Aronica and Ramdoo pummel Friedman’s flat world back into a sphere

24 Jan

It has been over a year and a half since I wrote a modestly critical review of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat – A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century. Friedman’s book has managed to be on the New York Times Bestseller List for most of that time.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that Friedman’s book is flawed.

Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo have tried to set the record straight with their blistering critique, The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller. While Aronica and Ramdoo’s book is not full of Friedmanesque anecdotes, or anointed by a catchy title like the ones Mr. Friedman is so adept at coming up with, just to take the two examples, Lexus and the Olive Tree to The World is Flat, what their book does offer is a richly supported, step by step, dismantling of each of Friedman’s arguments.

The vision of the globalized world that Friedman offers in his book is a rose-tinted, cheery, bullish version, one that has little to do with reality, according to the authors. Friedman’s ‘golf course account’ of globalization revels in accounts of successful businesses and people. Friedman proffers a vision of a globalized world that has an essentially ‘flat’ meritocratic global playing field, and provides limitless opportunities for profit for people who are intelligent or who choose to invest in schooling. He seasons his ‘analysis’ with accounts of his unmitigated fascination with gadgetry, and unbridled confidence in technology. Friedman’s conjuring of this globalized world is in fact so utopic that even the familiar hindersome ‘olive tree’ is missing – only rearing up its head in the Middle East to let you in on the fact that its only the backward culture that’s holding the Arab civilization back from the wonderful riches of the flat world. There are no losers in Friedman’s flat world – only people for whom it may take a little longer to get their piece of the pie, for example the Chinese sweatshop worker who saves up to educate his kids who then go on to get better jobs and better pay. And sometimes it looks that way but looks, as we all know, can be deceiving.

Aronica and Ramdoo talk about a variety of substantive problems that afflict the current global economic regime including how the massive account deficits of US that underpin the global economic system, and how the middle class is increasingly losing out. They argue that Friedman’s book is a testament to how you can be a peripatetic and still be basically a resort town to resort town peripatetic who never really visits the vast global ghetto made of upwards of 3 billion people with limited access to potable water and surviving on $2/day. Ramdoo and Aronica describe the vast underclass that dots the globalized world. The simple fact is that the world is not flat (or even ‘flattening’, except at the center) because it is patently laughable to compare the opportunities of the millions born into starvation and penury with children from the first or third world elites who get to buy $100 sneakers (made of course by the starving children).

Throughout the book, Ramdoo and Aronica are concerned about the shrinking white collar jobs, the vanishing health and retirement benefits, and the simultaneous mass exploitation of the poor in the global third world. This attrition, this slide to the bottom, on both sides of the globe, argue the authors, is due to one single mechanism – the transnational corporations whose gargantuan profits have been fuelled by leeching the job security from the white collar workers in the west and extorting labor and resources from the unprivileged.

The message that I could distill from this book is that this kind of rampant predatory capitalism is not sustainable. The global economic regime is trying to cut off its nose to spite its face or in other words, corporations are willing to sacrifice the middle class for their hunt for profit. Profit is not the global good but often times pursuit of it is left unmonitored based on the argument that it somehow is.

There is a popular saying that a capitalist will even sell you the rope that you need to hang him with and that seems to be becoming increasingly true. We must disassociate global good from corporate profit and argue and work stridently towards a sustainable future before it is too late.

Aronica and Ramdoo’s sobering account is an important addition to the literature of globalization and a necessary therapy for all who have read Friedman’s glib book.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

23 Jan

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman’s book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business. In 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold and its influence on leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat Globalization is so important to all of us that we need become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes, and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned – that success of US from the 1950’s onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first–century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalists create, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong global middle class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT, which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than have domestic businesses operating in their home country. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples:

  1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations.
  2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent.
  3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe
  4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity.
  5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors).
  6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position.
  7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies.
  8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements).
  9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods.
  10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans).
  11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)).
  12. Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast – the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade” versus “protectionism,” “good” versus “bad.” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say. “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What’s currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005).Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap–labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people’s trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don’t live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Friedman’s daughter attends Yale, and there he sees the “precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.” People getting degrees in biomedical engineering while having medical doctors and science professors for fathers.

If only every kid in America had these advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe such rarefied air, Freidman tells them to use their imagination.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air Chindia (China and India). The haves and have-nots are growing further apart in both rich countries and poor. But there is hope in programs such as microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, India’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia will take them global at Chindia prices. Change is being driven by the bottom of the pyramid and not in the chrome and rosewood boardrooms and halls of the WTO or the World Bank or Wall Street.


Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America – Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8–10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s, by 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site, http://dorgan.senate.gov, to see the kind of legislation that is needed to put America’s industrial policy back on track. He calls for: (1) antisweatshop legislation that bar imports produced under internationally defined “sweatshop” conditions and hold companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize; (2) repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being “American”—government services and subsidies, and U.S. Military protection—while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country—jobs, economic investment, and paying a fair share of the tax burden; And (3) capping trade deficits and stopping the $800-billion-a-year trade deficit hemorrhaging. These recommendations do not deal with every disorder caused by globalization, but they could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And they are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz said, , “China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not.”

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population. Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right. But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And its important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work; if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be a group of millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman’s flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.

Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’
We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It’s called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization has to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t make stuff up and tell stories about friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy.

We hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat. Our message is “Wake up!” it’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that? Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand’s social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn’t make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.

Interview with Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo

23 Jan

The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century, the runaway bestseller by New York Times columnist Friedman has now been on the New York Times Bestseller list for over 85 weeks and has sold over 2 million copies in hardcover alone. Ronald Aronica and Mtetwa Ramdoo, authors of The World is Flat? – A Critical Analysis of Thomas L. Friedman’s New York Times Bestseller, point out that Friedman’s book is also full of factual and argumentative inaccuracies, some deliberate and some as a result of living in the CEO bubble. In their book, Ramdoo and Aronica conduct a step by step demolition of nearly all the points that Mr. Friedman makes in his book.

Q) What prompted you to write this book? Were you primarily motivated by wanting to straighten the record? Can you also talk a little more about your background and how this book came about?

RA: With a 30-year career at the intersection of business and technology under my belt, I coauthored a book in 2001, The Death of “E” and the Birth of the Real New Economy. In that book, we described how the technology-enabled globalization of white-collar work would be the new frontier in the world economy. The book is about business transformation as a result of the world being wired and the capability that the Internet provides to interconnect business processes around the globe. It was time to prepare for a whole new way of operating a business. In 2006, I picked up a copy of Friedman’s book and was floored by its superficiality. But what was more shocking to me was the fact that millions of copies had been sold and its influence on leaders in business and government. Indeed, I wanted to set the record straight, for Globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, and the stories Friedman spun are but a small piece of the overall tapestry of this monumental transformation.

Globalization is a highly complex interaction of forces. Not only does it exhibit integration, it also exhibits disintegration. It is rooted in cooperation—and it is rooted in violence. For some, it represents the triumph of free-market capitalism over communism, ushering in democracy, world peace and universal prosperity; for others, it represents conflict, unbridled greed, deregulated corporate power, and an utter disregard for humanity.

Yet, the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. Few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress—that it is being turned upside down. And they may suspect that it has to do with the word, globalization, which increasingly appears in the press and other media. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories about Friedman’s friends, elite CEOs and other personal contacts.

The notion of globalization has been around for centuries, and has taken many forms: political, economic, cultural, and technological, to name a few. But the twenty-first century-style globalization that Friedman writes about is unique. It has a name: “corporate” globalization.

What we want our book to do is to go beyond Friedman’s superficial treatment of globalization and encourage readers who were awed by his book to “think again.”

The aim of our short monograph is to provide a counterbalance to Friedman’s cheerleading for corporate globalization. To help readers get a fuller understanding of the issues, we provide suggested readings at the end of our book and at our Web site, www.mkpress.com/flat Globalization is so important to all of us that we need become more fully informed, not misinformed by story after story based on personal anecdotes, and stories spun from meeting Friedman’s daughter’s friend’s boyfriend at Yale, or playing golf with rich and famous corporate executives. While readers might be unable to find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book, neither can they find the whole truth, nor most of the critically important facets needed for a full picture of globalization.

Q) The current way of globalization, according to you, seems like a race to the bottom. It seems like a system largely driven by large corporations and their obsession with lowering the cost of production. Let me juxtapose this thought with something which is oft mentioned – that success of US from the 1950’s onwards was largely buttressed by robust middle class with decent disposable incomes. My question to you is that is there a chance that the vanishing middle class will translate into a vanishing consumer, and what will that mean for the whole enterprise?

MR: That’s a very good question, for it touches on some of the more profound aspects of twenty-first–century style globalization. We have a whole section in our book, “America’s Former Middle Class” that talks about the plight of the American middle class. Three pillars: land (material resources); labor; and capital form the foundation of industrial economies. In the early years of the Industrial Revolution, Dickensonian industrialists kept labor down when it came to any stake in wealth. Then, in 1901, Republican Teddy Roosevelt became President. He distrusted wealthy businessmen and, as a Trust Buster, dissolved 40 monopolistic corporations. His Square Deal promised a fair shake for the average citizen, including regulation of railroad rates, and pure foods and drugs. As an outdoorsman, he promoted the conservation movement, emphasizing efficient use of natural resources. After 1906, he attacked big business and suggested that the courts were biased against labor unions. In short, you might say Roosevelt gave birth today’s American middle class. Recognizing the capitalists’ excesses during the Industrial Revolution, leaders, such as Roosevelt, reigned in raw capitalism and created a “mixed economy,” not the pure laissez-faire form of capitalism advocated by the Dickensonians.

Fast forwarding to today, free-market Friedman seems to assert that now, with his utopian, digitally connected flat world, even the nation-state could wane as flat-world capitalists create, in the words of Marx and Engels, “a world after its own image.”

Henry Ford was a pioneer of “welfare capitalism” designed to improve the lot of his workers and especially to reduce the heavy turnover that had many departments hiring 300 men a year to fill 100 slots. Efficiency meant hiring and keeping the best workers. In January 1914, Ford announced his five-dollar a day program. The revolutionary program called for a reduction in length of the workday from 9 to 8 hours, a 5-day work week, and a raise in minimum daily pay from $2.34 to $5 for qualifying workers.

Wall Street criticized Ford for starting the 40-hour work week and the minimum wage, but he showed that by paying his people more, Ford workers would be able to afford the cars they were producing—which would be good for the economy. Ford labeled the increased compensation profit-sharing rather than wages.

With today’s corporate globalization, we are seeing a return to Dickensonian capitalism on a grand scale. Not only do we need a strong American middle class, we need a strong global middle class, not a global 3rd world that is seeing America heading toward 3rd world status. We need a new Teddy Roosevelt and thinking capitalists in the likes of upstart Henry Ford if the world is to avoid Wall Street’s rule and its preeminent goal of only increasing shareholder value.

Q) You raise multiple points in your book illustrating ways in which the world is not particularly “flat”. If I read you right, you are not against “flat world” but a Friedman conception of a neo-liberal “flat world” that exists today. Tell us a little more about your thoughts the current “flat” world and the kind of “flat” world that you would like to see. In other words, how does the current global economic regime look like and what would you like to see changed?

RA: Neo-liberals believe that free markets, free trade, and the free flow of capital are the most efficient ways to produce the greatest social, political, and economic good. They argue for reduced taxation, reduced regulation, and minimal government involvement in the economy. They include privatizing health and retirement benefits, dismantling of trade unions, and generally opening our economy to foreign competition. Detractors see neo-liberalism as a power grab by economic elites and as a race to the bottom for everyone else.

The current economic regime unleashes neoliberalism. Agriculture, indigenous peoples’ resources, water, genes, medicines—increasingly, they are all being privatized and placed in the hands of transnational corporations. The field of economics has always addressed both private and public goods. But today’s neoliberal philosophy views all goods as private goods—perhaps even our laws are becoming private goods.

Corporations no longer influence our laws—now, they write them! Multinationals, working behind closed doors are writing the world’s economic agreements unfettered by any one nation’s interests and unaccountable to individual nations’ citizens. For example, the WTO, which emerged from GATT, which covered international trade and tariffs, is an organization that protects multinationals. And Chapter 11 of the supposed free-trade agreement of NAFTA, establishes a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico or the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures are injured by government decisions. This gives foreign-based companies more rights than have domestic businesses operating in their home country. Global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. The national identity of multinationals will become less and less relevant, since they have status to challenge governments. NAFTA creates, as Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney, puts it, “an open class of legal equals.” She adds that “NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution.”

What we’d like to see changed is the form of governance needed for global trade. Current forums and trade agreements (WTO, World Bank, IMF, NAFTA, CAFTA) have stripped many nation-states—hence, their people—of their former roles governing trade. Not doing this, indeed, could lead to the scenarios described in Harvard’s David Korten’s book, When Corporations Rule the World.

Because globalization is the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution, there’s no pat checklist to instantly change policy and strategy. We’re talking about a multi-year struggle for individuals, companies and nations to adjust and readjust. Although we do not in any way provide cookie cutter solutions in our book, we enumerate many of the issues that must be addressed. Here are some examples: 1. Reform of the dependence on Treasury securities, which funds U. S. over-consumption with borrowed dollars from China, Japan and other export driven nations. 2. Reform the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to make their decision-making more transparent. 3. Provide education subsidies, not farm subsidies in the U.S. and Europe 4. Establish worldwide regulation that would restrict continuing damage to the environment and maintain biodiversity. 5. Have government once again govern corporations versus the reverse as it is today (e.g. put trade policy back into Congress, not in trade agreements written behind closed doors). 6. Establish a U.S. Federal Competitiveness cabinet position. 7. Break the bribery cycle between poor countries’ governments and international companies. 8. Establish tripolar trading blocs, not American unipolar hegemony (e.g. establish true economic unions, not asymmetric trade agreements). 9. Separate public goods (the commons) from private goods. 10. Foster. increased savings (e.g., with automatic 401K plans). 11. Develop energy policies and strategies that will break our dependency on oil (e.g. rethink and reorganize America’s sprawling suburbs (exurbs)). 13.Globalize health care, e.g., allow people to spend Medicare dollars overseas (Mexico would boom, solving much of the illegal immigration problem in the U.S.). We are well overdue for a wakeup call to address these and other issues. And an open debate could just lead to peoples’ active engagement in creating a just, sustainable, economic world.

