 

Peter: Keep in mind, this is where Friedman cut his teeth, right, Lebanon, Israel, Middle East expertise, ostensibly. 

Michael: Right.

Peter: Meanwhile, he was, like, many pundits, deeply incorrect all the time throughout this era. He said the Afghanistan War was over in January 2002. 

Michael: Great. 

Peter: Some highlights from his columns over the years. 

Michael: Ooh.

Peter: In 1999, during the bombing of Iraq, he suggested, "Blowing up a different power station in Iraq every week, so no one knows when the lights will go off or who's in charge." 

Michael: Okay, that'll fix it. 

Peter: In 2005, he wrote about Iraq, "If they come around, a decent outcome in Iraq is still possible and we should stay to help build it. If they won't, then we are wasting our time. We should arm the Shiites and Kurds and leave the Sunnis of Iraq to reap the wind." 

Michael: Geesh.

Peter: A couple of months into the Afghanistan War, he wrote, "Think of all the nonsense written in the press, particularly the European and Arab media, about the concern for "civilian casualties in Afghanistan." 

Michael: Quote unquote. 

Peter: It turns out that many of those "Afghan civilians," again in quotations, were praying for another dose of B-52s to liberate them from the Taliban casualties or not. 

Michael: Oh.

Peter: A, he's mocking the idea that there were civilian casualties, presumably being like, "Come on, they were terrorists" or something. But then at the same time saying that civilians wanted this to happen. 

Michael: Yeah, it doesn't make sense. 

Peter: It doesn't make sense. There's this fundamental contradiction. In all this, I bring up because a good chunk of the final chapters of The World Is Flat is dedicated to Friedman's belief that the ostensibly insular culture of the Muslim world is a threat to globalization. 

Michael: Wait, really? 

Peter: Yeah.

Michael: He's got a Huntington turn at the end?

Peter: It's in his final chapters titled, The Muslim Question. 

Michael: Oh. [chuckles] 

Peter: No, I'm kidding. I'm kidding. 


Michael: You got to be careful, Peter. That actually sounded pretty-- [crosstalk] 

Peter: Pretty real? 

Michael: It actually sounded pretty plausible. 

Peter: Sorry. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: Yeah. He calls the Muslim culture an unflattener.

Michael: Oh, my God.

Peter: He talks at length about how this is something that the Muslim world needs to reckon with. I think that his writing about the Iraq War and about the Middle East and war in general is actually really illuminating because the through line between his war coverage and this book is that his primary goal revolves around retaining American hegemony in the coming century. At first glance, you might think that there's a tension or inconsistency here where like, "This guy is writing about our interconnectedness with the rest of the world, but then he's championing these brutal campaigns of vengeance in the Middle East." But I actually think it starts to make sense once you realize that his primary concern is American power. He's not writing this book as a student of technology or something. He's writing it as someone who wants to ensure American supremacy, whether that means funding science education or destabilizing the Middle East. 

Michael: He's also doing a very similar thing to Nudge where he's pretending to be doing this cool descriptive project of like, "This is just how human nature works." And like, "We should make policy according to human nature." But then once you get into the guts of it, it's like, "Actually, we should do a bunch of crazy libertarian shit." Underneath it is this extremely ideological project.

Peter: Right. 

Michael: It seems like he's doing the same thing of like, "I'm just describing how the world is becoming more interconnected," and then whisper voice like, "The Muslims are really the problem with this."

Peter: Right. 

Michael: That doesn't follow from the premise at all. 

Peter: No. He has all of these ideas about how interconnectedness will foster peace in the long-term. And then he gets to this section of the book that's like, "Now let's talk about how Muslims are a big wrench in all of this."

Michael: [laughs] Right.

Peter: I'm going to send you something that is so long, and I'm sorry.

Michael: Oh, God, Peter.

Peter: I can't do the episode unless we say it. 

Michael: [laughs] You make me go all the way through this fucking excerpt. 

Peter: I'm going to say something before this. I don't even know if it makes total sense to put it here at the end of this episode. 

Michael: Mm-hmm.

Peter: I want you to listen to what I'm saying, because we've read a lot of excerpts here. This is the worst thing in this book. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: I have a screenshot version of this that is the entire page is highlighted, because I started [Michael laughs] trying to highlight sections, because I was like, "Well, I don't want them to read all of it. It's too long." And then I realized that I was highlighting all of it. 

Michael: He's kept going. 

Peter: And so, I was like, "Well, now it looks stupid. I'm just going to highlight the whole page."


Michael: Okay. He says, " What if regions of the world were like the neighborhoods of a city? What would the world look like? I'd describe it like this: Western Europe would be an assisted-living facility, with an aging population lavishly attended to by Turkish nurses. The United States would be a gated community, with a metal detector at the front gate and a lot of people sitting in their front yards complaining about how lazy everyone else was, even though out back there was a small opening in the fence for Mexican labor and other energetic immigrants who helped to make the gated community function. Latin America would be the fun part of town, the club district, where the workday doesn't begin until 10 PM and everyone sleeps until midmorning.  It's definitely the place to hang out, but in between the clubs, you don't see a lot of new businesses opening up, except on the street where the Chileans live. 

