Golden Oldies: the world is not flat

This in a sense old news, since the academic review I'm about to mention was officially published a few months ago, and a working version was available a year before that and was discussed at many economic sites. But it is so much worth reading that, on the off chance some people might not have come across the March, 2007 edition of Journal of Economic Literature, let me heartily recommend: "A Flat World, A Level Playing Field, a Small World After All, or None of the Above?" by Edward Leamer of UCLA. (An abstract, from the Journal's subscriber-only site, is here. An authorized full text PDF, from a UCLA site, here.)

Leamer's topic is of course Thomas Friedman's ubiquitous The World Is Flat. I have known and liked Friedman personally for years. As an opinion-shaper, he can only inspire awe -- even, or especially, when you disagree, as I obviously have about Iraq. But the flat-world concept has bothered me from the beginning, since in my view and experience it is so imprecise a version of what is going on economically these days. This would not shock Friedman: I tried to indicate as much when we appeared together on the Charlie Rose show last year.*

But I have not seen anything that put the case against flatness as clearly as Leamer's very, very long review does. Usually I am grateful to be a journalist and not a professor. We can be clear; they have to hem and haw. A paper like this shows what professors are for.**

(Notes and excerpt from the review after the jump.)

* When I asked Friedman on the show why he said on virtually every page of the book that the world was "flat," when he knew very well all the reasons it wasn't, he disarmingly said: In the columnist game, you don't sell things 51-49. You decide what you think is right, and you push that all the way. So, he could have more accurately said that the world is "flattening," but that wouldn't have had the ooomph.

** At least professors who can write as clearly as Edward Leamer has. He gives thanks in his paper to his brother Laurence, a veteran book writer and someone I knew and liked in Washington years ago. I didn't know of their relationship until recently.

Bonus third footnote: *** This prologue to Edward Leamer's review has been widely quoted by economists:

When the Journal of Economic Literature asked me to write a review of The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, I responded with enthusiasm, knowing it wouldn’t take much effort on my part. As soon as I received a copy of the book, I shipped it overnight by UPS to India to have the work done. I was promised a one-day turn-around for a fee of $100. Here is what I received by e-mail the next day: “This book is truly marvelous. It will surely change the course of human history.” That struck me as possibly accurate but a bit too short and too generic to make the JEL happy, and I decided, with great disappointment, to do the work myself.

The conclusion to the piece, 55 pages later, is less of a rim-shot joke but convincingly summarizes the detailed discussion that has led up to it.

Physically, culturally, and economically the world is not flat. Never has been,
never will be. There may be vast flat plains inhabited by indistinguishable hoi polloi
doing mundane tasks, but there will also be hills and mountains from which the favored
will look down on the masses. Our most important gifts to our offspring are firm
footholds on those hills and mountains, far from the flat part of the competitive
landscape. Living in the United States helps a lot, and will continue to. But those
footholds will increasingly require natural talent. As a byproduct of our search for
personal pleasure, we provide our children highly loaded dice to roll at the genetic craps
table. Beyond the all-important luck of the genetic draw, it takes the kind of education
that releases rather than constrains their natural talent...

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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