Q) You spend a fair amount of time on describing the underbelly of the beast – the 998 million Indians with no access to Internet, the farmers coming suicide there, or the laid off workers in Detroit. The global middle class and under class are suffering. But certainly the number of Chinese below poverty line has taken a dramatic nose dive in the past two decades. It also seems clear to me that the 9% growth rates in India are benefiting some poor. Certainly the story of globalization is not all doom and gloom. Tell us about the cross cutting forces at work in globalization today.

MR: Today, leading economists, both advocates and critics of globalization, agree that international trade has improved the lives of many across the world, bringing technology and knowledge to virtually every corner of the globe, and has raised many above the tyranny of backward and often repressive cultures. No doubt volumes could be filled with success stories of international trade. It’s “corporate globalization” that’s at issue in the 21st century. Neoliberal free-trade proponents too often frame the issues in a polarizing way: “free-trade” versus “protectionism,” “good” versus “bad.” “Your are either for us, or against us,” they might say. “Free-trade reduces poverty, protectionism creates poverty.” Of course, this is bullshit. Globalization is not a bipolar issue, while the case can be made that “corporate globalization” is.

Defining poverty is key to any discussion of the so-called poverty lines. Is economic globalization the only form of globalization? Should some goods be off limits to corporate globalization and, if so, which ones? To answer these questions, we’ve included a large section in the book devoted to the concept of the Privatization of the Commons. We quote Indian ecologist Dr.Vandana Shiva, “People do not die for lack of incomes. They die for lack of access to resources. Here too Jeffrey Sacks (The End of Poverty) is wrong when he says, ‘In a world of plenty, 1 billion people are so poor, their lives are in danger.’ The indigenous people in the Amazon, the mountain communities in the Himalaya, peasants whose land has not been appropriated and whose water and biodiversity has not been destroyed by debt-creating industrial agriculture are ecologically rich, even though they do not earn a dollar a day. On the other hand, even at five dollars a day, people are poor if they have to buy their basic needs at high prices. Indian peasants who have been made poor and pushed into debt over the past decade to create markets for costly seeds and agrochemicals through economic globalization are ending their lives in thousands.”

After China announced plans to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers’ rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980s, guess who started lobbying the Chinese politicians? As David Baboza reported in the New York Times, “The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. The workers’ advocates say that the proposed labor rules—and more important, enforcement powers—are long overdue, and they accuse the American businesses of favoring a system that has led to widespread labor abuse.” “You have big corporations opposing basically modest reforms,” said Tim Costello, an official of the Global Labor Strategies and a longtime labor union advocate. “This flies in the face of the idea that globalization and corporations will raise standards around the world.”

What’s currently going on is called “corporate globalization,” where powerful transnational corporations, backed by supposed “free trade” treaties penned by corporate lobbyists in Washington, go to the ends of the earth to exploit slave-like labor. No one of us wants continuing poverty in China, India, or elsewhere. But is making $2.00 a day (the oft quoted dollar amount to be “out of poverty”) the goal, the only goal?

Out of Poverty?

Life in rural communities in China, India and elsewhere is tough. Are we to displace a non-money economy with formerly self-sufficient peoples moving to the mega cities to live in slums? In the recent PBS documentary, “China From the Inside,” rural people dislocated due to the damming of rivers were given new high density housing. But as one of them exclaimed, we have no jobs and cannot raise our food anymore. Relocation from dam areas, like the Three Gorges, is causing huge social upheaval (75,000 riots in China in 2005).Thousands of families are divided throughout China as parents spend most of the year in large cities making a living, while their children remain in rural villages with grandma tending to all the chores and to the fields. In other cases, women are left in the villages to raise children while husbands go off alone to the cities to work. Expectant mothers still abort female fetuses or abandon newborn girls because of the long-held view that women are not as valuable to the culture as men. China is the only nation in the world where the suicide rate for women is higher than that for men. Of course, relocated peasants cannot afford the shoe strings on the brand-named shoes they manufacture in sweatshops. But then, again, they do get to see their children 4 days out of the year! So yes, they are “out of poverty” according to the $2.00 a day rule, but at what cost? Is there hope for a Global Middle Class? Why, when the Chinese Communist Party’s latest five-year plan called for increased focus on unions, did multinationals threaten to relocate jobs to Viet Nam or other dirt-cheap–labor countries?

China is run by the Communist Party, which bases its legitimacy on delivering both stability and the conditions for prosperity. But stability is under threat as the economic boom strands millions at the margins. Meanwhile, rampant corruption is sapping people’s trust in the Party. Officials are seen, increasingly, not as public servants but as profiteers. Is China Corporate Globalization’s 21st century poster child where the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer in social as well as monetary terms? We don’t have the answers in our book, but we identify the essential questions, such as, Is earning $2.00 a day the end of poverty? You’ll see little discussion of these matters in Friedman.

Q) Thomas Friedman in his book, “The World is Flat: A brief history of the 21st Century” quotes Bill Gates, “Thirty years ago, if you had a choice between being born a genius on the outskirts of Bombay or Shanghai or being born an average person in Poughkeepsie, you would take Poughkeepsie, because your chances of thriving and living a decent life there, even with average talent, were much greater. But as the world has gone flat, and so many people can plug and play from anywhere, natural talent has started to trump geography.” It seems to me Bill Gates is comparing a child born to fairly rich educated parents near Bombay or Shanghai given only a tiny fraction (about 1% in India) of people in India and China have access to “plug and play”, something which you point out in your book. Even if we agree with Mr. Gates, we still miss the close to 95% of population with its share of geniuses that don’t live close to Mumbai and Shanghai. Can you shed some light on their chances for “success” or integration in the global economy?

MR: What Gates and Friedman are discussing are the opportunities for the elite. Friedman writes, “I cannot tell any other society or culture what to say to its own children, but I can tell you what I say to my own: The world is being flattened. I didn’t start it and you can’t stop it, except at a great cost to human development and your own future. But we can manage it, for better or for worse. You can flourish in this flat world, but it does take the right imagination and the right motivation. While your lives have been powerfully shaped by 9/11, the world needs you to be forever the generation of 11/9 [the fall of the Berlin wall]—the generation of strategic optimists, the generation with more dreams than memories, the generation that wakes up each morning and not only imagines that things can be better but also acts on that imagination every day.”

While these lessons display concern for his children, he leaves it up to their imagination as to the way forward. Friedman’s daughter attends Yale, and there he sees the “precisely the sort of young person we want the America education system to keep churning out.” People getting degrees in biomedical engineering while having medical doctors and science professors for fathers.

If only every kid in America had these advantages and could graduate from Yale, all would be well in the Kingdom of Flat. All they need is a wealthy daddy, a degree from U.S.-President-producing Yale, and we are off to the races. But for those of us whose children do not breathe such rarefied air, Freidman tells them to use their imagination.

Ditto for our children that don’t breathe such rarefied air Chindia (China and India). The haves and have-nots are growing further apart in both rich countries and poor. But there is hope in programs such as microbanking. Bangladeshi Grameen Bank and its founder Muhammad Yunus received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to create economic and social development from below. Indeed, there is a fortune at the bottom of the pyramid, but few multinationals seem to notice. While most IT activity is focused on urban centers such as Bangalore, India’s Netcore is producing the $100 PC for the next billion. So, the big hope for addressing poverty isn’t about the “zippies” in Bangalore that Friedman writes about, it’s about the bottom of the pyramid. And when innovations happen there, entrepreneurs in Chindia will take them global at Chindia prices. Change is being driven by the bottom of the pyramid and not in the chrome and rosewood boardrooms and halls of the WTO or the World Bank or Wall Street.


Q) Friedman has all sorts of suggestions for parents living in suburbs like Poughkeepsie. What would you like to say to the parents of young kids across America – Is it to vote to change the economic and social policy of the government?

MR: Americans are just beginning to think about what can happen as early as 2010. Some forecasts show that, with an average growth rate of 8–10%, China’s GDP will, by 2010, have surpassed Japan’s, by 2030, China will have the world’s largest economy, and, by 2050, it could be double that of the U.S.

Meanwhile, Washington leaves industrial policy up to the “free market”—or, as we write in our book, Washington has no industrial policy, which is perhaps the real issue—America does not have a national industrial policy that identifies and strengthens the industries in which it wants to be the master in the twenty-first century. America’s economic policies are, by and large, set by transnational corporations who wield excessive power in Washington. Their interests are not in America, but are in their stockholders. As more than one CEO has said, their interests may indeed lie outside of the United Sates. So, keeping this in mind, Friedman’s thesis could translate into “Go East, young man. Get your engineering degree, and move to Bangalore, because that’s where your job is going.”

For starters, I’d tell parents to read Sen. Byron Dorgan’s book, Take this Job and Ship It: How Corporate Greed and Brain-Dead Politics Are Selling Out America. It’s a real eye opener. Then visit his Web site, http://dorgan.senate.gov, to see the kind of legislation that is needed to put America’s industrial policy back on track. He calls for: (1) antisweatshop legislation that bar imports produced under internationally defined “sweatshop” conditions and hold companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize; (2) repealing tax incentives for American companies that enjoy all the benefits of being “American”—government services and subsidies, and U.S. Military protection—while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country—jobs, economic investment, and paying a fair share of the tax burden; And (3) capping trade deficits and stopping the $800-billion-a-year trade deficit hemorrhaging. These recommendations do not deal with every disorder caused by globalization, but they could jump-start a debate that Congress has long avoided. And they are not about “protectionism.” Instead they are about America formulating an industrial trade policy, because as, as former Reagan commerce advisor Clyde Prestowitz said, , “China and India have very clear national industrial policies. America does not.”

Q) You bring out a variety of points that dismantle nearly all of arguments that Friedman makes in the book. What, according to you, did Friedman get right in his book? What does he get about global economic regime?

RA: The main thing Friedman got right was that there is a need for a book on globalization that can reach the general population. Unfortunately, his book misinforms the public. We could not find a single falsehood in Friedman’s book. What he wrote, he mostly got right. But it’s what he didn’t write—it’s what he left out—that makes the book so problematic. There’s little more in his book beyond being a cheerleader for unfettered corporate globalization. And its important to recognize that, in some sense, this globalization stuff he writes about really does seem to work; if you consider that if four average blue-collar Americans join Friedman at a bar, the five of them, on average, would be a group of millionaires. As some of our politicians like to remind us, America is the economic envy of the world, and similar statistics to the bar scenario prove them right. That’s right, eh?

Q) Thomas Friedman started of as a successful Middle-East pundit, something for which he has actually received training. It is at best a strange transition from being a Middle-East pundit to being an “expert” on globalization. Do Friedman’s flaws in his economic analysis, as pointed out by you and numerous other scholars, emanate primarily from his lack of intellectual training in economics or his lack of intellectual honesty or is it something else entirely?

MR: It seems Friedman is an opportunist. Remember, he started on his globalization quest when he was on assignment for the Discovery Channel doing “The Other Side of Outsourcing.” It seems to have occurred to him during that assignment, “Aha. A book!” You’ll see that he based many of the stories in his book on the Discovery documentary. Being a well-placed smart person, Friedman did what any capitalist would do, he used his celebrity assets to make money. And to him, we say kudos. Stiglitz, Bagwhati, Roach, Leamer and other well-respected, fully-qualified economists and business analysts can write their hearts out, but who will read them? Celebrity has its privileges.

What’s unnerving is not Friedman, but the overwhelming traction of his book. This is best explained by Professor Roberto Gonzalez, “Ultimately, Friedman’s work is little more than advertising. The goal is not to sell the high-tech gadgetry described in page after page of the book, but to sell a way of life—a world view glorifying corporate capitalism and mass consumption as the only paths to progress. It is a view intolerant of lives lived outside the global marketplace. It betrays [unconsciously reveals] a disregard for democracy and a profound lack of imagination. This book’s lighthearted style might be amusing were it not for the fact that his subject—the global economy—is a matter of life and death for millions. Friedman’s words and opinions, ill informed as they are, shape the policies of leaders around the world. Many consider him to be a sophisticated thinker and analyst—not a propagandist. It is a sobering reminder of the intellectual paralysis gripping our society today.” Today we don’t play sports; we sit on the couch and play our sports vicariously through celebrity sports stars. Today, we don’t have much time to think; we let our celebrity pundits do that for us.


Q) You heavily rely on paraphrasing and quotations from others authors to put forth your case. Was that a conscious decision or was it strictly a result of time pressures?

RA: We’ll give you yet another quote to tell why! Here is Bill Moyers at the 2007 National Conference on Media Reform, “The degree to which this [free trade] has become a purely ideological debate, devoid of any factual basis that people can weigh the gains and losses is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s astonishing claim, stated not long ago in a television interview, that he endorsed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) without even reading it. That is simply because it stood for ‘free trade.’
We have reached the stage when the Poo-bahs of punditry have only to declare that ‘the world is flat,’ for everyone to agree it is, without going to the edge and looking over themselves. It’s called reporting.”

And that’s exactly what we want to accomplish with our book, going to the edge and doing some “reporting” on what those qualified to analyze and report on 21st century globalization has to say.

We have 46 footnote references on our sources of information. Friedman has zero. We don’t make stuff up and tell stories about friends and elite CEOs. And we explore nine critical issues Friedman ignores or glosses over, along with an enumeration of 22 action items. Our book would be hundreds more pages if we expounded on each of these strategies and their rationales. We meant only to set the record straight on what Friedman is saying by providing the views of the experts, and then to provide the reader with a roadmap for exploring this vital subject further, for globalization affects all our lives and will be of even greater significance to our children and grandchildren. Simply stated, we all must learn about globalization and our available choices as we define our place in a global economy.

