Selling Neoliberal Globalization:
Thomas Friedman’s Excellent Adventure

By Joe Smith

NEW YORK, JUNE 15, 2004—I have a confession to make: I have maintained an interest in globalization and foreign affairs for many years now. But I have never bothered to read Thomas Friedman’s Lexus and the Olive Tree. And I didn’t read one story in the paper by him. Not one book. Not one story.

Lord knows it’s not out of indifference to globalization or American power! It’s because I had made up my mind about what he represents a long time ago when I heard about how he covered the battle of Seattle: Friedman is a salesman for free-trade interests and an apologist for American imperial power.

So, as I noted in my previous column, it was that only very recently I started following his output more closely. I picked up the New York Times one morning in early March and saw the column headline “The Secret of Our Sauce.”

Friedman opened with what was obviously a casually offered comment expressing admiration for America. I doubt the interviewee, Yamini Narayanan, ever imagined her remark would serve as the centerpiece of an upcoming Friedman effort to sell the latest benefit of neoliberal globalization, the outsourcing of white collar and high tech jobs to countries like India. Friedman relates:

“When I asked her about the outsourcing of jobs from her adopted country, America, to her native country, India, she responded with a revealing story: 'I just read about this guy in America who lost his job to India and he made a t-shirt that said, "I lost my job to India and all I got was this [lousy] t-shirt." And he made all kinds of money.' Only in America, she said, shaking her head, would someone figure out how to profit from his own unemployment. And that she insisted was the reason America need not fear outsourcing to India.”

To lend his cherry-picked quote some weight Friedman made sure to add some of his own sauce by letting us know ahead of time that the speaker holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Oklahoma. Thus it was that an anecdote offered to downplay concerns over outsourcing was elevated to the level of economic wisdom. In Friedman’s hands a rumor about American ingenuity would become proof that globalization works for everyone.

Welcome to Thomas Friedman's excellent adventure: selling neoliberal globalization. It is an adventure because Friedman takes his readers on a ride that circles the globe and introduces us to any number of colorful characters that embody the spirit of the new world order. It is an "excellent adventure" because—just like the characters in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Friedman manages to bring us into contact with some very disturbing developments, such as the way neoliberalism impoverishes the majority, without raising any serious questions about what this system is and without making us think critically about our place in the world.

Take, for instance, our unemployed American worker who makes a killing selling t-shirts broadcasting his misfortune. In quintessential Friedman style, misfortune is recognized, rendered harmless and summarily dismissed. With a light touch we are ready to zoom off on a new adventure.

But the reality is not that simple.

As I would later find out, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow, with the help of Friedman, tracked down the worker in question and found out that he was employed when he made his t-shirts and that he had turned no profit. By his own estimates he had made perhaps $10. If this represents a tale of American ingenuity, maybe Americans should worry more about what happens if their jobs move offshore. If it represents economic reporting, this serves as a lesson in the rather casual approach that Friedman takes in making a case for free trade.

But Friedman is not interested in lingering on the misfortunes of some. Instead Friedman seized upon the trite observation and used it as a launching pad for enumerating in the most absurd terms just how much he agrees that his home country is the greatest:

“America is the greatest engine of innovation that has ever existed, and it can’t be duplicated anytime soon, because it is the product of a multitude of factors: extreme freedom of thought, an emphasis on independent thinking, a steady immigration of new minds, a risk-taking culture with no stigma attached to trying and failing, a noncorrupt bureaucracy, and financial markets and a venture capital system that are unrivalled at taking new ideas and turning them into global products.”

At the time my impression was “Wow, this guy isn’t reporting information, he’s looking in the mirror.”

So this is Thomas Friedman.

I decided to give Friedman the benefit of the doubt. I started saving his articles as they appeared in the NY Times. It didn’t take long before I had a small pile of columns on my desk. That month’s columns came in rapid succession. March 2, 4, 7, 12, 14, 18, 21, 25, 28. And while it is admittedly a small sample of articles I later confirmed in reading The Olive and the Lexus Tree, that they flesh out a fair range of Friedman concerns.

There followed a few more weightless articles on globalization and India. Each was built around an interview with someone well placed to benefit from recent changes in India’s economy. He spoke to a Nandan Nilekani, CEO of Infosys and to Rajesh Rao, marketing manager of Global Edge. He spoke to Vivek Paul, president of Wipro. These are the kind of actors Friedman champions in his writing on globalization. He likes to think of these figures as a kind of new breed. In his book he refers to them as “super-empowered individuals,” people who are able to act without the mediation of the state.

In Friedman’s world super-empowered individuals can be either good or bad. The good ones are dynamic CEO’s; the bad ones, terrorists like Osama bin Laden. It is actually one of the more insightful moments in Friedman’s writing and brings to mind the work of Benjamin Barber’s Jihad Vs, McWorld, an influential book that appeared five years before Friedman’s. Unfortunately Barber is never cited and the idea never gets developed beyond support for structural adjustment policies (that free up super-empowered CEOs) and American military power (that tries to counter the production of more Osama bin Ladens).

Friedman’s basic argument regarding India is twofold. First, India is now reaping the benefits of a decision to undergo neoliberal restructuring made back in 1991. These are the economic reforms that created the super-empowered individuals Friedman lavishes so much praise upon. Structural adjustment is something of a panacea for Friedman. In his book he calls structural adjustment a “golden straightjacket.” The way it works is pretty straightforward.

Basically, once a country agrees to undergo structural adjustment it loses the ability to regulate its economic affairs and the political spectrum narrows. The straitjacket insures that whichever political party gets elected all will have equally little room for maneuver. Global justice activists would call this the undermining of democracy. But to Friedman it is an unconditionally good thing because:

“The tighter you wear it, the more gold it produces and the more padding you can then put into it for your society.”

