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The Friedman Prescription

December 07, 2016

The world may appear to be rudderless and dangerously adrift, but in his newest book, Thank You for Being Late, Thomas Friedman takes a decidedly optimistic tack. The book, which is subtitled “An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” is not blind to global challenges, far from it. Yet, Friedman persists in offering the reader hope. His optimistic assessment may be lost on those who are too busy donning their life-jacket to read beyond the book jacket. That’s a pity, because Friedman’s book has something vitally important to offer: global and historical perspective.

In what he refers to as “The Age of Accelerations,” Friedman sees powerful forces at work in the world, the first of which is the revolution in information technology. He covers it in eye-popping detail: the exponential growth in computing power made possible by the cloud, the spread of smartphones to the poorest and most remote regions of the world, the emerging ‘internet of things’, and the exploding use of open source software. He labels it a “supernova” and he vividly illustrates how it is giving the world’s educated poor—wherever they live—a chance to compete in the global marketplace. The stories he tells of individuals tapping into—and building upon—the products and services offered by Google and other corporate giants are truly awe inspiring. Information technology is becoming an equal opportunity provider, and that is genuinely exciting.

Optimism is in Friedman’s DNA, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It may, in fact, be a very good thing. Psychologists insist that humans, most of us anyway, are innately optimistic and that it gives us an evolutionary advantage: the courage we need to succeed. And, at the moment, we desperately need the courage to take on a host of game-changing challenges, any one of which could inflict incalculable harm on people, posterity and the planet.

Friedman is not a wild-eyed optimist; he is not oblivious to the dangers that loom on the horizon. He offers readers a veritable catalog of global threats, from climate change to ocean acidification to the precipitous loss in biodiversity. He also explains how rapid population growth and climate change are perpetuating severe poverty and hunger in countries like Niger and Senegal, and contributing, in turn, to a growing stream of young men desperately seeking jobs and economic opportunity in foreign lands. The picture he paints, particularly for countries in Africa’s Sahel region, is far from cheery, and Friedman is quick to point out that political and economic turmoil have a way of spilling over national boundaries. Globalization is, and has always been, a mixed blessing.

Some readers, I am afraid, will be turned off by Friedman’s techno-optimism, while others will reject his sobering depictions of climate change and environmental degradation. But if either side puts the book down, they are making a mistake. You do not have to accept his optimistic prognosis or his climate forecast to derive considerable benefit from his book. Friedman interviews the people who are on the front lines of innovation, climate change, conflict, and poverty. Those insights alone make the book a required read, but Friedman goes one step further. He attempts to make some sense of all the accelerating and cross-cutting changes that are sweeping the world.

As suggested by the title of his book, Friedman thinks we need to pause and reflect. He worries that we are all too swept up in the current of change to fully appreciate how fast we are going, where it is taking us, and what we can do about it.

As Friedman ably illustrates, the world is filled with peril and promise, and what we urgently need to do is minimize the peril and maximize the promise. If you do not like the optimistic prognosis offered up by Friedman, ignore it, but pay close attention to his diagnosis and, just as importantly, his prescription.

In his many travels Friedman has seen, firsthand, how technological advances are creating economic opportunities for some of the poorest people in the world. He has also seen close up how climate change is adversely impacting farmers and how rapid population growth in developing countries is perpetuating poverty and hunger, and contributing to political instability. The diagnosis is on target. He sees what’s working, and what’s not.

As for his prescription, Friedman is an extreme pragmatist. In crafting solutions he wants us to avoid ideological ruts, conservative or liberal, and focus instead on what works. Not a bad idea.

He wants us to harness technology’s potential by investing more in continuing education and human capital. As for foreign assistance, he urges, and rightfully so, that the U.S. prioritize family planning, gender equality, and the education of girls. Globally, he insists that we must unite to curb greenhouse gas emissions before it is too late. With respect to the U.S. tax code, he says, “We need a tax system that specifically incentivizes the things we want—investment, work, and hiring—and shrinks the things we don’t want: carbon emissions, corporate tax avoidance, overregulation, climate change, and gun violence.”

Few people in this world, very few in fact, have devoted their lives to fathoming global change and what it means for the long term. Friedman is one of the few. Most of us are too engaged in our daily trials and tribulations to spend much time reflecting on global trends and dissecting their importance. And when those trends impact our personal lives we do not act, we react. It’s human instinct. In earlier times, when change was much slower and the stakes were much lower, knee-jerk reactions might have sufficed, but in today’s world they are a formula for disaster. Attention must be paid.

Friedman’s prescription, at its core, is: pause, study, think…and act. That is sound and timely advice.

 

This op-ed by Population Institute President Robert Walker originally ran on December 7, 2016 on The Huffington Post

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