We hope our analysis of Friedman’s book provides readers who were awed by his 600 pages of bafflegab with a second take on the monumental subject of globalization.

To help our readers to develop their understanding of the issues, we have a shortlist of suggested readings and a comprehensive and growing resource list at www.mkpress.com/flat. Our message is “Wake up!” it’s past time to come to grips with the greatest reorganization of the world since the Industrial Revolution.

Q) Friedman is often accused of writing newspaper plain speak, speaking in clichés and in analogies but avoiding facts and avoiding substance to story telling. The idea is, according to Friedman, to be a translator of the economic jargon and make it accessible to the public. Is there any merit in this idea? Are economic facts about the current global regime so complex?

RA: A translator of economic jargon would be great. We open our book saying that the person on the street, especially in America, has little clue what globalization is all about. But few have any doubt that change is placing the world under great stress, that it is being “turned upside down.” And the person on the street may suspect that it has to do with the word, which increasingly appears in the press and other media: globalization. But what does it really mean? It would be great if a popularizer, a famous personality or pundit, would explain the many complicated political, economic and social issues connected to the phenomenon of globalization. Walter Cronkite or Bill Moyers could probably do that.

Desperate for such information, millions of people, including leaders in business, government and education, have turned to Friedman’s mass market book to gain an understanding of globalization. Unfortunately, they are served up stories from friends, CEOs and other personal contacts of the author. These stories are not harmless, for they become solemn writ for lawmakers and opinion mongers.

It’s not so complex to explain that multinational corporations, are by their very nature, aimed at maximizing shareholder value. To achieve this corporate goal, multinational corporations are literally going to the ends of the earth in search of dirt-cheap labor for both manufacturing and high-end knowledge-based workers. IBM recently laid off 15,000 employees in America, while hiring 45,000 in India. There is nothing complex about that idea.

But shipping jobs overseas and hollowing out America’s middle class is only part of the picture. America is exporting its pollution by relocating manufacturing facilities to countries where environment laws are lax or non-existent. Let’s not forget about the human abuses lurking behind famous brand names and companies. Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee cites Wal-Mart among others as repeat offenders. Friedman has nothing but awe for Wal-Mart’s supply chaining, failing all mention of Wal-Mart’s darker side cited by Kernaghan. Like other US retailers, Wal-Mart claims to be enforcing decent labor conditions, but investigators find otherwise. Kernaghan points out that the same companies have won enforceable rules in trade agreements to protect their trademarks, labels and copyrights, yet regard protections for workers as “an impediment to free trade.” “Under this distorted sense of values,” says Kernaghan, “the label is protected but not the human being, the worker who makes the product.”

What’s so hard for the laymen to understand about that? Plain newspaper speak is great if it conveys substance. Friedman is especially destructive when he opines on public matters outside his supposed expertise. His thinking seems to be anchored by Ayn Rand’s social philosophy: Let the strong prevail, let the weak pay for their weakness. There is no doubt that many of those who read Friedman are now convinced the world is flat (perhaps they also believe the moon is made of green cheese). But newspaper plain talk doesn’t make it so. Having paid the price of wading through Friedman’s almost 600 pages of grandiloquent prose and bafflegab, there are those who want to protect that investment by clinging to the idea that they have gained a full understanding of globalization. Albert Einstein once wrote, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Friedman’s simplistic treatise on globalization fails that test.

While Friedman’s personal anecdotes fascinate many readers and make for good tales at cocktail parties, it’s what’s left out of story after story after story that makes the book such a flawed distillation of globalization. Thus, it is what’s ignored on the many issues that Friedman touches upon that makes the book dangerous, for it gives average readers a false sense that they are gaining a true understanding of this broad and complex subject, globalization.

Interview with Felicia Drury Kliment

22 Jan

Interview with Ms. Felicia Drury Kliment, author of Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes, was conducted via email over the past week.

The book, “Acid Alkaline Balance Diet: An Innovative Program for Ridding Your Body of Acidic Wastes” is in stores now.

Q) Let me begin by asking you a little more about yourself- Where did you grow up, in particular, what kind of food you generally ate while growing up?

A) I grew up in the late forties and fifties in Youngstown, Ohio, population 100,000. The food additive industry was still in its infancy then, so food was relatively free of pesticides. At the time a well balanced meal which included the three food types—carbohydrates, fat, and protein—was the by-word to good health. A typical dinner was made up of meat, potatoes, vegetables and salad, while a typical breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, and toast for breakfast.

One of the highlights of my youth was the food we got fresh from a farm or grown in our backyard. Although Youngstown was then referred to as a steel town, we –my mother, father, and brother—lived in a suburb only minutes away by car from many small farms In the summer my mother and I would drive to the Fite farm to buy corn on the cob. When we arrived, Ms. Fite would go out to the cornfields and pick corn especially for us. I also remember our ‘milkman,’ delivering milk in glass bottles. The top third of the bottle was pure cream because milk was not homogenized in those times. What also stands out in my memory are the beefsteak tomatoes my mother raised in the backyard. She fertilized them with her ‘handmade’ fertilizer—a compost heap of leaves and other debris.

Q) Tell us a little more about your professional background. What led you into your current profession and your interest in the Acid Alkaline Diet?

A) You might say that it started when I was 10 years old. I had terrible headaches from the strong glasses I wore, so I started eating raw carrots all day long. In three months my eyesight was normalized and I threw my glasses away! My interest in the healing power of foods then went into hibernation—until I was in my early thirties when I picked out a book in the library at random, unintentionally re-awakening my interest in alternative medicine and diet. The book was about how vitamin E could heal eye disease. I was hooked! I began researching the subject of alternative health and writing articles in professional journals and popular magazines. Years later I began teaching at City College in New York.

What triggered my book writing and health consulting was an ailment I had developed, acid reflux. My knowledge of chemistry had made me aware that the body consists most basically of acid and alkaline particles. Their balance is vital not only to good health but to survival itself. Acid reflux increases the levels of acid in the body, thereby disrupting the acid-alkaline pH of the blood. I set about working out a diet that would heal acid reflux and other degenerative disease, thereby restoring the normal ratio of the acid alkaline ph balances in the body. Then I wrote a book about it, the Acid Alkaline Balance Diet.

Q) Can you talk a little more about the history of acid alkaline diet? Who first came to the conclusion that it is the acid-alkaline imbalances that lead to certain diseases? How has the field grown since?

A) Concern with acid alkaline imbalance stretches way back to the late nineteenth century. However, the idea that acid waste can disrupt the acid-alkaline pH balances in the body has evolved fairly recently, in the last 25 years or so. German and Japanese scientists came to the conclusion that the acid wastes from metabolic (organ) function was the cause of pH imbalances. I have taken the problem a step further by pin pointing the wrong diet as the principal culprit in the production of acid waste in the body.

Food that the individual can’t break down in the digestive tract turns into acid waste, which is highly toxic. The blood stream carries it to all parts of the body and wherever acid waste settles, it inflames organ tissue. This is how degenerative diseases get started.

Q) A simple search on Google for “healthy diet plans” reveals that diet plans these days are inextricably linked to weight loss. In particular, the diet options seem particularistic and generally tailored towards “fixing” the weight problem. Please tell us about you thoughts on this issue?

A) That’s the problem with most diet plans. They’re standardized—one size fits all—as if every person has the same physiology as everyone else! Furthermore, most diet plans aim directly at losing weight, rather than doing so indirectly—by eating foods that enhance health. The primary aim of my book is to help the reader find foods that they can digest easily rather than merely the foods that take off weight. Because foods that aren’t digested properly ultimately put on weight. When your digestive system works well, you automatically lose weight because there is no leftover acid waste— some of which the body converts into fatty acid which puts on pounds..

Q) There is a proliferation of healthy diet plans and ideas including the macrobiotic diet and what not. Tell us about the specific problems with other kinds of “healthy” dieting options that fail to address the acid-alkaline balance?

A) What very few diet plans don’t address is the differences in individual digestive metabolism. I advocate eating according to your metabolic needs. When you do this you are not only eating foods that your digestive system can break down, but you’re also supplying your body with the nutrients you are short in, while eating less of those nutrients that you have in excess. When you approach dieting in this way, you automatically normalize you acid-alkaline pH balances.

Q) Can you walk us through the biology behind the acid-alkaline diet? How important is the acid-alkaline balance as compared to say other health eating virtues including low fat or including Omega3 etc. and healthy lifestyle virtues like exercising regularly. Am I amiss in asking you to compare and contrast when the real answer is syncretism of these options?

A) No you’re not. First, a low fat diet is unhealthy because scientists long ago showed that for normal body function, 25% of your diet should consist of fats and oils. All health issues, including obesity can be resolved if you eat according to your metabolic type. There are three types of metabolisms: the grain eater, the meat eater, and the omnivore (meat and grain) eater. The niacin test in my book enables you to discover which metabolic type you are. Your type of metabolism determines what food you should eat. For example, the meat eater does well on lots of meat, butter, root vegetables, etc., This leads in to your question about omega 3 oils. Everyone needs some omega 3, but the grain eater can digest greater quantities of it than the meat eater because the grain eater can eats lots of fish the primary source of omega 3 oil. By eating the foods for which your digestive system was designed, you will maintain the proper acid-alkaline ph balances in the blood and other bodily fluids. To answer the third part of your question. Certainly exercise is important, but the problem is that the press, fueled by the medical profession, implies that exercise is the most important factor in good health. A healthy diet comes first. Another problem that should be addressed is electro-magnetic pollution, particularly from cell phones and computers. There are chips which are very effective in neutralizing this pollution.

Q) The book lays a lot of blame on the current dietary acid-alkaline imbalances to modern agricultural and food processing methods including food coloration, hormones, insecticides, preservatives etc. Tell us a little more about this. Pleases give us an example of a specific chemical and how it affects us, if so is possible.

A) There is so much pollution in everything that we are exposed to that it’s hard to know where to start. Obviously organic foods should be eaten when ever possible. While not totally free of pesticides, they have far lower levels than agribusiness produce and are free of antibiotics, and additives including food coloring. I’ll mention one additive that is particularly harmful to health, and that is the growth hormone in milk. Studies show that it causes a spurt in growth which makes those who grow above a certain level 2 to 3 times more likely to get pancreatic and colon cancer.

Q) You advise people to eat raw foods including organic eggs. If I am not wrong, there is a chance that some harmful bacteria and fungi can be ingested as a result of eating raw organic eggs.

A) You do read a lot about the danger of eating raw eggs, but the facts don’t support the claim. The American Egg Board reports that research studies conducted by food scientists have found that the average consumer might encounter a salmonella-infected egg once in eighty-four years! Because organic eggs weren’t used in the studies, the chance of eating a salmonella-infected egg if the egg is organic would be even more remote.

Q) Should we take your book as a whole hearted approval of eating organic foods?

A) I certainly would encourage buying organic, but for anyone who is tight financially it isn’t necessary to buy all organic produce. If possible, don’t buy fruits and vegetables found to be higher in pesticide residues such as peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, strawberries, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, carrots, and potatoes. On the other hand, if you’re short on cash you can buy broccoli, bananas, pineapple, mangoes, frozen sweet peas, frozen corn asparagus, avocados, and onions since they are low in pesticides.

Q) Lastly, what would be your diet advice for average Americans that cannot avoid eating out?

A) For such people who for one reason or another cannot avoid eating out most of the time, I would suggest that they buy a juicer and make at least one glass of juice daily, preferably in the morning. Use organic vegetables such as carrots, beets, celery, lettuce, zucchinis, and a little parsley. I would also recommend taking supplements that are derived from food complexes. Standard Process is one such brand and probably the best. (I’ve been through their factory and seen their cultivated fields and the animals they raise, which are the raw materials for their supplements.)

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Foreign Reporting and Technology

20 Jan

Part 5 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Let’s talk a little more about the challenges of foreign reporting. I feel that some journalists like Ryszard Kapuscinski have done wonderful reporting from Africa while most others have failed to bring out the complexities while reporting on other countries. Can you talk a little more about what journalists can do in this regard?

That’s part of what you had asked me before. I think its really important that over the course of three or four-year tour of duty in Africa or the Middle East to give a well-rounded body of work that captures both the complexities of the region and gives readers some sense that something else is going on besides conflict. I love Kapuscinski’s work, and some of my colleagues have done great work, but sometimes I am critical of them and myself because we make it sound like it’s one big war. In the Middle East as well, the Israeli society and the Palestinian society are complex, interesting creatures. There are a lot of things going on, and I always found that some of the most interesting stories are about events and forces at work within each society rather than the constant struggle between them. We can’t understand that struggle unless you understand the forces at work within each society, especially in the Israeli society. Both sides get shortchanged by this kind of parachute phenomenon. We write about the war and we leave, and we write about the conflict, but we never write about the actors, the two societies at work. In Africa as well.

One way to do that is to constantly be thinking about the counter story if you will. The conventional wisdom, if you will, or the story that confirms everyone’s deepest prejudice – conflict Africa, Africa at war, Africa can’t feed itself –it is really quite lovely to find once in a while where people are being fed quite well and to write about why that is, what works. So I remember writing about – this is long ago, far away – Zimbabwe in 1984 when it was the breadbasket of Southern Africa – it had an enormously successful agricultural system and just writing a long piece which ran on the front page of the Washington Post about how that worked and how they were exporting 2 million tones of grain to other parts of Southern Africa. Partly it was the function of the weather, but mostly it was the function of a successful process. Not only did they paid farmers a decent amount for their product, a decent rail system, and a warehouse system so you could actually take maize and corn and transport it, get it off the farm and on to a market. And how American dumping of our maize was potentially damaging to that system, our cheap corn, given in the name of our policy for providing food to hungry people. Those are more complex, rich stories that contradict the conventional wisdom.

