Monday, May 02, 2005

Friedman at the Brody Forum

Brody Forum - May 1, 2005
Left to right: Doug Besharov (UMCP), Thomas Friedman (NY Times), Shibley Telhami (UMCP)

This Sunday I brought my parents to the Brody Public Policy Forum featuring renowned author and columnist Thomas Friedman. The event, sponsored by Florence Brody and Jehan Sadat (wife of Anwar Sadat), consisted of a discussion of a number of foreign policy issues with an emphasis on the Middle East. Friedman also spoke at length about topics raised in his new bestseller, which I've mentioned before on this site, called The World is Flat.

In this book, Friedman talks about how the pace of globalization has exploded in the past decade or so, to the point where booming countries like India and China are now serious competition for a diminished and complacent U.S. His contention is that today's ubiquitous information technology solutions, combined with the right political movements after the fall of the Berlin Wall, have fostered an environment where commerce can flourish throughout the world. As Friedman puts it, those homegrown geniuses in other countries "no longer need to immigrate in order to innovate."

Is he right? There's no doubt that our competition--chiefly Friedman's favorite examples: India and China--are making rapid strides. Talented individuals in those countries are taking advantage of the best that technology has to offer and are creating a transformation that is occurring in real-time. My parents' generation had to come to the U.S. in order to have the opportunities appropriate for their talents. That's not necessarily the case anymore. A few decades ago it likely was better to be an average student in the U.S. than a genius in China or India, but Friedman says the opposite is true now.

But in his remarks on Sunday, Friedman never acknowledged that it is only certain isolated segments in China or India that are making these rapid advances. A number of people have pointed out that while in Bangalore (Friedman's Indian Silicon Valley) a whole array of successful high-tech companies has sprouted up, they are situated amidst poverty and squalor. In a discussion of The World is Flat a few weeks ago, I remember someone noting with irony that the short drive to work a Bangalore programmer experiences will take two hours over roughshod roads.

So while India and China really are catching up to the U.S., I believe their pace is a bit slower than Friedman would expect. Those countries do not yet have a fully developed infrastructure--both physical as well as political--to take their game to the next level. Of course, acquiring this is only a matter of time--and when they do, look out!

The most important concern raised by Friedman, in my opinion, concerns the preparedness of the United States to deal with coming challenges. He says it's quite possible that we could experience a decline in our standard of living, unless we make changes now, chiefly to our education system. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to ask Friedman for his thoughts on Bill Gates' recent comments that the American public school system is "obsolete" and that he is "terrified for our work force of tomorrow." Ouch! Coming from the icon of ingenuity himself, there undoubtedly exists a big problem, one with no easy answers forthcoming in this post.

Doug Besharov, who moderated the discussion, commented that Friedman's words had a "sobering" effect. They do indeed. To me, this flat world creates more questions than it does provide answers.


Jack Nargundkar said...

You state that “Those countries do not yet have a fully developed infrastructure--both physical as well as political...” I would posit that India’s political infrastructure is fairly well advanced — even when compared to some Western democracies — but its physical infrastructure is definitely lacking. The situation is reversed in the case of China, which has seen an annual foreign direct investment averaging $50 billion over the past decade that has enabled a robust growth in its commercial and physical infrastructure. However, China has made absolutely abysmal progress with its political framework—which was the basis of my question to Mr. Friedman at yesterday’s event. Mr. Friedman lists the fall of the Berlin Wall as the #1 flattener—my question to him meant to infer that—a political toppling of the Great Wall could make the world so much flatter, we would need to reinvent a modern day Galileo to round things out! Also, I believe that India has more than its “English-language” edge over China, in that, India has a mature legal and financial infrastructure, which was developed under the British Raj for over 150 years prior to its independence. This “colonial gift” can enable India to rapidly transition to a full-fledged capitalist economy from its post-independence socialist path, if it so desired.

Kevin said...

Man, I wish I was at UMCP. You have freaking SHIBLEY TELHAMI there? (Actually, I knew that before and forgot it.) I totally want to take a class from him. Or at least, I dunno, visit him during office hours. I hope you appreciate your school's awesomeness.
[end rambling]