THE LEXUS AND THE OLIVE TREE: UNDERSTANDING GLOBALIZATION By Thomas Friedman Farrar, Straus & Giroux 394 pp., $27.50
The buzz term "global village" has been bandied about a lot in the '90s, but no one gives a better explanation of this radical concept than New York Times correspondent Thomas Friedman.
In "The Lexus and the Olive Tree," Friedman observes, "We understand as much about how today's system of globalization is going to work as we understood about how the Cold War system was going to work in 1946."
Globalization began with the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, a fittingly symbolic event to herald in an age when old barriers - both economic and cultural - are being systematically dismantled by gigantic leaps in information technology.
The author's primer on how this technology has raised living standards worldwide is required reading for anyone who still thinks of the Internet as little more than a gimmick for computer nerds.
The borderless Internet has begun to usurp traditional entry barriers to all sorts of markets. It has also helped to democratize capital investment, swelling the number of investors to include a vast swath of citizenry of every demographic description. In one of his many telling examples, Friedman describes a bare-footed Bangkok cigarette vender watching the stock market to see how her investments are performing.
The competition for these increasingly liquid funds not only among nearby geographic neighbors, but also countries on distant continents, has placed each country's economic policies under scrutiny by this "electronic herd."
Contrary to the efforts of central planners, every nation is being forced to don the free market "golden straitjacket" to avoid "trampling by the herd." But, to use the author's analogy, some nations have chosen to wear a looser fitting straitjacket with the costly padding of social-welfare systems.
The worldwide spread of American commodities and highly visible products, such as McDonald's or Hollywood icons, has in effect given globalization an American face.
Many people (especially older generations) have viewed America's success with a mixture of envy and suspicion - perceiving that their cultures are under threat. The author is quick to observe that, even though the globalization train has no driver, America has been scapegoated for these accelerated and irreversible changes.
Friedman hopes that globalization doesn't lead to a wholesale Americanization of the globe at the expense of other cultures. However, like Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek, he realizes that cultures, social orders, and traditions draw from one another in a competitive, spontaneous, and undesigned process. In Friedman's words, "As with species, cultures spawning, evolving and dying is part of evolution."
"The Lexus and the Olive Tree" manages to explore big ideas without being overly academic. In fact, the author has an unfortunate fondness for self-created acronyms and pithy one-liners that often read like self-congratulatory advertising jingles. But the style is thankfully tempered by his charm and enthusiasm.
Friedman's years of extensive globe trotting and his reporter's eye for a good story enable him to draw upon a rich array of fascinating characters and highly readable anecdotal experiences to illustrate his worldview.
We meet the son of a PLO terrorist who leads an entrepreneurial lifestyle; a Brazilian lumberjack who is just beginning to understand the impact conservation policies will have on his community's economy; and a veiled Muslim woman who runs an Internet cafe in Kuwait City. We get to listen in to the campaign pledges of more technology from a candidate for village chief in a remote China hamlet where there is only one telephone.
The author also describes a half-comical incident in which fearsome gun-toting muggers in a Mexican taxi suddenly implore Friedman not to report the incident in his newspaper because it might dent Mexico's national pride. More so than ever, no man, woman, or nation is an island.
Ultimately, Friedman deftly accomplishes the impressive task of encapsulating the complex economic, cultural, and environmental challenges of globalization with the sort of hindsight that future historians will bring to bear upon the subject.
*Stephen Humphries is a freelance writer in London.