I think it is really really valuable as a foreign correspondent to think about ways of subverting the conventional wisdom, so you tell your readers about something surprising – I mean what is journalism telling among other things – telling them things that they don’t know, surprising them, making them think twice about the world we live in and about their own role and you do that by being critical of the conventional wisdom. ‘Wait a minute – is this really true and if it’s not what’s my role here.’

One of the great things about being a journalist is that you should be able to be constantly self-critical and the critical analysis that you provide to the world around you, you also apply to your own work and to the work of your many dear colleagues and trying to figure out what are we missing here. Journalism, I think still fundamentally rewards that kind of enterprise, that kind of critical analysis. I think there is still room – whether its Seymour Hersh writing about the Iraq war or others I think it still really rewards people who can climb their way out of the conventional wisdom and surprise you and shock you or stun you in some way. That’s the great correcting mechanism in journalism if there is one.

What challenges and opportunities do blogs and social media present?

I have no problem with that. My fear is that because of the technology, because dead tree edition is in trouble—and I don’t mind if dead trees themselves are in trouble—that’s ok if we move away from the newspaper form. My fear is that our big newsrooms and our big newsgathering operations are also shrinking. It should be a vast marketplace with many forms of journalism. The blogosphere can be out there counting angels on a pin. That’s fine as long as we can keep the whole thing thriving, including the kind of thing that I am talking about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Reporting on Emotional Issues

20 Jan

Part 4 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Since we have just broached the Middle East, what are the special challenges for reporting from there. What are the challenges in reporting around highly emotive issues more generally?

Where do you begin? If we are talking about Israel and Palestine, we are talking about two national movements, with their own histories, their own set of grievances and their own interpretation of their history and the relationship to each other and how they have treated each other over now 100 years. Plus, the national histories go back way before that. So what you have is an armed struggle between two national movements. And inevitably those two movements are going to – because it is an ongoing war – mobilize every fact and every tool and every potential weapon as part of that struggle. And the press, the media simply becomes another stage, if you will, another battleground in that struggle.

And I think we have to be constantly aware of the fact that we are – we walk in their trying to be neutral observers, trying to capture truth as best as we can – we are constantly being told to not be neutral observers, constantly being pulled in one direction or another, intimidated, coerced, seduced, and if we don’t fulfill the demands of each side then we are under attack – sometimes physical attack, oftentimes emotional, verbal -all of that. So, you have to go in there with an understanding, or you learn over time, just who you are and who they are and what they want from you and they are not going to be satisfied with your neutral best, even-handed approach. That’s not gonna work for them. They are going to be part of your audience but you are not really working for them, and you are not writing for them. You are writing for the world, if you will, especially now. So, your obligations are first and foremost are to the readers, to your customers – whatever you want to call them and to the truth as best as you can discover.

And so I have very little patience with journalists who fall victims to one side or the other if you will or who eventually take on the coloration of one side or the other. It is easy to do, there is plenty of justification you could have for doing it but it’s not what I see my role as. There is certainly room for journalists who become advocates, who become highly critical. Take someone like Robert Fisk, a correspondent for The Independent. I have great admiration for Robert Fisk’s for this courage, for his enterprise, and for his writing ability. I consider Bob to be a strong advocate of a certain point of view. And there is a role for him and a role for people for people like him and a role for people who are very supportive of the state of Israel; I don’t see my role and the role of Washington Post to be similar to that. I think we play a very different role. I think in a way – it’s in some ways harder, and in some ways easier. What Bob does per se, the personal courage of Bob, the risks he takes, the beliefs he has – I don’t question them at all. I don’t agree with the journalism because it’s not the kind of journalism I am seeking to practice. I think that he belongs on one side of the spectrum; he is valuable and useful for people to read. What we do, try to do is something very different.

Its really hard to do, because the struggle, the constant demands on you from people who have real grievances – I mean you know it is hard to find a family on either side of the divide from those national movements who haven’t had a direct personal loss at this point, who haven’t lost a family member, whose lives haven’t been affected in some horrible way by this struggle. Its very much a war of populations. Its not just governments fighting each other and enlisting people in the army and going off to a battlefield and fighting, it is a war which takes place within the civilian populations of both communities, both national movements. So, it becomes, even more, person and intimate. It is an inter-communal war where everyone is a soldier whether they want to be or not. Trotsky once said that you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you. This kind of war allows no one to be a neutral observer. You can be a shop keeper in Ramallah and simply want to do business every day – you are not allowed to do that in this war because the Israeli army will come and shut you down because you are in middle on an unrest zone or Palestinian kids will come back at you and make you open up, your child trying to go to school on a given day could be shot, school can be closed, so many things could go wrong and then its your kid out there throwing rocks at a tank and your kid rebelling against you as well as the Israeli occupier. So many things happen. So many lives have been lost.

My job as a journalist is to try to understand all of that, to get within that process, and to meet these people and to write about them in a world they live in with empathy and understanding and at the same time to stand outside of it and to be critical of both sides and their inability to get beyond this and to find a way out of this.

It’s a beautiful job in a sense because I could be one day in a family’s home in Nablus talking about their dead son, who was killed by Israeli soldiers, and who he was and what happened and how they feel about him, and I could be at Tel Aviv next day at the ministry of defense talking to Yitzhak Rabin about how he sees the situation in Nablus and what he thinks he is trying to do. No one else is allowed to move between those two poles. No one else but a journalist can see all the things or can see both sides in that way, and there are times when of course both sides try to prevent our access to both sides. In Iraq, it is impossible to do what I have just described because the physical threat is so huge. In Israel and Palestine, at times it has been very very difficult because the army may seal off Nablus or the Palestinian authority police won’t let you in within an area. Lots of things can happen to prevent that access. But our job is to go to both those places and to talk to all those people and to process and understand what we are hearing, and to understand both the delusions, if you will, and the assumptions and the limited knowledge both sides are working under about each other and to present the best we can to our readers.

Some people have pointed to the distinction between being balanced and being accurate. They see a journalist’s responsibility towards being accurate and not particularly towards being balanced. Tell me a little more about your thoughts on the issue.

I don’t agree with a notion that there is a contradiction or an inherent conflict between being fair and even-handed and being accurate. When I talk about being fair and even-handed, it’s not a ‘on the one hand and on the other hand’ kind of journalism. I think inherent in our assumptions and the way we write stories, a good journalist conveys the truth as best he or she can.

The even-handedness involves being fair, understanding the assumptions that both sides are making, their motives, their imperatives, their personal constituencies – why is prime minister of Israel making a certain decision at some point, what are the political reasons behind that, what are his own constituents demanding of him? Understanding the internal dynamic of why he may make a decision is not the same thing as apologizing for him.

I think that the heart of accuracy is to be even-handed and to be fair and at the same time telling the truth as best as we could find it. The fact that you give everyone a chance to explain themselves in a story doesn’t mean that the story isn’t clear about whats going on. If a massacre occurs, if Israeli army guns down six or eight Palestinian women standing outside a mosque where they are protecting or putting their bodies in front of Hamas fighters, which happened a couple of weeks ago in Gaza. Reporting on that – telling the truth about who opened fire, and how it was done and the fact these people are dead and what people is Gaza feel about that. Going back to the army and figuring out what were the rules of engagement, who did that. Reporting as best as we can – reporting the Israeli apology but at the same time reporting the rules of engagement and whether this was about the individual initiative of the soldiers – I think all of that is important and all of that speaks to the truth of the situation.

It’s our obligation to report the whole thing; to see the whole complex picture of what went on. That doesn’t take away from the horror of what happened. I think in some the explaining of how it happened and to allow both sides to explain that does not say – we don’t know what the truth is, on the one hand, one the other hand. That’s not what that kind of reporting does. That kind of reporting brings you insight into how that kind of thing can happen. I think its the most valuable reporting we do and I don’t think – I think you can be very critical and provide your readers with a real understanding so that they can make their own judgment about it. Your story will guide them to a judgment.

I always thought it was most important in covering a conflict to make sure each side understood the price of what they were doing. If you are in Israel and you say that it is really important to the hold the West Bank, there is no way we can give that up. We are killing two Palestinian kids a day right now, and we are doing damage to our own army. I always felt that the journalist’s role was to make sure that everyone, our readers, understood what the price was, understood what this number 2 a day consisted of – who those people were – that they had families that they had fathers and mothers, that they were out there doing whatever they were doing, what their motives were. I felt that our role to make sure everybody understands the price and consequences of their actions. If you can do that, you have done a lot. I really believe deeply that it’s both.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Principles of Good Journalism

19 Jan

Part 3 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glenn Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


People can be fairly clever in coming up with justifications for why they did what they did. Can empathy come in the way of critically looking at the choices made by people? How do you provide both an empathetic and a critical account?

I think you have to do both. First of all, journalism to me is a fairly large spectrum of things which ranges from the sort of very aggressive — move in there and find out wrongdoing and attack it — sort of Seymour Hersh approach to people who are writing perhaps more nuanced account — lets get into the mindset of people making decisions, trying to figure out why did the things they things. The best journalists can do that and do it critically– both be critical at the same time and give a full rounded portrait. To people who inevitably end up crossing the line and writing very sympathetically about the people who made terrible decisions.

I think the very best journalists find a way to do both and to not lose their critical edge. I am thinking, it may not be an appropriate example, but we can take someone like [not clear] writing in the 1960s about somebody like Joe DiMaggio, the greatest sports star. [not clear] writes this wonderful piece for Esquire about DiMaggio which both I think summons up both the grace and charisma of DiMaggio but at the same time when you walk away from the piece, you have a very very critical understanding of his illusions, of the damage he has done, and of his total inability to say understand women in his life, and the way he seeks to dominate, manipulate and control everyone around him. To me that’s a work of art — it almost surpasses journalism, but it is an act of journalism. That kind of piece, you know, is a model of being able to both understand someone’s mindset and why they do the things they do but at the same time delivers to the readers a portrait that also is unmistakably critical and powerful. Now that’s clearly the ultimate. I can’t do that, and I don’t expect most journalists to be able to do that, but I do expect people to be both tough and fair. That’s not too much to ask.

You can tell — to apply it to much recent example — when you look at say some of the people who wrote about the Iraq war, the run-up to the Iraq war — the obvious suspects like Judith Miller of the New York Times. I hate to mention Judy in such a way because she becomes a scapegoat but nonetheless that sort of rather uncritical recitation of the material that your sources provide you – you know I think we have to be able to do more than that. I think if you contrast some of the thinks Judy was writing at the time say with Bart Gelman of the Washington Post wrote, you can see the difference. And you can see kind of being a little more careful, a little more critical, a little more that step of asking yourself about the sources. That’s part of what good journalism is about. Always kind of asking yourself about the sources, double-checking — that’s part of what good journalism is about. Not falling captive to your sources or to a particular perspective, checking it again, being critical, I think that’s something that journalists can and have to practice on a daily basis.

Having singled out Judy, it’s also a process that involves editors because that’s what editors are for. Reporters often go in certain directions and believe they have come across something quite unique and sometimes they have, but it’s the function of the editors to ask those questions to reporters that things have been covered. So, I think our failure, as collective failure to the run-up of the war, was not just the failure of the reporting, but it was mostly a failure of the editing. This gets us into a whole different subject. I really believe strongly that good journalists could do both and that empathy is not the enemy of truth.

How do you make the informational landscape, the moral topography of the choices available to somebody, accessible to the readers? How can the journalist go about doing this?

Well, this is tough because you inevitably oversimplify things to an extent. Just the act of putting something in the story, you are leaving out. Part of the art of journalism is what you don’t put in. In fact, I think most of the choices you make — first you make them into deciding what you are going to pursue and what you don’t choose to pursue; of all the human activity we could be writing about. So the first really important question is what don’t we go after? And then of course in gathering material you always leave out a lot of things, any good journalist will tell you that they are leaving 90% or more of what they find out. You actually make a lot of choices, and it is in those choices that I would argue that in those choices that subjective individual values really emerge. There are so many different kinds of stories and ways of storytelling. We find out today, and we have to have it in the newspaper by tomorrow, and that can be very valuable and very important.

The place I have always strived to get to is to go back to those stories and to tell longer narratives that involve storytelling and that involve characters, explaining to readers who people are. It is a very character-driven form of journalism and it has its flaws because when you look at history — there are forces at work and there are individuals at work, and the balance between those and who is really in the driver’s seat is something that we have all studied for and debated and will continue to debate for a long long time. Character driven journalism that uses characters to summon dilemmas and choices that were made. I am thinking of a recent good model – Karen DeYoung’s new book on Colin Powell called Soldier. It comes way after the fact so it’s only one kind of journalism — the kind of re-exploration. Karen gets to have 5 or 6 interviews with Powell.

Her portrait of Colin is both empathetic and understanding his motive, who he was, where he came from and how important the military was for him, how important it was for him to be an autonomous individual yet also feeling his responsibility was to support his leader. And, she captures that very well and at the same time she captures what a huge mistake Powell made and how he feels about that. He feels betrayed on the one hand, which she captures as well; the fact that he wasn’t willing to take a more activist aggressive stance when he realized things were going badly — to blow the whistle on it if you will — ‘I can’t do this anymore. I am quitting, protesting, whatever.’ I think in the way a very very good journalist does, Karen both helps you understand what Powell is thinking, what he was trying to do, how he was trying to work within the administration to be a moral force if you will or force for moderation and how he failed.

This gets me to the thing that I think I have focused on most of all – beyond the breaking of news and in production of all the information that we deliver day after day in newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, I really feel that if we get 50% of it correct on that first day, we are doing very well because we are reporting on limited information, limited sources, under deadline with people constantly either lying to us consciously or unconsciously with information that they don’t themselves really understand and we are struggling to produce the subject for the next day. We are writing history on the fly. I don’t think there is any getting around that. There is no way – maybe we can improve it to 55% at times or 60%, but there is no way we are going to get much beyond that because of the nature of the enterprise.

Let me interject here. In a way, I feel that newspapers overstate their case all the time. They don’t let the readers in on the fact that they don’t know certain things or the constraints that they are working under.

