Thursday, April 01, 2004

In which I get schooled and also bitch about Thomas Friedman

I am a doofus. Simply put, as Bloom County would put it, I am a “goofus doofus”.

The Doctoroff quote is an April Fool’s Day joke. I got it as an e-mail forward late at night after meetings and rehearsals have kept me exhausted for days and I fell for it. Let this be a lesson to you bloggers, restraint is good. Don’t post when you’re half asleep. I’m keeping the post up, because I think the substantive points about the stadium are worth it, and I don’t want to hide from my mistakes. So now every time you quote me, you can write “Isaac Butler, who fell for a very obvious April Fool’s Day joke, says X Y and furthermore Z”.

That being said, what I wanted to write briefly about Thomas Friedman.

Thomas Friedman has a new op/ed piece out today, this one about India and China taking jobs that normally would’ve gone to Mexico.

Suffice it to say, my Thomas Friedman axe gets a lot of grinding lately. Here are some of my problems: he’s a lazy writer, he often seems to be manufacturing quotes from people in poor countries who agree with him, he has a particular worldview (unshakeable, it seems) that he gives us as objective reality, he really should no better about globalization and the Palestinians and he’s often little more than a sloganeer. Instead of arguing passionately about how to frame an issue, he often goes: “this is because of what I call the three Letters: the X the Y and the Z”. After this, he’ll explain each of them and when he’s finally boiled down a complex (and potentially unresolvable issue) to two-to-three categories, you’ll find that there’s only one way to interpret the situation: however he wants it interpreted.

Anyway, my categorization thing is not my beef today. Nor is the smelliness of his anecdotes. There’s a lot of problems with this article, but because I’m a little bit tired today, I think I’ll just simply focus on the facts laid out in the article.

The main factual issue: While listing why India and China are whomping Mexico in the global capitalism market, he lets this one out: “While China and India each send tens of thousands of students to be educated abroad every year in science and engineering, particularly in the U.S., Mexico sends just 10,000.” Not in and of itself factually wrong. Simply very very misleading. The population of Mexico is roughly 1/10th that of India’s and slightly less than 1/10th that of China’s. So if they are sending 10,000 people abroad from Mexico, and China and India are sending tens (i.e. under a hundred) of thousands of people abroad, than Mexico actually has the comparative edge in percentage of population educated abroad in science and engineering. In other words, this isn’t the problem, Tom, nor is the level of education more than a red herring here. The problem is that this level of education doesn’t matter. You just spent the last few weeks in India, now famous for it’s call centers. You don’t need a college education to work at a call center providing bad 24 hour customer service to people. Nor do you need to be an engineer to be shown how to assemble computer chips under threat of violence in China.

There is also Friedman’s restatement of the fallacy that Democracy breeds global Capitalism and vice versa. As authors like Naomi Klein have argued quite persuasively, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Friedman lumps in opening Mexico’s energy to foreign investment with reforming its judiciary. The first will help foreign companies make money, and may allow money to flow to the government’s coffers, but there is no guarantee that this will help Mexico substantially. Just look at Nigeria, where the government executed a Nobel prize winning playwright to make life easier for foreign energy companies. Second is the idea that reforming the judiciary will help Mexico make money. This is clearly a fallacy. Just look at, for example, Singapore, which has done very well for itself financially but still remains a heavily regulated, quasi-authoritarian shadow of a Democracy.

The idea that Democracy and Global Capitalism are somehow chemically bonded is the main fallacy in the selling of globalization. They often have very little to do with each other. In fact, the inclusion of China with it’s always low labor costs undermines democratic reform in countries reliant on global capitalism all over the globe.


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