Mitchell’s Musings 8-1-2016: Friedman in Flatland

29 Jul 2016 2:00 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 8-1-2016: Friedman in Flatland


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


With the presidential election in full swing after the two national conventions, there is no shortage of interpretation by opinion leaders floating through the news media. I was struck by a recent column written by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times who is famous for arguing that the world has become “flat.” By flat, Friedman was referring to “globalism.” Now it may seem odd to characterize a round globe as flat. But I don’t write best sellers and he does – so what do I know? Anyway, here is an excerpt from his recent column:


Yes, we’re having a national election right now. Yes, there are two parties running. But no, they are not the two parties that you think. It’s not “Democrats” versus “Republicans.” This election is really between “Wall People” and “Web People.”


The primary focus of Wall People is finding a president who will turn off the fan — the violent winds of change that are now buffeting every family — in their workplace, where machines are threatening white-collar and blue-collar jobs; in their neighborhoods, where so many more immigrants of different religions, races and cultures are moving in; and globally, where super-empowered angry people are now killing innocents with disturbing regularity. They want a wall to stop it all.

Wall People’s desire to stop change may be unrealistic, but, in fairness, it’s not just about race and class. It is also about a yearning for community — about “home” in the deepest sense — a feeling that the things that anchor us in the world and provide meaning are being swept away, and so they are looking for someone to stop that erosion.


Wall People have two candidates catering to them: Donald Trump, who boasts that he is “The Man” who can stop the winds with a wall, and Bernie Sanders, who promises to stop the winds by ending our big global trade deals and by taking down “The Man” — the millionaires, billionaires and big banks…[1]


I don’t have to tell you who the web people are. They are, of course, the sophisticated high-tech folks who are sufficiently gifted and wise to understand the world (almost) as well as Friedman. They are smart enough to agree with Friedman. They understand that the wall people are relics. Etc. Etc. Etc.


The idea of a flat world – rather than being somehow a representation of globalism – is really one that is two-dimensional. In fact, before Friedman appropriated the concept of being flat, a flat world might well have brought to mind the 19th century book Flatland.[2] In that book’s Flatland, the people lived on a plane and could not imagine a third dimension. One character in fact is given the knowledge that there is a third dimension. But, of course, he can’t convince anyone that a third dimension exists since it is impossible for two-dimensional creatures to imagine. So perhaps a flat columnist who believes that the electorate is two-dimensional – wall people vs. web people – can be forgiven for his limited view. He can’t see beyond a world of dichotomy.


The problem, however, is that the flat view of the election – which is not unique to Friedman – is a major contributor to the Trump and Sanders phenomena which Friedman so dislikes. First, globalism is a term so widely used that it lacks meaning. As we have noted in past musings, there is a difference between trade “protection” as that term is generally used (tariffs, quotas, and other devices designed to limit imports) and changes in exchange rates. When the dollar depreciates relative to other currencies, imports are discouraged (and exports are encouraged). But no one says during times when the dollar falls that the U.S. is becoming protectionist. And no one says when the dollar appreciates that the U.S. is becoming global. Dealing with currency manipulation by trading partners of the U.S. is not normally viewed as “protectionist.”


If all you know about trade is “comparative advantage” which you learned in Economics 1A, you are in another Flatland. The model – used to demonstrate the idea in basic textbooks – involves two countries trading (bartering, actually) two products. More two-by-two dichotomies! There is a more nuanced view of trade in Economics 1B that notes that trade can affect income distribution. But that takes you out of Flatland and into a third dimension. And still more nuance arises when you get away from barter into a monetary international economy with the possibility of trade deficits and surpluses.


Moreover the protection (Bad Thing) vs. free trade (Good Thing) is yet another two-dimensional view of the world. Take the word “protection” out of the trade arena and it has no negative connotation. Is Friedman against insurance (whether social insurance or private insurance)? Isn’t the function of insurance to protect those covered from future risks?


Even in the trade context, there is an important difference between trade in goods and trade in technology. Technology can be traded and transmitted easily, whether a country is “protectionist” in its trade policy or not. So nothing in “protectionist” trade policy inherently deprives “web” people from using the Internet. In fact, when “protection” is applied to information, it often means devices such as patents, copyrights, and other restrictions designed to limit exports, not imports. In the early days of the industrial revolution, Britain sought to ban exports of designs for its valuable new textile machines. But it was hard to prevent folks from memorizing plans for the machinery and then traveling abroad. That’s how early textile machinery made its way from England to New England. (The problem of the difficulty of limiting technology transmission continues today with regard to scientific knowledge deemed to have military significance.)


In the end, the two-dimensional portrait espoused by Friedman of those “economic” backers of Trump and Sanders is fuel for their sense that there is an elite establishment that is uninterested in their fates. Depicting folks as relics – wall people - is unhelpful. Indeed, it’s hard to know what could be more infuriating than the condescending wall vs. web dichotomy. True, Friedman goes on in his column to say that Hillary Clinton should find some especially compassionate web people to add to her coalition. They presumably would support burial insurance for wall folks, due to their compassion. But in the end, Friedman wants everyone who has not done well in Flatland just to accept his two-dimensional world view and not to consider the possibility of any third way.

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[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/27/opinion/web-people-vs-wall-people.html

[2] https://archive.org/details/flatlandromanceo00abbouoft  


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