I think you are absolutely right. You can almost put a box in every story—by the way, keep in the mind that we hope that half of this is true. We are coming at it again tomorrow, and we will try to do better on this particular story as we move along. First, we are going to tell you that we have won the war and tomorrow we are going to tell you that it turns out that we didn’t win the war. There is getting around it when you come out every day. It is a human enterprise.

It puts enormous pressure, enormous responsibility on us to go back at things, to revisit anything important. In my career – you always learn so much more when you go back the second time or the third time – so many things you assumed or thought you knew turned out to be wrong. A classic example of my time in Israel during the first Palestinian uprising when a young woman, a Jewish settler was killed in a small Palestinian village, called Beita. She was the first Jewish Israeli to be killed in the first uprising. So long ago and such a naive almost seems like a golden era compared to how many people have died since. Anyway, the circumstance of her death was so complex, and I went back last year or earlier this year and reread my first-day story, and it says she had been stoned to death by Palestinian villagers because that’s what the army had announced and that was totally wrong. It turned out she had been accidentally been killed by her own bodyguard. We got that story wrong the first day, and we got it a little better the second day, the army itself was investigating- whether in good faith or not. It took a week later when I went back to -had to sneak in through the army’s cordon – they had cordoned off the area- we weren’t allowed in. Two of us eventually made our way through — snuck our way in — interviewed the villagers, interviewed some of the Jewish settlers who were with her that day, got some materials from the army investigators as that came out and gradually pieced together a much much more accurate account of what had happened, and the sort of sequence of events that had led to the tragedy or disaster. It was very close to the truth, to the full truth about a week later. I looked at it and appalled at what we all wrote the first day, and I am very very proud of what I wrote a week later.

I think that’s all you can do in a sense—own up to the flaws, to the flaws of the process. There are both personal flaws, lack of skepticism at times. We can load our stories with phrases that say — “according to preliminary report”, “we had no way to being able to verify this,” “according to unconfirmed information because we weren’t allowed to interview witnesses at the time” — all those things can go in there, have to go in there but they don’t really mitigate enough of what we are saying. We have to be willing and able to go back to thing and to admit that we are mortal, that we are flawed, that the information that we provide is only as good as what our sources are giving us at that time, and to go back at it again and again, and to be as transparent and honest about the process as we can be.

And you are right—newspapers tend to speak in this magisterial, almost divine voice that claims omniscience when it is, in fact, it is a very flawed and hesitant process that we go through. I think we have come a long way over the years and admitted that and been more open about that. Certainly, that has been one of the advantages of having a blogosphere and to have everyone be a media critic. One of the real advantages of that is that it has made us more careful and it has made us a little more honest about, and a little more open about the process we go through. And surprise, surprise it’s a human flawed complicated and often subjective process.

It seems like European news organizations like the BBC are a little more careful about attribution and more conscientious in providing context. Do you think this is the case? How do you compare it to NY Times and Washington Post?

Yeah, I don’t really agree with you. First of all let’s separate out the British press—The Guardian, The Times of London, and those from the BBC. Those I would argue strongly are less careful in attributing that the Washington Post or the NY Times.

The BBC, compared to any other broadcast outlet, is head and shoulders above. Certainly, compared to certainly any American broadcast outlet, BBC is an absolutely marvelous news institution and the online version, which is what I see these days – I just got back from living in the UK for almost four years – and I admire BBC enormously.

They are thorough, they stick with things, and they cover a much broader range of countries than the New York Times or the Washington Post. They have an extensive staff. If we had a license fee and the zillions of dollars floating in from the government — we would be more extensive also. We are private institutions.

Nonetheless, I don’t agree that their attribution or their general accuracy exceeds ours. I just don’t buy it. They are good, they are careful, they may at times be a little more cautious but when I see what they write about events in America or covering the Middle East, Israel, and Palestine. I think they have a rather, at times the BBC has a sort of a London media elite set of assumptions – certainly about Israel and Palestine – that shines through their copy in ways and in their reportage –which can be skewed. Please keep that in context. I love BBC, and I think they do a wonderful job but no, I would defend us and the New York Times in terms of the quality and things that you talk about.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Professional Experiences

19 Jan

Part 2 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


How was it working for a small newspaper? How did you learn the ropes of going about say finding and investigating a story?

There is nothing like a small newspaper in a small community because it really is the laboratory where you can begin to do things and where when you make mistakes, they are generally small ones – they don’t have a huge impact. At the same time, you really learn very quickly that accuracy is crucial, that you were accountable for what you were writing not only to the small group of people around you at the paper but to people you were writing about because they were reading you intensely. Even in this little weekly in Chesterfield County – its called the Chesterfield news journal, I was covering the board of supervisors, which is the county government which met weekly. Everyone read this little journal intensely, and if you screwed something up, they were on top of it and if you were critical, they knew it, and they quickly took your measure as to how they felt about you. So, you were accountable to them in a way – not so much to write things that weren’t true, to skew what you were writing to please them – more that you had to be accurate and you had to be careful.

I had fairly long hair, not very good clothes. I was making a $1.65/hour on this job, and I couldn’t afford a wardrobe or even a car that started very well. (Chuckles) I was driving a Volkswagen van that had to sit on a hill to push it to start it. There are not many hills in Chesterfield County. It was always an adventure to get that thing going. But it really was a good place to sort of learn the basics.

Because I had no training as a journalist, because I had never taken a course, never written a word for a newspaper, I really had to start from scratch and there wasn’t much help at the Chesterfield News Journal and I have to add that at least for the first year, there wasn’t much help at The Richmond Mercury, the place where I worked next, a weekly newspaper in Richmond, Virginia. Both of the newspapers no longer exist. I found that I had to teach myself by and large in this first stretch.

Fortunately Richmond, Virginia is on the outskirts of the Washington Post circulation area. So for 25 cents or 50 cents a day, I could get what turned out to be a very practical useful textbook guide to modern daily journalism, the daily Washington Post. I pored over it, read it thoroughly. Really for the first time, I read the newspaper thoroughly every day. I had been a newspaper reader, war fairly knowledgeable about governmental affairs and things like that, I certainly wasn’t an ignorant person, I was well educated, but I had a lot to learn. I would sort of simply look at the way Washington Post approached stories, both in terms of how they were written and the different forms. It’s not hard; it’s not brain surgery to figure out various forms of stories. What was in the second paragraph, how did the first paragraph work, I would just analyze it for that but also for attitude and the Post then was a very muscular cheeky newspaper. Some days it was not terribly well edited, some days it almost bizarre in parts but many days, it was really quite exciting to read and in this time of Watergate, especially exciting. I used that as my text. So, developing an approach to how you did the reporting very much came from that and from my own understanding of what a reporter’s role was – I felt I was there to uncover things, to find out things.

Lord Northcliffe, the old British press manager once said, ‘News is what they don’t what you to know, everything else is advertising.’ The direct quote is “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress, all the rest is advertising.” That’s not all news is but its certainly a good starting point and certainly coming out of Columbia University in the 1960s with everything that had happened over Vietnam and everything else; certainly, my attitude and my approach was aggressive, critical, looking for the problem. That type of newspaper approach fit well with what I wanted to do. So what I had to learn over time was to be -Yes, it was important to have had edge and that sort of critical attitude but at the same time to be open to new experiences, to not make too many presumptions about what a story was, to be able to be open to the experience of reporting and actually talking to people, getting out, realizing that the truth, as best as I could determine, was more complex, had more shades of grey than the sort of black and white that I had wanted to think. That only occurred over time, and it was a very long and painful process.

Did journalism change you as a person? It seems that you came to appreciate the subtleties more. Please talk a little more about how what impact did journalism have on you and how you changed over time.

Yeah, Everyone matures over time and hopefully becomes a little more sophisticated or a little more understanding, a little more aware of your own mortality and therefore a little more forgiving, a little more aware of your own personality flaws and therefore more understanding of other people’s. That doesn’t just apply to journalists but applies for all of us, and I think that process occurred with me.

I think you become a better journalist as you understand that the world is not a simple place. And there is a fine balance between in keeping a code and an edge in the sense of – ‘Lets get on that, lets get to the bottom of that, and lets be really relentless in pursuing a particular subject’, and at the same time understanding the sort of human frailties that go into a situation or developing empathy in other words. I don’t think we are automatically empathetic creatures. I think that’s an acquired quality over the course of time.

For me, the best journalism has always been about the most complex subjects and about getting to the bottom of things that are not simple either in terms of the information involved or the morality involved. Developing a taste for that and realizing that the sort of gotcha stories, where you do an expose’ – well that’s immensely satisfying in some ways, it is even more satisfying to write about complex mechanisms and people and the reasons why people do the things they do and figuring out of the motives.

I have always been more interested in the perpetrators than the victims – whether that’s the people who ran government in Virginia and who had a rather successful oligarchy of power – ‘Who they were, what they were thinking and what they told themselves about the decisions they made’ – or whether it was in South Africa – people in the Afrikaans league who were running the government back in the days of apartheid, or whether the Israeli establishment leaders – ‘What information were they getting? What were they telling themselves or how did they justify doing things that to me seemed unjustifiable, in some ways kind of evil?’

Saying its evil doesn’t get you all that far. In the end, it wasn’t as interesting to me as figuring out who these people were, what they told themselves, what they told their children about what they were doing and how they were justifying. That to me was fascinating, and it still is.

Interview with Glenn Frankel: Early Influences

19 Jan

Part 1 of a 5 part series based on my interview with Pulitzer-award winning journalist, Glen Frankel: 1. Early Influences, 2. Professional Influences, 3. Principles of Good Journalism, 4. Reporting on Emotive Issues, 5. Foreign Reporting and Technology.


Where you were born and what were some of the early influences that shaped your choice to become a journalist.

I was born in 1949 in the Bronx in New York but grew up in Rochester, New York, which is up 300 miles north and west of there. I think the principal thing for me was wanting to be a writer at a pretty early age and trying to figure out how to do that. I had no real training. I had an English teacher in High School who was very encouraging and I was editor of the high school literary magazine. When I moved out to go to the university, I went to Columbia University in New York in the undergraduate, not the graduate. Especially in that era, in the 1960s and early 1970s, it was very hard for me to find a way to write in any kind of institutional setting. I was trying to write a novel at one point. I didn’t major in English but ended up majoring in American History which I think was very useful.

Just after the university, I moved out to the Bay Area, where I drove a school bus for almost year and a half here in San Fransisco. The school bus schedule is such that you worked early in the morning and in the evening and there was a big hole of about five or six hours in the middle of the day and I remember spending that time trying to write a novel, trying to write short stories, write songs, playing the guitar, doing various things and gradually coming to the realization that unless I could find an institutional setting of some sort that would actually pay me a regular salary to be a writer, I wasn’t going to be a writer, that it would fade away. I hadn’t found a profession and driving a school bus didn’t seem like a satisfying long-term way of using my Bachelor’s degree. It gradually occurred to me that newspaper business might be a way to go.

We are now talking about late 1972 or early 1973 and the Watergate affair is just beginning to bubble to the surface. The name of the Washington Post, Woodward and Bernstein are just beginning to appear, congressional hearings were beginning to be held. In the late afternoons many days the last group of kids I would take home, it was a private school that I was working for, and I would take the large station wagon rather than the large yellow bus to drive them home and the large station wagon had an AM/FM radio and so I would turn on KQED and listen to the news at 6’o clock, and the news was often about Watergate, Watergate dominated it in its various aspects. And it began to occur to me that newspapers might be the way to actually get paid to write.

To make a long story short, my then girlfriend got accepted into a teacher core program that gave you a degree while you taught, in Richmond, Virginia. That seemed like a better place for someone with a Bachelor’s degree and no experience to try to hook some kind of newspaper job rather than the Bay Area, where as far as I could see there were approximately 17 million recent college graduates with the same degree I had and no chance to get into a job in this kind of field.

So we drove cross country and moved to Richmond Virginia, and gradually I got a job at a very very small weekly newspaper, approximately 20 miles south of Richmond, in Chesterfield County, Virginia. Then I got a better job at a much better weekly in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is a state capitol with a legislature and a governor and all that. I found quite quickly that not only that this kind of job satisfied my need to write and my dream of being paid to write but also sort of fit my personality and my sense of values because as a journalist I found I could be both inside a community and outside it. You sort of straddled if you will because you had to be knowledgeable about the community, you had to take part in things, you had to meet people and make your way through it but at the same time you were supposed to be the person who was analyzing it critically for new information about it, acquiring sort of intimate details of how it worked. Being inside and outside fit very well with my sense of who I was and so almost from the first week of the job at the little weekly newspaper in Chesterfield County, I thought yes, this could work, this is something I could do, this looks good.

I think you have to remember for many people who were growing up in that era, at the end of the 1960s and the early 70s, we were sort of deeply alienated from institutions in America, deeply suspicious of them and they were deeply suspicious of us; both sides had plenty of justification, I would say. Figuring out a way to live in this country or to decide not to live in this country was very much in the front of my mind and in many of my friend’s minds. People came to various conclusions. My conclusion early on, probably because I came from a sort of lower-middle-class background – my father was a television repairman and my mother was a secretary, neither had been to college, I was the first in my immediate family to go to university – I was a little more practical-minded than some of my friends in thinking that I should try to come to terms with the society. But how was I going to do that? How could I maintain my own sense of values and what I thought was important and still find a way to live without feeling that I was totally compromising. People left the country. Some friends ended up in places like Israel or Sweden. In the end, I actually visited Israel one summer and looked at their ongoing conflict and decided that I simply will be replacing ours with theirs and that didn’t seem like what I wanted to do. I really loved America and loved aspects of American culture and felt very much that this was my home and I felt that I needed to find ways to come to terms with that.

It turned out journalism was a good fit again because it allowed me to be very critical, to analyze things and be really tough but it also allowed me to get to know things, to get inside them and that was my training, and my mindset fit and it very well with that.

Interview with Kavita Khanna

26 Dec

Kavita Khanna is the author of Saturday Morning Omelettes.

