(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

As the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times during the 1990’s, Thomas L. Friedman was among the most perceptive, intelligent commentators on the world scene at the end of the twentieth century. His frequent appearances on television news programs added to his reputation as a persuasive and often puckish analyst of foreign affairs. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting for The New York Times and a National Book Award in 1989 for his first book From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989), Friedman examines the process of economic change that is reshaping the modern world in The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Many other observers have discussed the subtleties of globalization that are sweeping economies of nations large and small, but Friedman does so with verve and insight. While some parts of the book celebrate the positive results that globalization is bringing, there are sobering passages as well in which Friedman warns of the potential dangers to humanity from unbridled change. This volume provides a superb introduction to the ways in which technology and economic modernization are transforming the human condition.

Friedman’s title for the book comes from a May, 1992, visit to Japan where he observed a Lexus car factory that was almost fully automated. Even the smallest final details of completing the vehicle were done with robots. After watching the precision and technological complexity of the process of making these luxury cars, Friedman was returning to Tokyo on a bullet train when he read a news story about the ongoing dispute in the Middle East between Arabs and Israelis. In that controversy, individuals “were still fighting over who owned which olive tree.” He saw that a good part of the world was involved in the process of globalization that the Lexus represented. On the other hand, another substantial portion of humanity was still committed to bickering over land, property, and ancient animosities. The conflict symbolized the theme he was trying to develop in his own mind. “What we are looking at and for,” Friedman concluded, “is how the age-old quests for material betterment and for individual and community identity—which go all the way back to Genesis—play themselves out in today’s dominant international system of globalization.”

Much of the book is devoted to describing how globalization is transforming people’s lives. In that endeavor, Friedman is a fascinating guide to the rapid change of the modern era. His role as a New York Times columnist gives him access to business and political leaders in every country. He also brings to his work a wide-ranging curiosity and an ability to make perceptive connections based on what he has seen. Time after time, Friedman describes a conversation with a businessman or entrepreneur in which the person details how the information revolution is changing the context of daily life. For example, U.S. Treasury secretary Larry Summers was impressed in 1988, while working for the Michael Dukakis Democratic presidential campaign, to have a car phone for his use. Nine years later, on a trip to the Ivory Coast, Summers was in a dugout canoe on a remote river when an official “handed him a cell phone and said, Washington has a question for you.’”

Some of Friedman’s descriptions of how globalization works are likely to pass into the language as ways of thinking about this all-encompassing process of change. One of these is the Golden Straitjacket, which he calls “the defining political-economic garment of this globalization era.” By this term, Friedman means that in order to survive in the highly competitive world economy, a nation must emphasize the private sector, keep inflation down, balance its budget, and reduce the size of its governmental sector. Other aspects include free trade, a stable currency, and an honest marketplace. A blend of the policies of U.S. presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton is the preferred mix for economic vitality, and moving too far to right or left is a recipe for defeat in the globalized economy.

Friedman recognizes that this economic model “is not always pretty or gentle or comfortable. But it’s here and it’s the only model on the rack this historical season.” Alternative economic philosophies such as Marxism or fascism simply cannot endure in the global marketplace because of their rigidities and inefficiencies, Friedman says. He argues that the Straitjacket necessarily reduces the ideological component of a nation’s politics while it encourages the expansion of the economy. In Friedman’s terms, politics becomes a more marginal activity of adjusting the terms under which economic growth will be pursued. This may be true in matters of economic policy, but whether it will affect cultural and moral issues remains to be seen. Nonetheless,...

(The entire section is 1974 words.)