Friedman does not just use metaphors, but also recounts many stories. Stories tell of a clash, conflict, or contradiction that reaches a crisis point and is then resolved. The structure is of two opposites and their struggle to reconcile. Which brings us to the central metaphor and plot line of this book.
The Lexus stands for speed, modernization, movement, luxury, and globalization. The Olive Tree “stands for everything that roots us, anchors us, identifies us, and locates us in this world — whether it be belonging to a family, a community, a tribe, a nation, a religion, or, most of all, a place called home.” Friedman sees the world, the nation, the town, and even the person as divided between building the Lexus and disputing who owns the Olive Tree. If the Lexus is driven too heedlessly, the Olive Tree will block its path. Those who download for a living will find themselves confronted by those who upload.
It is the virtue of this book that it clearly dramatizes through stories that neither the Lexus nor the Olive Tree wins an outright victory; rather, both reach intricate and creative accommodations. For example, the Kayapo Indian village in the Amazon rain forest, which has for years been trying to resist the encroachment of modernization, has found a common cause with the environmental group Conservation International, whose biological research station is dedicated to the biodiversity of this unspoiled region.
Sometimes the Lexus acts as a moderating force on the violent nationalism of the Olive Tree. Friedman was in India at the time the BJP nationalist party took power and began testing nuclear weapons. Almost unnoticed, two officials from Moody’s slipped into town and lowered India’s government securities to “speculative grade.” The BJP promptly switched its priorities to the economy.
On other occasions, the Lexus can actively assist the Olive Tree. On Gulf Air planes, an onboard compass indicates the position of Mecca so that five-times-a-day Muslim worshipers know in which direction to kneel. On other occasions, the Olive Tree disables the Lexus. The author left his briefcase on a sidewalk in Israel for a couple of minutes and got it back from the police later with a bullet hole through its center — the standard treatment for all suspect packages.
Of course, so-called free markets have their rules. Friedman calls this “the Golden Straitjacket,” a one-size-fits-all requirement that squeezes and pinches some, but accelerates growth while shrinking politics and diminishing left–right polarities. The author ends up as a traditional liberal type. He wants to unleash the creative chaos of capitalism on a global scale, but create a safety net to catch those mangled by the Lexus careening through the Olive Tree grove.
The Trade Gap
What none of our books addresses is that not one single affluent economy has reached the top by way of free trade. Obviously, once you are at the apex of economic power you want all markets open to you, but neither the U.S. nor Britain, Japan, Korea, or Singapore “made it” in the manner idealized. Britain invented mercantilism and crown colonies and sold its merchandise to captive markets in its empire. The United States used the Monroe Doctrine to keep European trade away from its shores while it built up domestic industries. Thus, the highway to successful globalization is not clearly defined: “We build the road as we travel,” as Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it.
There may well be a treasure chest at the end of our journey toward a globalized economy, but this pathway has not been trodden before, and no doubt we will encounter many snakes along the way.