Kavita, can you start by talking a little more about yourself? Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I am the eldest of three siblings; I have two younger brothers. I was born in Delhi. My mom is a stay-at-home mother; dad is a retired Major General in the Indian army. Because of dad’s profession, we were posted frequently and moved around quite a bit. We spent the longest time in Pune, where my high school and college education occurred. I got married and moved to Virginia, USA in 1989 and have been here since.

Kavita, I believe you are a trained engineer. How and when did this writing bug hit you? Were you writing from a young age? Did you always want to become a writer?

There was never a conscious want/need to become a writer, no. I have always loved reading books and telling stories. I guess I just came to a point in my life where I decided to try something I would really enjoy – the engineering degrees and subsequent jobs got home a paycheck, but were certainly not satisfying the creative urge within.

As a South Asian, it is especially hard to pursue writing, given that it is typically viewed as fiscally non-remunerative. What kind of challenges did you face while writing this book and where did you find support within your family?

You know, that is very very true. The venture is certainly not a fiscally reliable, or even sound, one – maybe that’s why it took me so long to do this, who knows? Certainly, the fact that quitting my job and writing full time did not impact our lifestyle was a big plus – I doubt if I would have pursued this dream at the cost of myself or my family having to “cut back”.

Tell us a little more about the early influences that shaped you as a writer. What kind of writers (and books) influenced you? In a related question, which writers do you particularly like?

I grew up with Enid Blyton (Secret Sevens, Famous Fives), Nancy Drews, Hardy Boys, Chronicles of Narnia, Wodehouses, Perry Masons, Agatha Christies, Mills and Boons, Barbara Cartlands, James Heriots, Alistair MacLeans. I still enjoy Daphne Du Maurier, Janet Evanovich, Dave Barry, and Sandra Brown – loved Fountainhead, Catch 22, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Da Vinci Code, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the Harry Potter series, Gone With The Wind,… gosh, there are too many to name.

In general, if I am picking up a random book to read, I prefer the plot to be fast-paced. I enjoy books with wit, keen human insights, and surprise endings. When I started writing Saturday Morning Omelettes, I made one conscious decision – to portray the story through dialogue rather than too many essay-style descriptions. I am guilty of tending to skip long wordy descriptions when I come across them in most books and wanted to avoid that in my work.

Let me focus my attention on your book – the book broaches on immigrant experiences. Was it difficult for you to assimilate in the US? Can you talk a little more about it in terms of issues around food (adjusting to American food), money, and socialization etc.

Growing up, when my dad was in the army, he was posted to the US Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California for two and half years. I was 10 then. So frankly, the process of assimilation when I came after marriage was not too difficult in itself. Here are my “milestone memories” of life in the USA as an adult:

  • My sheer terror of delis. You had to choose the bread, the cheese, the toppings. All of which were ridiculously foreign to me.
  • Enjoying the freedom of being able to sit on a bench at George Mason University and eating alone. No one ogled, sung Bollywood songs, or heckled me, and the feeling of freedom of being “inconspicuous” was divine!
  • Experiencing the first snowfall was surreal in its beauty
  • Realizing that asking all my classmates what their grades were after a test was considered rude.
  • Learning not to “nod” by moving my head side-to-side
  • The open “public display of affection” blew me away

Gambling over the past years has become an obsession in the US. What surprised me was its popularity in the Indian community. Tell us a little more about your experiences and how do you explain its popularity in the ‘model community’?

I think that’s maybe because cards are not considered a huge taboo in our culture. My parents played rummy (cards) ever since I can remember (and still do) – it’s an integral part of army life. Teen patti during Diwali is such a normal thing to do. Today I consider myself a pretty active parent… but like in my son’s high school these days there is a big brouhaha about a growing trend amongst teens playing Poker – and I find myself not nearly as upset as the other parents. I have to force myself to rethink my “it’s just cards’ mentality.

You peripherally mention the politically well connected rich Indian community in your novel. Given that you are living in Virginia, What are your thoughts about Indians and their involvement in politics, especially in context of the Macaca controversy?

Hehe, I actually know who the kid is that caused Allen’s career to come tumbling down. He (the boy with the mohawk who caught Allen’s eye) was the victim of a sleepover prank and sported the Mohawk cut to the rally. Anyway – I frankly do not follow politics too much. I think it’s great that more and more Indians are getting actively involved in politics – it’s a huge reflection on the acceptance of our culture in this country. Hubby will probably have more of an opinion on this question than I do  All I can say is – Indian or otherwise – if you are in politics, you’d better live up to the promises you make to get there!

It is outside the protective family cocoon that personalities are really tested. Tell us a little more about this in context of your portrayal of Amit in the book.

I think for most Indian adults of my generation – certainly for a person like Amit – it’s very difficult to defy the wishes of their parents. There is a deeply ingrained deference there that is difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. Had Amit’s parents been in the USA to rein him in before his addiction got out of hand, he would have definitely not gone down the path he did. As it stood, only Riya was there to try and stop him. He loved her, but the deference was not there. It was easy for him to shrug off her comments by thinking he knew better than she. It was his journey alone to realize the folly of his ways.

I am especially interested in asking you about your experiences in older retired Indians in US. Tell us a little more about what stuck you about them and any interesting anecdotes that come to your mind.

You know, when I came here, hubby’s daadaji used to live with us and my in-laws. He has since passed away, but I still remember how difficult it was to tend to his needs. He was a very active 87-year-old, and used to get bored out of his wits home alone all day (we all worked and/or studied full time). He hated the idea of watching TV all the time, did not drive, and was generally trapped at home till one of us returned. He often used to wander off for walks by himself and lose his way till a neighbor or the cops found him and got him back. We tried to get him to go to a nearby nursing home during the day and spend the day being entertained with seniors there, but he hated it. Language, food (he was a strict vegetarian), the huge cultural gap – it was all wrong for him. Very few families faced the issue back then, but now – now we are soon going to have a whole generation of seniors going through similar experiences. Many of them won’t even have the comfort of sons/daughters by their side.

Our generation is faced with the challenge of determining the future of retired seniors from our Indian community. It’s becoming obvious that we currently have absolutely no infrastructure in place to tend to their future needs. I go back to India almost annually and enjoy the sight of my naaniji going for satsangs, playing cards with her friends, going to the movies, doing yoga in the park, etc. Even while my mamaji and mamiji work, a maid stays with her and tends to her full time. I guess my book reflects some of my dreams/visions of old age here in the States – not just medical needs, but the more important emotional ones.

Kavita, what are your future plans. Do you already have another idea for a book on the anvil or you are too busy promoting your current book?

Writing Saturday Morning Omelettes has been an amazing journey and I would love for nothing more than to experience it again. I would love to write forever, but am sadly not struck with any particular inspiration as of now. Will keep you posted.

——————–
The interview was conducted via email over the past week.

Thank you once again, Kavita for your time. I would like to wish you success in your future endeavors.

Book Review: Saturday Morning Omelettes

12 Dec

The ‘special’ omelets are not tasty though you wouldn’t want to put down the plate until you are done. In her first attempt as a novelist, Delhi born author Kavita Khanna entertainingly, or more appropriately –efficiently, narrates a heartwarming tale about the fortunes of a modern Indian family.

This charmless insipid novel explores the centrality of family in Indian culture by narrating the tale of an Indian couple that immigrates to the US to mitigate the financial strain on their family, successfully battles gambling addiction and returns wiser and closer together to India.

Ms. Khanna does an admirable job in pacing her novel though she does so at the expense of observation. She accepts as much, saying, “When I started writing Saturday Morning Omelettes, I made one conscious decision – to portray the story through dialogue rather than too many essay-style descriptions. I am guilty of tending to skip long wordy descriptions when I come across them in most books and wanted to avoid that in my work.”

A lot of times the novel chugs through the story; we don’t get to bite into the psychology of the characters or languorously appreciate the aroma of the morning omelet. Neither does Ms. Khanna spend time describing the initially humbling experiences that generally dent a recent immigrant’s life. For example, except for describing the damning quiet of the airport and the apartment, she neither spends time noticing the well-tarred roads nor the plush charm of US or problems interacting with Americans. In all, Ms. Khanna’s fails to conjure up the experiences of first-time visitors to the US in a nuanced fashion. The novel lacks the earthiness of a true immigrant tale for it shies from the endless awkwardness to talk superficially about chipped nails and nauseous fumes of Ammonia while cleaning the bathroom for the first time. Ms. Khanna would do well to write more honestly about the challenges of immigrant’s life. More damningly, the story sometimes seems rushed and mishandled.

I can’t help but bemoan the fact that Ms. Khanna fails to deal with issues more substantively. A lot of characters in the book don’t get much attention from the writer and hence come across as standard stereotypes like the struggling black girl and the sensible black grandparent. On multiple occasions, the dramatization in the story seems a touch melodramatic or Bollywood-esque. The ‘scenes’ (and that is how the book seems to be laid out) end abruptly, characters are one-dimensional, the angles explored are clichéd and the language positively empty.

In all a stunted exploration of important issues that is not recommended for anybody over the age of 14. Actually, make it 12.

Updated 12/12/06: “In the case of fiction, I have a particular abhorrence of reviewers who tell readers what book the novelist or short-story writer should have written instead of the one under review. If a reviewer can’t accept an author’s governing premise, or donnee, in Henry James’s famous term, then he or she has no business writing about the book.”
New York Times book editor Sam Tanenhaus in response to a reader’s question. I can’t help but agree that this is what happened to me and this book by Ms. Khanna.

A Small Government: US Federal Budget as Proportion of the Economy

11 Dec

The US federal budget is larger than that of any other country in absolute terms. The US government spends more than $2.3 trillion every year, about $500 billion dollars more than Japan, which has the second-largest budget in the world at around $1.7 trillion.

Yet, as a proportion of the economy, the US federal government budget is small. The US federal budget of $2.3 trillion is about one-fifth (.197) of its $12.5 trillion GDP. The average budget-to-GDP ratio in developed countries in Europe is about twice as much. For example, UK’s budget of $951 billion is nearly half of its $2.228 trillion GDP, while France’s budget of $1.144 trillion is a little more than half of its $2.055 trillion GDP. The US budget-to-GDP ratio is closer to the ratios in the developing world. For example, India’s GDP of $720 billion is nearly five times bigger than its budget of about $135 billion. Surprisingly, the US budget-to-GDP ratio also matches the ratio of its left-leaning northern neighbor, Canada.

Petro-economies like Saudi Arabia have budget-to-GDP ratios that fall between those of the developing world and the developed economies in Europe. Petro-economies also fall in the middle in terms of budgetary dollars spent per person. Nigeria, unsurprisingly, is an exception in this regard, with budget numbers far below that of other petro-economies.

In terms of dollars spent per person, the United States is far behind developed EU economies. The budgetary allocation per person in the EU is more than double that in the US.

There are two key caveats in interpreting all this. An exclusive focus on the federal budget understates the total government spending for countries with strong federal structures like the US. But the good thing is that federal spending and state and local spending are not inversely proportional in countries with strong federal structures but are strongly correlated. Hence, while relying solely on federal budgetary expenditure does understate the impact, it doesn’t do it by as big a margin as one would expect. Take, for example, the US, whose total budget at the state level is around $600 billion, adding which pushes total government spending to $3 trillion or still about .25 of the GDP.

Secondly, one must look at not only the size of the budget but also where it is spent. For example, the US military budget accounts for a fifth of its net budget by conservative estimates. In sheer numbers, the US military budget exceeds the total military spending of the rest of the world, but in terms of its size relative to US GDP, it is a measly 4%.

Developed countries pool:

Country

GDP (in trillions, 2005 estimate, unless mentioned otherwise)

Budgetary Expenditure (in trillions, 2005 est. unless mentioned otherwise)

The proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person (thousands)

Germany

$2.73

$1.362

.498

82.4

16.529

France

$2.055

$1.144

.556

60.6

18.877

UK

$2.228

$.951

.426

60.4

15.74

Italy

$1.71

$.8615

.503

58.1

14.827

Norway

$246.9 billion

$131.3 billion

.531

4.5

29.177

Switzerland

$367 billion

$143.6 billion

.391

7.48

19.197

Asia Pacific

Japan

$4.664

$1.775

.380

127.4

13.932

Australia

$612.8 billion

$240.2 billion

.391

20.09

11.95

Developed North American economies

USA

$12.49 trillion

$2.466 trillion

.197

295.7

8.3395

Canada

$1.035

$152.6 billion(est. 2004)

.147

33.09

4.611

Developing country pool:

Country

GDP (2005 est.)

Budgetary Expenditure (2005 est.)

The proportion of budget/GDP

Population
(millions)
(2006 est.)

Budget expenditure per
Person

India

$720 billion

$135 billion

.1875

1,095

123

Pakistan

$89.55 billion

$20.07 billion

.223

162

124

Indonesia

$270 billion

$57.7 billion

.213

245

235

Brazil

$619.7 billion

$172.4 billion

.278

186

927

China

$2.225 trillion

$424.3 billion

.190

1,306

325

Chile

$115.6 billion

$24.75 billion

.214

16

1546

Petro-economies

Iran

$181.2 billion

$60.4 billion

.333

68

888

Saudi Arabia

$264 billion

$89.65

.339

27

3320

Venezuela

$106.1 billion

$41.27 billion

.388

25.375

1626

Nigeria

$77.33 billion

$13.54 billion

.175

128

105

All figures from CIA World Fact Book which can be accessed at https://www.cia.gov/redirects/factbookredirect.html

Topgraphy of book sales: What lurks beneath?

3 Dec

A full one-third of books sold worldwide are sold in the US. US is a phenomenally important media market and the success or failure of a book in the US can literally make or break the career of an author.

It is interesting to explore who reads the books, where are they sold, what books are read and the reasons behind these.

Let me start by providing the numbers around book sales in the US. In 2004, Nielsen Bookscan tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States and they found:

  • Of those 1.2 million, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

*The last point should be interpreted carefully as the average of a skewed distribution is neither an intuitive nor accurate representation. Here, the average of book sales distribution is disproportionately influenced by the few really large numbers. A much more useful statistic would be the median book sales figure, which is unavailable.

