01/27/2006 01:19 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Thomas Friedman, Are You Listening?

Thomas Friedman, are you listening?

I sure hope so. This week, a U.K economic research outfit flattened your "flat earth" myth.

Your 41-weeks-as-a-Times-best-seller The World is Flat celebrates revolutions in transportation and communications that have "leveled the playing field" so poor people are now rushing on to it. In this interconnected world, technology-generated economic growth is their salvation.

But an extensive New Economics Foundation study released to catch the eye of the uber-elites' World Economic Forum in Davos has demolished your thesis with one stunning finding: For every $100 of growth in per person income during the go-go 1990s a measly 60 cents ended up easing the plight of the world's poorest people. Compare this to the 1980s, supposedly a dismal decade for development and before your imagined "world flattening": Then, $100 in per person income growth meant $2.20 for the billion-plus people living on less than a dollar a day.

You can stop celebrating: In just one decade there's been a 73 percent drop in benefit for the poorest.
These findings sink yet another cliché. "Rising tides lift all boats," we've been told, but the foundation's policy director and co-author of the report Andrew Simms noted the obvious: "...millions of the poor have no boats at all to rise in."

In your worldview, Mr. Friedman, our current one-rule economics -- that rule being highest return to existing wealth, the shareholders - is working. We don't need to alter or expand the rules. We just have to labor harder and produce more. Growth solves all.


Poverty can be uprooted; it is being uprooted, but not by "growth" itself. Organized communities from Brazil to Bangladesh are creating new-rule economics that do work. New village-level worker cooperatives in India have benefited about ten times the number of households as the jobs spawned by India's high-tech industries. A borrower-owned bank and lending circles in Bangladesh have lifted roughly twice as many families out of poverty as the number of jobs, paying pennies an hour, in Bangladesh's export garment factories. Fair-trade networks are already lifting more than a million small coffee farmers out of poverty worldwide; and Brazil's landless workers, so far granted title to over 20 million acres of idle land, are now building their own farms and businesses so profits benefit their communities, not distant shareholders' bank balances.

The world economy hasn't flattened to create a level playing field, Mr. Friedman. It's tilted so steeply those at the bottom have Sisyphus's chance of ascending.

Where poverty is easing people are saying "no" to your one-rule economics and are infusing democratic values -- fairness and accountability -- into economic life. For more on how real-life, new-rule economics is working in the U.S., see my new book Democracy's Edge: Choosing to Save America by Bringing Democracy to Life.