In other words, there is a causal relationship implied here. The greater the levels of austerity and misery a country is willing to impose upon its domestic population the greater the payback will be in the long run. The fact that India’s neoliberal reforms have only benefited the top 20% of the population in India goes unmentioned. He also neglects to mention that India is locked into a situation of jobless growth, a condition reported upon by the New York Times.

Robust GDP figures mask the fact that service sector growth cannot keep up with job losses due to dismantling the public sector and rising productivity. Friedman doesn’t have a lot to offer the bottom 80% of India whose situation either stagnates or gets worse. In his book Friedman designates this 80% as “turtles.”

Turtles are the folks who get the short end of the stick in the neoliberal globalization project. Turtles get run over in the “Fast World” of liberalized global markets. Turtles are not a concern unless they elect “wounded gazelles” (leaders who will try and slow down or reverse neoliberal policies) or throw their support behind bad super-empowered individuals.

And what holds true in the case of India holds true on the international level. One would think that for someone as well traveled as Friedman, the fact that there are no long-term success stories produced by structural adjustment might be cause for some skepticism. Indeed, one need look no farther than Argentina—the poster child for golden straightjacket polices in the 1990s before it suffered economic collapse at the hands of the IMF—to see that all is not right with this picture. Argentina is only now emerging from a severe depression that saw unemployment hit 25% and poverty levels climb to 60%.

But Friedman doesn’t want to complicate his sales pitch for neoliberal globalization be revisiting past disasters. If he did, readers would be less likely to buy the product that Friedman is selling. And that would ruin our excellent adventure.

My opening is borrowed from Thomas Friedman’s March 28, 2004 NY Times column “Awaking to a Dream” in which Friedman confessed to not being interested in listening even “to one second” the 9/11 hearings because he “had already made up [his] mind about that event a long time ago.”

No amount of evidence can convince him that the tragic events were something other than a “failure of imagination” on the part of US intelligence who:

“lacked—for the very best of reasons—people with evil enough imaginations to put those pieces together and realize that 19 young men were going to hijack four planes for suicide attacks against out national symbols and kill as many innocent civilians as they could, for no stated reason at all.”

The simplistic deployment of us/them dichotomies where we are good, rational, civilized, etc and “they” are evil, irrational, barbarians is standard racist fare for Friedman. For an excellent reply describing just how “evil” American imaginations have been in the past see Mickey Z’s reply to Friedman that appeared in Counterpunch on March 30, 2004 (“Just My Imagination”). An article that demolishes Friedman’s “lack of imagination” thesis and a fact that Friedman probably chose to overlook because he can’t be bothered following the 9/11 hearings appeared in the UK's Independent. The story reported that Sibel Edmonds, a former translator for the FBI with top-secret security clearance, told the 9/11 commission that information was circulating within the FBI from the spring of 2001 that an attack using aircraft was just months away. (Andrew Buncombe, “I saw papers that show the US knew al-Qa’ida would attack cities with aeroplanes,” April 2, 2004.)

“The good timing starts with India’s decision in 1991 to shuck off decades of socialism and move toward a free-market economy with a focus on foreign trade. This made it possible for Indians who wanted to succeed at innovation to stay home, not go to the West.” NY Times, March 12, 2004

Friedman is very specific about the kinds of policies that comprise the neoliberal golden straightjacket:

“To fit into the golden straitjacket a country must either adopt or be seen as moving toward, the following golden rules: making the private sector the primary engine of its economic growth, maintaining a low rate of inflation and price stability, shrinking the size of its state bureaucracy, maintaining as close to a balanced budget as possible, if not a surplus, eliminating and lowering tariffs on imported goods, removing restrictions on foreign investment, getting rid of quotas and domestic monopolies, increasing exports, privatizing state-owned industries and utilities, deregulating capital markets, making its currency convertible, opening its industries, stock and bond markets to direct foreign ownership and investment, deregulating its domestic economy to promote as much competition as possible, eliminating government corruption, subsidies and kickbacks as much as possible, opening its banking and telecommunications systems to private ownership and competition and allowing its citizens to choose from an array of competing pension options and foreign-run pension and mutual funds. When you stitch all of these pieces together you have the golden straightjacket.”

joe smith

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Recent Columns by Joe Smith

Full Metal Fantasy
Taking Thomas Friedman to task, Part I
May 1, 2004

Selling Neoliberal Globalization
Taking Thomas Friedman to task, Part II
June 15, 2004

Related Articles

Ramaa Vasudevan, “The Gospel of Free Trade” Debunks the economic model at the heart of the "free-trade gospel." Gloves Off May-June 2004

Anwar Shaikh, “The Economic Mythology of Neoliberalism” This chapter from the forthcoming book, Neoliberalism: A Critical Reader edited by Alfredo Saad-Filho, examines free trade theory as the economic rationale for neoliberalism.

Sources and References

By Thomas Friedman, [NY Times]:

The Secret of Our Sauce”, NY Times,March 7, 2004

The Secret of India’s Success”, NY Times,March 12, 2004

Origin of Species”, NY Times,March 14, 2004

Software of Democracy”, NY Times,March 21, 2004

The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 2003, Anchor Books, New York. p 14.

Jayati Ghosh, “Income Inequality in India”, People’s Democracy, February 17, 2004

Tom Tomorrow, This Modern World Weblog, March 9, 2004

Amy Waldman, “Low-Tech or High, Jobs are Scarce in India’s Boom,” New York Times, May 6, 2004.