The statistics above show that a very small minority of books contribute to majority of book sales in the US. Let me put this in perspective with a separate set of numbers – of the around 120,000 titles that are published each year – only about 500 books (.4%) sell more than 100,000 copies.

This raises the question then that what is it that creates this extremely skewed topography of book consumption in the US (and elsewhere in the world)? A variety of hypothesis have been forwarded by people to explain this phenomenon – some trace it to the relative paucity of quality books (if we for a second don’t bicker over what means by quality – it seems like a reasonable assumption), paucity of works produced by popular authors (now we are faced with the chicken and the egg question – how did the author become popular), the book display patterns of major book vendors (books displayed on show windows of 2 major book chains in US – Borders and Barnes and Noble – are highly correlated to book sales), media coverage of books and authors (so topicality plays a role – controversial topics or authors, celebrity authors etc. will all sell more), topicality (feeds into above point), length of book’s title, complexity of sentence structure etc.

Business of Books

Book business is by varying estimates between $16.6 billion (US Census Bureau) and $26.9 billion (Association of American Publishers- 2002 figures).

Not only are the book sales limited to a few top earners, the book sales are also limited by publishing houses. Andre Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books, in “The Business of Books” states that in 1999, the top 20 publishers accounted for 93% of sales. Later in the book, he states that 80% of book sales originate from five media conglomerates.

Media and the medium

Book consumption is mediated by mass-media. The book is today a cultural product whose value is still primarily gauged by elite reviewers though this is changing with the onslaught on online review sites.

For more statistics on the publishing industry, visit: http://bookstatistics.com/

Rational Ignorance: Celebrities or Politics

29 Nov

It is a commonly held belief that people are too busy to be informed about policy issues. The argument certainly seems reasonable given the oft-repeated assertion that people are leading increasingly hectic lives with little time for leisure, except that it doesn’t stand well to scrutiny. Americans, as I corroborate below, have ample leisure time and ample access to informational sources.

An average American child between the ages of 8 and 18 spends about 44.5 hours per week, or six and a half hours daily, consuming media, according to a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report. More than half of this time is spent in watching television programs, movies, and other videos. The figures are comparable for American adults, who watch more than four hours of television each day or twenty-eight hours each week on average, according to a Nielsen study. Even if we assume that Americans do other tasks, say cook or clean, simultaneously for part of the twenty-eight hours, it is reasonable to conclude that Americans do have a fair amount of leisure time which they spend primarily watching television.

Given that people have ample leisure time and access to information, why do people choose not to be informed about politics? Some researchers have argued that people don’t care about politics because they are rationally disinterested – they don’t feel that they can make a change hence they don’t care to be informed about it. Inarguably fan support is at best peripheral to whether a sports team will either win or lose, then why do people often times posses close to perfect information on the teams (or sport) they follow and argue passionately over the matters related to sports?

Americans are not information averse; they are surprisingly well informed about things they care to know about like celebrity gossip and football. They also spend a fair amount of time and energy collecting, regurgitating and discussing this information. While talking about sports people show a surprising amount of talent for remembering and accurately interpreting statistics. So why is it that Americans are willing to spend time and energy in collecting entertainment and sports while showing little interest in foreign or even domestic policy?

Admittedly policy issues are generally more complex than celebrity news and perhaps people’s interest in entertainment news is driven by the fact that consuming entertainment news is less cognitively demanding. The explanation seems inadequate given people (perhaps mainly men) do keep track of elaborate sports statistics and present well-articulated positions on why a certain team is better than the other. One can perhaps argue that given the general lack of morally divisive issues, people feel more comfortable discussing entertainment news than say abortion. But then certainly there are policy issues that are bereft of morally divisive issues. It seems though that most political information is presented in identity packets rather than ideational packets as in choices are explained and understood as liberal or conservative choices. Choices marked with identity dissuade analysis and reflection, as research has shown, and combined with the chronic lack of factual information on relevant policy topics on American television, there isn’t much hope that people will get to critically think about the problem.

Movie Review: Independent Intervention

21 Nov

General Tommy Franks described the media as the “fourth front” in his (Iraq) war plan, according to Danny Schechter, an award-winning journalist and documentary filmmaker.
What he meant by that was that winning the “media war” is an important part of winning the war in Iraq. Three years down the line with the US stuck in an ever-worsening situation, we all know what happens when governments win the media war and succumb to their hubris.

Independent Intervention, a documentary by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei, is superficially an exploration of how the Iraq war was fought on the “fourth front” in US media. On a deeper level, it is a well crafted expose’ of the effects of media conglomeration on the style, topicality, and quality of news.

Schei begins her documentary with a series of heartrending images from Iraq, images that were never shown on mainstream American media. This initial sequence provides the preface to her documentary- the Iraq war shown on the television screens of Americans was a very different from the one being fought in Iraq. Schei, stuck by the jingoistic, bleached (of the horrors of war), video game like coverage of Iraq war in US mainstream media, explores the reasons behind how and why mainstream American media became a willing partner in government’s propaganda machine helping it wage the war for the hearts and minds of American public. Using footage from the war and interviews with people luminaries like Dr. Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, and others, Schei persuasively argues that a majority of what went wrong during media’s coverage of Iraq war can be traced to corporate media ownership.

The documentary does a stupendous job in tracing media’s coverage of Iraq war starting with the pre-war buildup by effectively using some well known statistics, for example about how during the two week period around which Colin Powell gave his speech at UN and during a time when more than half of the people opposed war, and– out of the 393 people who were interviewed on the four major nightly network newscasts – NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS only a meager 3% held antiwar views while a stunning 71% were pro war.

Independent Intervention is simply scintillating when it weaves snippets from local morning news shows to convey a point. It is jarring to see archival news footage of anti-war protests highlighting mundane inconveniences caused by protestors – “simply creating chaos during rush hour” or “protestors shut down the financial district in San Francisco” and sneeringly ignore to give time to explaining why protestors were against the war.

Independent Intervention explores how the merger of showbiz and “news biz” has had a damning impact on the way news is covered. In their effort to attract consumers, news shows have ramped up their production values to match those in entertainment. The ever-shrinking sound bite has limited what can be conveyed intelligibly to the audience and hence all that is complicated is left at the curb. So while reporting on the Iraq war, the ethnic complexities are left out.

Schei though is never is able to purposefully include some information in the documentary. For example, we are informed that five corporations – Vivendi, Disney, Time Warner, News Corp, Viacom -own eighty percent of media but yet are left in the dark about how and why it affects media coverage in the way it does. Perhaps the critique is implicit but it is limited to corporate control (economics fudging the news) and not to effects of agglomeration.

Media is an important institution for democracy – a tool through which we understand the world and the world understands us (Goodman). We need to keep the media free and independent for we need good unbiased and uncensored information for a functioning democracy. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, media should never be confused as a tool of war.

Overall, Independent Intervention can be seen as part of the genre of documentaries inspired by Michael Moore – a genre of unabashedly political documentaries with an agenda, but its wider message – that of the need for independent media – would be of interest to both liberals and conservatives.

The DVD of the film is available at http://www.independentintervention.com

What is so Foreign About Foreign Aid?

18 Nov

A khaki-clad Western aid worker is helping unload a truck in a sun-baked dusty barren place surrounded by black (sometimes brown) faces. It could be a scene from any of the countless news clips from the equally countless number of crises that continue to rain down upon obscure parts of the world. The clips are ubiquitous and yet hardly anybody notices the egregious role of the Western aid worker, who ostensibly has flown around from whichever place s/he calls home at a pretty penny to do the readily outsourced job of (un)loading supplies from the truck.

Planners versus “the Searchers”
William Easterly, NYU economics professor and a former research economist at the World Bank, in his book “The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, argues that the aid efforts led by the West have failed primarily because their utopian aid plans are based on the assumption that they know what is best for everyone. He argues that the West needs to get away from the model of “Planners”, imposing top-down solutions, and rather adopt the “Searchers” model, that tries to adapt innovations that come from native cultures. That may well be. But it is not clear if that is the primary sin.

Home Aid
Easterly misses the fact that many Western aid programs typically mandate that the recipient country buy provisions (defense armaments to cans of food) from the donor nation. Many times in fact aid is provided in form of products made by donor nation industries. So you can have “2.4 million Kellogg’s pop-tarts” being airdropped in Afghanistan (see Wikipedia which cites the book from which the figure is drawn), while much cheaper staples like rice and lentil are largely ignored.

This better explains why “the West spent $2.3 trillion in foreign aid over the last five decades and still had not managed to get 12 cent medicines to children to prevent half of all malaria deaths. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $4 bed nets to poor families. The West spent $2.3 trillion and still had not managed to get $3 to each new mother to prevent five million child deaths” (White Man’s Burden).

Careerism and Bureaucratization
The rise of careerism and increased bureaucratization in the NGO industry are partly responsible for the failure of development assistance to the third world, according to Dr. Thomas Dichter, an anthropologist at The University of Chicago and author of “Despite Good Intentions: Why Development Assistance to the Third World Has Failed.”

Increased bureaucratization has led to a demand for “trained professionals” (air quotes because it isn’t clear what the training is in) to fill the ranks. Paying heed to the rising demand, “entire college programs have sprung up, such as Wayne State University’s Nonprofit Sector Studies Program (NPSS). The NPSS mission states, “The nation’s fastest-growing sector needs administrators, policymakers, program managers, and advocates who will guide them into the future” writes Michael Donnely for Peace Corps Online. One may expect that the rising compensation packages at non-profit organizations would attract better talent, instead, it has largely meant that the organizations are paying more for the same work or/and are led by ever more ambitious dimwits who want to push for ever larger projects at the expense of some little ones that do work.

The NGO-Ivy league Nexus
In the past two decades, an internship at an NGO has become a right of passage for countless Ivy League undergraduates, primarily in social sciences and humanities, interested in pursuing further graduate school education. Experience with a foreign NGO has become the best way for the ambitious ivy educated brats to pad up resumes and impress law and medical school admissions committees of their sociotropic ideals. There is little that these self-absorbed individuals bring to third world countries in terms of talent or ability to help but every year thousands of such students are farmed out to NGOs across the world and there they leech money and time from NGOs to get training to hang their mosquito nets and make their calls to mom and dad and make safari trips and learn the language.

NGO workers — Why do they get paid more?
“Government employees have complained their co-workers employed by some non-governmental organizations are getting high salaries that cause a socio-economic imbalance in the society. The high-paid workers of NGOs have clouded the status and standard of life of the low-paid government employees. Prestigious social status and high income of the NGOs workers have created envies in the poverty-stricken government employees.” South Asian Media Net “Venting her spleen, Torpikai, a government employee, told Pajhwok Afghan News on Sunday despite 18 years experience she was paid 2,000 afghanis (40$) but her younger and inexperienced neighbor with same qualification was getting double than her salary.” And wages are only part of the issue, real bills pour in from conferences at five-star hotels, and extravagant perks enjoyed by foreign aid employees like the use of SUVs, PDAs, and stays in five-star hotels. The sad fact is that majority of the aid money is actually funneled back to pay for the perks and salary of the Western aid workers.

Lack of accountability
The logic that underpins all NGO wastefulness is lack of accountability, both in tallying funds and actual accomplishments. Washington Post a couple of years reported that employees in non-profits often times take loans from the NGO funds at no or ridiculously low-interest rates. Other ethical violations are also rampant within NGOs. For example, Oxfam, an NGO and a 25% stakeholder of Cafedirect, campaigned vigorously against CafeDirect’s competitors, accusing them of exploiting coffee growers by paying them a small fraction of their earnings.

Food for Thought
Here’s an excerpt from a New York Times article that passingly compares aid strategies between the West and China.

“The industrial nations conducted a sort of moral crusade, with advocacy organizations exposing Africa’s dreadful sores and crying shame on the leaders of wealthy nations and those leaders then heroically pledging, at the G8 meeting in July, to raise their development assistance by billions and to open their markets to Africa. Once everyone had gone home, the aid increase turned out to be largely ephemeral and trade reform merely wishful. China, by contrast, offers a pragmatic relationship between equals: the “strategic partnership” promised in China’s African policy is premised on “mutual benefit, reciprocity, and common prosperity.” And the benefits are very tangible.”

Google News: Positives, Negatives, and the Rest

16 Nov

Google News is the sixth most visited news site, according to Alexa Web Traffic Rankings. Given its popularity, it deserves closer attention.

What is Google News? Google News is a news aggregation service that scours around ten thousand news sources, categorizes the articles and ranks them. What sets Google News apart is that it is not monetized. It doesn’t feature ads. Nor does it have deals with publishers. The other distinguishing part is that it is run by software engineers rather than journalists.

Criticisms

1. Copyright: Some argue that the service infringes of copyrights.

2. Lost Revenue: Some argue that the service causes news sources to lose revenue.

3. Popular is not the same as important or diverse: Google News highlights popular stories and sources. In doing so, it likely exacerbates the already large gap between popular news stories and viewpoints and the rest. The criticism doesn’t ring true. Google News merely mimics the information (news) and economic topography of the real world, which encompasses the economic underpinnings of the virtual world as in better-funded sites tend to be more popular or firms more successful in real world may have better-produced sites and hence may, in turn, attract more traffic. It does, however, bring into question whether Google can do better than merely mimic the topography of the world. There are, of course, multiple problems associated with any such venture, especially for Google, whose search algorithm is built around measuring popularity and authority of sites. The key problem is that news is not immune to being anything more than a popularity contest shepherded by rating (euphemism for financial interests) driven news media. A look at New York Times homepage, with extensive selection of lifestyle articles, gives one an idea of the depth of the problem. So if Google were to venture out and produce a list of stories that were sorted by relevance to say policy, not that any such thing can be done, there is a good chance that an average user will find the news articles irrelevant. Of course, a user-determined topical selection of stories would probably be very useful for users. While numerous social scientists have issued a caveat against adopting the latter approach arguing that it may lead to further atomization and decline in sociotropism, I believe that their appeals are disingenuous given that specialized interest in narrowly defined topics and interests in global news can flower together.

