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Friedman speaks at ND Forum

Molly Madden | Thursday, November 4, 2010

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Thomas Friedman talked about the effects technology and the interconnectedness of the world has had on international ethics at the Notre Dame Forum’s signature event Wednesday.

A panel discussion with a select group of Notre Dame faculty and students followed Friedman’s lecture. NBC News correspondent Norah O’Donnell moderated the event.

Friedman discussed changes to global business practices that he first approached in his book, “Hot, Flat, and Crowded,” and specifically how these changes have affected technology’s role in the economy.

In the past 10 years, the global economic field was leveled as technological developments brought an unprecedented number of people together through the Internet. As a result, Friedman said the world is now “flat,” — to a degree that was unimaginable for previous generations.

“In a space of five years, we wired the world with fiber optic cable so much that Shanghai and South Bend accidentally became next door neighbors,” he said. “No matter where you were living in the world you could talk to someone on the computer.

“When I say the world is flat that’s what I mean: We created a platform for multiple forms of collaboration. When we did that we fundamentally changed the world,” he said.

This shift brought about huge changes to human morals, which eventually led to the economic crisis, Friedman said.

“The first thing it’s changing is how we think about ethics,” he said. “As I look back on the events of 2007 and 2008, a lot of people look at it as just a financial crisis. I don’t.

“I think the story of the last three years was a massive American breakdown in how we did our business and how we interacted with other nations.”

Friedman said he believes it wasn’t a “coincidence” that the economic crisis emerged at a time when globalization caused visible negative effects on the environment.

“When historians look back at this period we just went through, they’ll say this is the moment the market and Mother Nature, through the climate system, hit a wall,” he said. “This is the moment when the market and Mother Nature said, ‘you are growing in an unsustainable way. Turn back now.'”

Friedman said Americans practiced the same “faulty” unethical accounting in both economic and environmental issues.

“In the market we were allowing people to massively under-price risks and privatize the gains,” he said. “We’ve been doing the exact same accounting in nature by massively under-pricing the risks of admitting carbon molecules. In both instances we are socializing losses on the backs of every American taxpayer.”

To move away from this cycle, Friedman said American lawmakers and voters must move away from a system focused on situational values to sustainable values.

“The only way to affect both the environment and the market is to have sustainable values,” he said. “In the flat world, moving back to sustainable values will be the an achievement of the people coming of age right now.”

Friedman told the audience he believes there is even a place for God in his theories concerning the marketplace and globalization, but it depends on individual views of God. 

“The post-biblical view of God is that God is present based on our own actions and decisions,” he said.

“Whether it is a real room, or a chat room, you have to bring him there yourself based on your own behavior. By the moral or immoral mouse clicks.”

Friedman said he believes morals need to play a role in American government as lawmakers struggle to move the country forward in the changing “flat” world.

“You have to know what world you’re living in,” Friedman said. “We had a complete breakdown of authority in this country.”

If America wants to move out of the economic crisis, Friedman said the government will be responsible for creating a situation to enable this action.

“Sometimes the longest way to the solution is actually the shortest way,” he said. “When you’ve built a solid foundation, you can move from this notion of ‘too big to fail,” to ‘too sustainable to fail.’ And this is a base from which you can excel and change.”