TCS Daily

The World Is Round (It's Just Gotten Smaller)

By Ilya Shapiro - January 19, 2006 12:00 AM

CARTAGENA, Colombia -- After telling me the social history of her native town, and of her one stint in the United States (Miami, of course), Candelaria López, paused in the snip-snipping of my hair to utter a banality that I would come to realize is the key to understanding the world of the 21st century. "You see, Ilya," she pronounced, "the world really is round."

While perhaps fitting that I would hear this truism in the country named after the explorer who inadvertently proved that ships sailing west from Europe don't actually fall off the planet, it was also disturbing. Hadn't we all heard from any number of pop-globalization scribes that in this time of mass instant communication, outsourcing, and an emphasis on social capital, that the world was actually becoming flatter? -- that people from Bogotá to Bangalore to Boston were all now on the same leveling (if never level) playing field? Who was this beauty salon philosopher to contradict the great Thomas Friedman and the new conventional wisdom?

Yet there it was again two days later when I was wind-surfing on the warm waters of the Caribbean. I was literally sailing into the sunset but, of course, would never get there because the earth's curvature would keep that glorious orb ever over the horizon (and millions of miles away, but never mind that).

Yes, this deserved more thought. What does the world's being round actually mean for Latin American development, or U.S. politics (or me personally)?

I mean, here you have Bolivian president-elect (and populist coca grower) Evo Morales going on a four-continent tour like he's been elected Pope, hamming it up with Chávez and Castro like they've just invented some great new alternative to free minds and markets that's never been tried anywhere.

Then Argentina's Néstor Kirchner (nicknamed The Penguin for his beakish nose and Patagonian origins) retires his country's IMF debt ahead of schedule so he doesn't have to be constrained by certain policy prescriptions -- though when his economics-defying heterodoxy fails he'll have no compunction in going back to the international financial community for renewed support.

And finally "spiritual leaders" in Egypt and elsewhere are hailing a plan for a limited phase out of U.S. troops from Iraq as a great victory for Islam -- as if that "religion of peace" (let alone Al-Qaeda, Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the rest of those happy agents of the brotherhood of Kum-ba-ya) had ever helped anybody win either peace or prosperity.

Sure, the world's gone crazy -- and always has been -- but what's that got to do with the price of milk in Barranquilla?

Here's what: No matter what kinds of social, political, or economic changes man's ingenuity brings -- whether we're talking about the Industrial or Information Revolutions (or the invention of tools, agriculture, the nation-state, or democracy) -- the nature of the world doesn't change. It is a banality to say that the world is round only because it is not clever enough by half to say it is flat.

There is, however, an apt metaphor. I recall a social studies textbook in middle school that showed the size of the country shrinking in relative terms with the completion of the trans-continental railroad, then again with the advent of air travel. The same concept applies here. Our world has "shrunk" tremendously -- perhaps more since the fall of Communism than at any other time in living memory -- and continues in that direction.

An average person with an internet connection can communicate with any point on the globe instantly, and can get there physically within 24 hours, and can find plenty of elements of home when he does get there. To use my most recent example, 12 hours after my first connecting flight departed Reagan National Airport in the middle of the North American winter, I was wearing flip-flops and dancing to the tropical rock of Carlos Vives in Cartagena's bull-fighting stadium. And a few days later I was watching the Rose Bowl on a wide-screen TV in The Loco Gringo -- a definitively not crazy bar/café whose only "gringo" quality seemed to be a subscription to NFL football on DirecTV.

More importantly -- for communication and travel and cross-cultural connections are (mostly) but means to an end -- we in the developed West now have more conveniences and a better standard of living than ever thought imaginable. We have more opportunity for self-realization than the blue-bloods of yore and the poorest members of our society live a better (and certainly healthier, and longer) life than the richest of two centuries ago.

That, dear reader, and inclusive of all the vignettes you could find for yourself as easily as a New York Times columnist on a generous expense account can, is the story of globalization. As always, you have to keep improving to compete effectively, and as always there will be those who are marginalized because of an inability to adapt. The world is just as round as it ever was; it's just smaller.

Ilya Shapiro is a Washington lawyer whose last "Dispatch from Purple America" gave a thumbs up to Steven Spielberg's Munich.

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