4. Transparency: Google News is not particularly transparent in the way it functions. Given the often abstruse and economically constrained processes that determine the content of newspapers, I don’t see why Google News process is any less transparent. I believe the objection primarily stems from people’s discomfort with automated processes determining the order and selection of news items. Automated processes don’t imply that they aren’t based on adaptive systems based on criteria commonly used by editors across newsrooms. More importantly, Google News works off the editorial decisions made by organizations across the board, for they include details like placement and section of the article within the news site as a pointer for the relative importance of the news article. At this point, we may also want to deal with the question of accountability, as pertaining to the veracity of news items. Given that Google News provides a variety of news sources, it automatically provides users with a way to check for inconsistencies within and between articles. In addition, Google News relies on the fact that in this day and age, some blogger will post an erratum to a “Google News source” site, of which there are over ten thousand, and that in turn may be featured within Google News.

Positives

Google News gives people the ability to mine through a gargantuan number of news sources and come up with a list of news stories on the same “topic” (or event) and the ability to search for a particular topic quickly. One can envision that both the user looking for a diversity of news sources or looking for quick information on a particular topic, could both be interested in other related information on the topic. More substantively, Google News may want to collate information from its web, video and image search, along with links to key organizations mentioned in the websites and put then right next to the link to the story. For example, BBC offers a related link to India’s country profile next to a story on India. Another way Google News can add value for its users is by leveraging the statistics it compiles of when and where news stories were published, stories published in the last 24 hrs or 48 hrs etc. I would love to see a feature called the “state of news” that shows statistical trends on news items getting coverage, patterns of coverage etc. (this endeavor would be similar to Google Trends)

Diversity of News Stories

What do we mean by diversity and what kind of diversity would users find most useful? Diversity can mean diverse locations—publishers or datelines, viewpoint—for or against an issue, depth—a quick summary or a large tome, medium—video, text, or audio, type of news—reporting versus analysis. Of course, Google can circumvent all of these concerns by setting up parallel mechanisms for all the measures it deems important. For example, a map/google news “mashup” can prove to be useful in highlighting where news is currently coming from. Going back to the topic of ensuring diversity – conceptual diversity is possibly the hardest to implement. There can be a multitude of angles for a story – not just for and against binary positions and facets can quickly become unruly, indefensible and unusable. For example if it splits news stories based on news sources (like liberal or conservative – people will argue over whether right categorizations were chosen or even about the labeling, for example, social conservatives and fiscal conservatives) or organizations cited (for example there is a good chance that an article using statistics from Heritage foundation leans in a conservative direction but that is hardly a rule). Still, I feel that these measures can prove to be helpful in at least mining for a diversity of articles on the same topic. One of the challenges of categorization is to come up with “natural” categories as in coming up with categorization that is “intuitive” for people. Given the conceptual diversity and the related abstruseness, Google may though want to preclude offering them as clickable categories to users thought it may want to use the categorization technique to display “diverse” stories. Similarly, more complex statistical measures can also prove to be useful in subcategorization, for example providing a statistical reference to the most common phrases or keywords or even Amazon like statistics on the relative hardness of reading. Google News may also just want to list the organizations cited in the news article and leave the decision of categorization to users.

Beyond Non-Profit
Google News’ current “philanthropic” (people may argue otherwise viewing it as a publicity stunt) model is fundamentally flawed for it may restrict the money it needs to innovate and grow. Hence, it is important that it explores possible monetization opportunities. There are two possible ways to monetize Google News – developing a portal (like Yahoo!) and developing tools or services that it can charge for. While Google is already forging ahead with its portal model, it has yet to make appreciable progress in offering widely incorporable tools for its Google News service. There is a strong probability that news organizations would be interested in buying a product that displays “related news items” next to news articles. This is something that Technorati already for does for blogs but there is ample room for both, additional players, and for improving the quality of the content. It would be interesting to see a product that helps display Google News results along with Google image, blog, and video search results.

A Response to Sherry Turkle

16 Nov

Chaste, who has contributed earlier to the site, critiques an article by Sherry Turkle.

Her article:
http://web.mit.edu/sturkle/www/whitherpsychoanalysis.html

Chaste’s response –

My main issue is that it is a sloppily done article. A thorough piece generally bases itself on a careful theoretical apparatus or produces such solid evidence that most of its claims are very difficult to argue against. This author simply strings together a bunch of speculations, at least 70% of which have at least equally convincing arguments against them. I simply do not see the point of such pieces, for they are little better than a chat-like aggregation of ideas. And her efforts at an MIT-based incestuous self-aggrandizement do little for the credibility of her analysis.

Here are just a few examples to show how very thorough she is in her sloppiness. She talks about the possibility of exploring alternative personas in cyberspace, and how this represents a very different possibility of self-exploration than anything that went before. But isn’t she led to such conclusions by assuming as given that the “virtual reality” of cyberspace is more analogous to “reality” than to fantasy as “virtual” would suggest? Thus, couldn’t a man in his fantasy life in decades and centuries past explore alternative personas based on the films he watched from day to day or the gossip stories he read in newspapers or heard from neighbors? Or take her example of the effect of HCI affection in the shaping of emotions. None of her examples go beyond children aged 10: a time at which they have barely outgrown belief in the tooth fairy. Unless she can give substantial evidence of emotions in adult lives, why should we distinguish HCI from the countless other things that children set store by? And when she does venture into adult HCI, her ineptness is only laughable. She talks of a man who chooses a female persona as a convenient outlet for his assertiveness. First, the man’s responses are reactive rather than exploration-oriented; second, his choice of a female persona appears to be dictated by little more than convenience. Only in an age of post-modernist sloppiness can the choice of a convenient medium be confused with meaningful self-exploration. And I do not need to tell you that avatars are not aspects or sub-personalities of Hindu gods, but are their incarnations: the latter is a discrete entity at a point in time throughout all space.

And now to a couple of things in this essay that actually sparked my interest. First, of course, is the definition of what it is to be human, and why I find it rather absurd that humans would ever accord machines a similar status. At one time, I had toyed with the idea that what gives human beings their uniqueness is an arbitrariness induced by biochemical arbitrariness in their responses to various stimuli. But frankly, all that is pointless palaver. No one has ever seriously taken any definition of humanity based on objective ideas like intelligence. All those crappy definitions of race were largely based in politics and economics, and what support they got from neutral academics was largely based on those academics being at their wits end to produce a logical rebuttal. What people perceive as most worthy about themselves is inevitably what has always driven their definition of what is human. Thus, there were very few serious Christians who ever subscribed to the racial hierarchies of 19th-century race science, precisely because they saw in non-white people the same capacity for Christian redemption that they most valued in themselves. What people regard as valuable can of course change. But let me glance at some of the odds stacked against machine creations. I will start by assuming a sophisticated persona that is not programmed with a limited set of instructions but is constantly changing itself based on selective crawling of web data. As such it would be a storehouse of information and insights on any topic including the manners of various subgroups of our times that a human could only dream of. Given current IP laws, digitally generated personas cannot be owned by the owner of the persona generator. Besides, such persona generators are unlikely to be monopolies. Hence the personas will lack that most important value in human eyes, namely, market value. They will be infinitely reproducible. It is also impossible to conceive of personas as serious stakeholders which could accrue value for themselves through participation in the market and in social spaces. Who would allow a persona a serious stake in anything when that demand for a stake could simply be disposed of with a mouse-click? It is difficult to see why personas should be much more effective than the characters in Shakespeare or in Emily Bronte. Claiming this would be succumbing to the seduction by the latest medium: no different from claims by conservatives about the effect of media violence based on an assumed confusion between reality and screen by the audience.

The other point that interested me pertains to the possible psycho-pharmacological uses of such personas. I think she is trying to make the point seem more important than it is by using some trendy term like “psycho-pharmacological.” The fact that she talks about them primarily in relation to children and the elderly points out the less glamorous spin on it, namely, that they are more effective toys at killing time and keeping unproductive people occupied at low cost. She could have pointed out (which she does not) that intelligent personas could be used as effective and cheap socializing tools both for children and for entrants into a new culture. But doubtless, that sounds less sexy.

Understanding Voter Disinterest

15 Nov

Voter indifference in the US is commonly understood as an effect of the media environment. For example negative advertisements or availability of entertainment that had pushed news programming to a distinct second. While the above view may very well be true, it is unlikely that is either the sole or even the major cause of the dwindling number of voters.

To understand voter disinterest fully, one must try to see it in a “personal” context that takes into account the rationale behind why a person chooses to engage in a democratic process. By doing so, one may understand the downturn in voter interest as an artifact of the spatial (nation or culture-specific) and temporal (historical) locality. More specifically, US voter’s indifference towards politics can be seen as a side-effect of living in an era where economic and social conditions are relatively (and in absolute terms when measured as life expectancy etc.) good. Given that an average American voter tends to view government’s role in resolving social and economic issues as rather limited, it is not altogether surprising that a US voter may conclude that s/he have little to gain from voting. The contention is corroborated by the fact that the voter group that does rely upon the government – older adult voters, who need Medicaid and Social security benefits, votes most often in the elections.

The lack of growth in citizen’s level of political knowledge (Delli Carpini and Keeter, 1996), in spite of the increase in the amount of information available, can similarly be explained by lack of motivation in voters. Research by Robert Luskin identifies interest and intelligence as key variables affecting the level of political sophistication also ties into the above analysis. Luskin states, “Education, too, may be motivational in part. In an educated society, the blanket ignorance of politics may be a solecism. We learn about the things we care about.” Education, by making a person more aware of the actual role of government and the services it offers, as opposed to the widely perceived peripheral role of government, can make people more motivated to vote.

Rational self-interest or disinterest cannot fully explain voter disinterest in the US. There is an argument to be made, that aside from the differences that emanate from different school systems and the perceived differences in the importance of government’s role in alleviating social or economic problems, nearly all the other differences can be traced to differences between media environments. One key difference in US media markets and media markets in other countries is the lack of a comparatively large public broadcaster. NPR and PBS fare poorly in terms of budget, viewership and production values when compared to their counterparts in say Britain (BBC) or Canada (CBC) or other developed countries. One may impute from the above that the presence of a large public broadcaster in a media market has an important salutary impact on the way politics is covered.

The effect of a large public broadcaster can be understood in terms of the kind of programming shown by public broadcasters – primarily thematic coverage of news. Thematic coverage of news as opposed to incident oriented coverage of news, the most prominent model on network news, allows citizens to trace the arc of accountability to the government or other social and economic factors, according to Shanto Iyengar, a professor at Stanford University. This, in turn, may make a person more motivated to vote

In all, voter disinterest can be more fully understood by analyzing factors influencing voter’s perception of his/her self-interest and government’s role in helping achieve their interests, whether it be security or employment.

Comments Please! The Future Of Blog Comments

11 Nov

Often times the comments sections of blogging sites suffer from a multiplicity of problems – they are overrun by spam or by repeated entries of the same or similar point, continue endlessly, and are generally overcrowded with grammatical and spelling mistakes. Comments sections that were once seen as an unmitigated good are now seen as something irrelevant at best, and a substantial distraction at worst. Here, I discuss a few ways we can re-engineer commenting systems to mitigate some of the problems in the extant models, and possibly add value to them.

Comments are generally displayed in a chronological or reverse chronological order, which implies that, firstly, the comments are not arranged in any particular order of relevance and, secondly, that users just need to repost their comments to position them in the most favorable spot – the top or the bottom of the comment heap.

One way to “fix” this problem is by having a user based rating system for comments. A variety of sites have implemented this feature to varying levels of success. The downside of using a rating system is that people don’t have to explain their vote for, or against, the comment. This occasionally leads to rating “spam”. The BBC circumvents this problem on its news forums by allowing users to browse comments either in a chronological order or in the order of reader’s recommendations.

Another way we can make comments more useful is by creating message board like commenting systems that separate comments under mini-sections or “topics”. One can envision topics like “factual problems in XYZ” or “readers suggested additional resources and links” that users can file their comments under. This kind of a system can help in two ways – by collating wisdom (analysis and information) around specific topical issues raised within the article, and by making it easier for users to navigate to the topic, or informational blurb, of their choice. This system can also be alternatively implemented by allowing users to tag portions of the article in place – much like a bibliographic system that adds a hyperlink to relevant portions of the story in comments.

The above two ways deal with ordering the comments but do nothing to address the problem of small irrelevant repetitive comments. These are often posted by the same user under one or multiple aliases. One way to address this issue would be to set a minimum word limit for comments. This will encourage users to put in a more considered response. Obviously, there is a danger of angering the user, leading to him/her adding a longer, more pointless comment or just giving up. On average, I believe that it will lead to an improvement in the quality of the comments. We may also want to consider developing algorithms that disallow repeated postings of same comments by a user.

The best way to realize the value of comments is to ask somebody – preferably the author of the article – to write a follow-up article that incorporates relevant comments. Ideally, the author will use this opportunity to acknowledge factual errors and analyze points raised in the comments. Hopefully, this follow-up piece will be able to solicit more comments, and the process would repeat again, helping to take discussion and analysis forward.

Another way to go about incorporating comments is to use a wiki-like system of comments to create a “counter article” or critique for each article. In fact, it would be wonderful to see a communally edited opinion piece that grows in stature as multiple views get presented, qualified, and edited. Wikipedia does implement something like this in the realm of information but to bring it to the realm of opinions would be interesting.

One key limitation of most current commenting systems on news and blog sites is that they only allow users to post textual responses. As blog and news publishing increasingly leverages multimedia capabilities of the web, commenting systems would need to be developed that allow users to post their response in any media. This will once again present a challenge in categorizing and analyzing relevant comments but I am sure novel methods, aside from tagging and rating, will eventually be developed to help with the same.

The few ideas that I have mentioned above are meant to be seen as a beginning to the discussion on this topic and yes, comments would be really appreciated!