Review of ‘The Lexus and The Olive Tree’

'Olive Tree!' Image courtesy of africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
‘Olive Tree!’
Image courtesy of africa / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

‘The Lexus and The Olive Tree’ is a book published by The New York Times acclaimed columnist Thomas Friedman in 1999. I read the book for the first time in early 2001 and recently re-read the same. It is an interesting experiment to compare  the book that is written in a manner wherein ‘willy-nilly’ it predicts the short-term future against the actual events that have happened in the past decade. While one concedes that it is always easier to be wiser in hindsight, all the same the book turned out to be less prophetic than what I thought of it the first time I read it.

In 2001 I had just completed my MBA in Marketing and was working as a Sales Manager with an MNC managing a team selling ‘EMI’ finance options to retail customers interested in buying Consumer Durables. Freshly out of college and learning the ropes on my newly found job that allowed me financial freedom, I was tuned to accept the relentless march of consumerism as a foregone conclusion. Globalization and the challenges it faced interested me a lot.

The book is a very easy read as well given the anecdotal format used by the author. I had a far better time reading it again wherein I could relate to the many premises made within while also being aware of certain events that were not factored well by the writer.What began as ‘Democratization of Finance’ by creation of a bond market for junk bonds eventually led to the Mortgage sub-prime bubble that spawned the Global Financial crisis in 2008. The world saw the demise of a giant institution, ‘Lehman Brothers’. The Euro zone crisis, the ‘Occupy Wall-street’ movement etc were all trends that seemed to be at odds with the discourse advised in the Book.

The book still served a purpose of providing a paradigm that can help one to make sense of the latest world trends in the sphere of Current Affairs. The writer makes a good point wherein he highlights the need to factor in at least 6 dimensions in terms of politics, culture, national security, financial markets, technologies and environmentalism to make sense of the morning newspaper. The Lexus represents globalization whereas The Olive Tree represents ones culture, tradition and community. The former is ‘aspiration’  while the latter is our ‘roots’. The interplay is eternal and few would agree that the ‘Lexus’ view alone should dominate our lives.

Some of the key stories projected by the author go wrong here and it is good to temper our enthusiasms a bit.

Dominance of the internet – Surely it has improved our lives and communications as so many anecdotal stories suggest. All the same the ‘Digital Divide’ is a reality in poorer parts of the world and the ‘Net’ is still to become ‘all pervasive’ as predicted in the book. Still the author would be delighted to see the success of the social network that has caught everyone’s fancy in such a short period of time.

Homogenization of all cultures – The author hedges his bets by stating that people will have the power to resist such standardization and demand accommodation of  their own roots. And yet it is true that our lives are impacted by inroads made by the Western culture in terms of fast food joints, movies, entertainment show formats, fast spread of consumerist culture, acceptance of a debt-fueled lifestyle, foreign vacations etc.

Power Shift from the West to the East – Rising living standards, the demographic dividend, increasing trends in local consumption are leading the way for the economic power to shift again from the West to the East. It is barely discernible presently but the trend is seen in contrast with ageing populations and near stagnant economies in the traditionally ‘rich’ parts of the world. This in itself will have its own impact of the globalization narrative.

To conclude the book is a good primer to learn the fundamentals of globalization and helps one understand the emerging ‘World Order’. But not all that was stated is necessarily relevant today and nothing is preordained to happen exactly in the way it is forecast. One should explore more resources and alternative voices to develop a more ’rounded’ view of the current state of affairs in today’s global theatre.

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