The landlords in this neighborhood almost never reinvest their profits here, but keep them in a bank across town. The Arab street would be a dark alley where outsiders fear to tread, except for a few side streets called Dubai, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and Morocco. The only new businesses are gas stations, whose owners, like the elites in the Latin neighborhood, rarely reinvest their funds in the neighborhood. Many people on the Arab street have their curtains closed, their shutters drawn, and signs on their front lawn that say, "No Trespassing. Beware of Dog." India, China, and East Asia would be "the other side of the tracks." Their neighborhood is a big teeming market, made up of small shops and one-room factories, interspersed with Stanley Kaplan SAT prep schools and engineering colleges." Oh, we're like halfway through. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: Nobody ever sleeps in this neighborhood, everyone lives in extended families, and everyone is working and saving to get to "the right side of the tracks." On the Chinese streets, there's no rule of law, but the roads are all well paved. On the Indian streets, by contrast, no one ever repairs the streetlights, the roads are full of ruts, but the police are sticklers for the rules. You need a license to open a lemonade stand on the Indian streets. Luckily, the local cops can be bribed, and the successful entrepreneurs have their own generators to run their factories and the latest cell phones to get around the fact that the local telephone poles are all down. Africa, sadly, is that part of town where the businesses are boarded up, life expectancy is declining, and the only new buildings are health-care clinics. Fucking hell, Peter. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: It's so fucking annoying. It's like, "Just say what you mean, man."

Peter: It's not even a metaphor half the time.

Michael: I know.

Peter: He starts off with the assisted living facility and the gated community, and you're like, "Okay, this is a metaphor, I guess."

Michael: Right.

Peter: By the end of it though, he's just describing the countries in the African neighborhood life expectancy is declining, [Michael laughs] like, "You don't need the metaphor. Just say, life expectancy is declining in Africa." What the fuck is this, dude? 

Michael: Right. "And there's no rule of law in the Chinese neighborhood. You're just talking about China. You don't need the neighborhood thing for that." [laughs]

Peter: Like, "The Arab Street is a dark alley except for Dubai, Bahrain, Qatar, and Morocco." This is not you stop doing the metaphor, please. 

Michael: Yeah, I think what you said earlier is right, that it's not clear that he knows how metaphors work. 

Peter: Right.

Michael: It's like, metaphors are supposed to simplify situations or describe the nature of something, to say that the factory was hell. It condenses all of this other information. But if you're going to say the factory was hell and like hell, it was hot and loud and everybody hated it. You don't need the middleman at that point. You're just describing the factory. 

Peter: The factory was like a neighborhood where my boss was yelling at me all the time. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: "It's not a metaphor. It's not really a metaphor."

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: These are the little things that you encounter in Friedman's writing all of the time, wrapped up in what we haven't even discussed as the most ethnically insensitive shit I've ever read. 

Michael: Yeah, I know. [laughs]

Peter: Like, "Are you fucking kidding me?" [laughs] 

Michael: There's parties in Latin America every night. 

Peter: He literally ripped through every region of the world and was a little bit rude about all of them. 

Michael: Yeah. [laughs] 

Peter: Oh, man.

Michael: This also just isn't smart. He's just repackaging conventional wisdom bullshit. 

Peter: That's why I thought it was worth ending on it. A, because we have to talk about it. 

Michael: Obviously.

Peter: I lost my fucking mind when I read it. And B, because this is someone who is purporting to be able to describe the world in an insightful way, and this is what he has to say about the entire planet. This is his description of every continent. There's just nothing there. There's no real insight. He is bullshitting. 

Michael: Right.

Peter: Alexander Cockburn in 1999 wrote a takedown of Freedman and that was devastating. One line of it. "Friedman is so marinated in self-regard that he doesn't even know when he's being stupid." 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: Just right to the heart of Thomas Friedman.

Michael: We got him. 

Peter: Yeah, but the other side of that is, Friedman has sway in elite circles and was reportedly relatively influential in the Obama administration. I don't know, this isn't someone that everyone agrees is dumb. 

Michael: Right.

Peter: I think that there is a market, and has always been a market for people who are good at making you feel like you learned something when you didn't. 

Michael: Yeah. 

Peter: Put together this cheeky little metaphor and people are like, "Ooh, that's a way to look at it," right? 

Michael: Right. People are up late in Latin America? Amazing. 

Peter: [chuckles] Yeah. Everything about the neighborhood metaphor, the United States is a gated community, and the Middle East is a place where everyone sucks and is stupid. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: If it were a neighborhood, I'm saying that's the type of neighborhood it would be. 

Michael: Peter, it's very funny to me that when both of us do our generic asshole voice, we both do New York accents. But yours is your actual accent. [laughs] 

Peter: No, my accent is a combination of New York and Philadelphia, full of the nicest people on Earth. 

Michael: [laughs] 

Peter: Yeah, I don't know where I adapted my-- [crosstalk] 

Michael: Where you adapted.

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: You just did it. 

Peter: I don’t know. I guess, it is just like the strongest-- It's just the dumb guy that I grew up knowing to some degree. 

Michael: Okay.

Peter: This like the belligerent man nearby was generally either a Philadelphian or a New Yorker, and I think the New York accent is just a little bit easier to do. 

Michael: I think it's the person you're still in danger of becoming. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: That's where all my bad voices come from, like, "This person lives inside me."

Peter: When I'm 80 with dementia or whatever, I'm just going to be this belligerent character from Sopranos, and people are going to be like, "He was a nice guy, and he didn't have this Brooklyn accent. It's not real."

Michael: [laughs] That's how I started saying hella. I started saying it as a joke, and then it became 80% of my personality. 

Peter: [laughs] 

Michael: Got to be careful.

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