14-Apr-2006

Populism

Works. I'd remarked on Friedman's flat-out confused rationale for the title of his book 'The World is Flat', here. However, the book deserved more apparently. It gets a 55-page review by a qualified economist here. Via Atrios who sets the scene up thus:
Ed Leamer (.pdf) has some fun reviewing Friedman's tripe for the Journal of Economic Literature. It's long and veers between snark and substance, so pick and choose the bits you like...
I'll give the conclusion here to save you the trouble of wading through some heavy waters:
Here are titles of three books. Based on the titles alone, which do you think would sell a lot of copies?
The World is Flat
The End of Poverty
In Defense of Globalization
Globalization and Its Discontents
The startling reality is that The World is Flat has been on the New York Times best-seller list forever and is ranked #1 on Amazon on February 21, 2006. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time is ranked number 515, which seems like a big number compared with the number 1, but Jagdish Bhagwati’s In Defense of Globalization is ranked 20,602, and Joseph Stiglitz’ Globalization and Its Discontents is ranked 52,196.

We economists have great ideas but not great ways of expressing ourselves. It starts with bad titles. This raises the philosophical question: When economists speak, but no one listens, did we say anything?

Thus I understand that it doesn’t much really matter what I think. The market has said that The World is Flat is a great book. But just for my own personal amusement, here comes the summary.

First of all, metaphorical titles as powerful as The World is Flat really matter. With that title, readers have their fears reinforced, needlessly. The debate about how to handle our economic relations with other countries has already been harmed enough by misleading metaphors. Those who favor high tariffs call it “protection” as if a wolf were lurking beyond our borders ready to devour our jobs. And those who favor low tariffs call it “free” trade as if paying a couple of more dollars for the shirts and jeans we buy at Wal-Mart amounted to a period of incarceration.

Other than the metaphorical mischief, this book is long on anecdotes, interpretations and insight. It’s an eye-opener methodologically because of the clear progress Friedman makes without benefit of the union card we call the Ph.D. in Economics. But he doesn’t get “there”, because, I think, he has no knowledge or interest in the vast amount of work that has been done by economists on these topics.

Friedman does get the policy response (education and infrastructure) right, though there isn’t much debate on this:
“And it requires a Great Society that commits our government to building the infrastructure, safety nets, and institutions that will help every American become more employable in an age when no one can be guaranteed lifetime employment” p. 277

“My vision is to put every American man or woman on a campus” p. 290
But when he calls this program “compassionate flatism” that is the flat that broke this camel’s back. Worse still, this nonsense metaphor is becoming altogether commonplace, filtering into classrooms and boardrooms. We should take better care of our language.

The final third of Friedman’s book is an insightful and lucid discussion of the stress points between the Muslim and the Judeo-Christian world. (You are free to object that I am not competent to review that material.)

But: Physically, culturally, and economically the world is not flat. Never has been, never will be. There may be vast flat plains inhabited by indistinguishable hoi polloi doing mundane tasks, but there will also be hills and mountains from which the favored will look down on the masses. Our most important gifts to our offspring are firm footholds on those hills and mountains, far from the flat part of the competitive landscape. Living in the United States helps a lot, and will continue to. But those footholds will increasingly require natural talent. Though personal pleasure is our real goal, as a byproduct, we provide our children highly loaded dice to roll at the genetic craps table. Beyond the all- important luck of the draw, it takes the kind of education that releases rather than constrains their natural talent. We send our children to good private schools and then on to UCLA. The rest is up to them.

I am sorry to say it that flat way. It’s not an apt metaphor, even though it is a powerful one.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you CAN make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master— that's all.'

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, Chapter 6

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