AUSTIN, Texas -- We're at an interesting point in our discussions of globalization, since we are just starting to think about how to think about it. And we're also at one of those rare points when you can see the conventional wisdom start to harden into something akin to an ideology. Or we could just think of this as The Tom Friedman Problem.

Thomas Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times and one of the smartest, best-informed and most persuasive people around. His columns are usually irresistibly sensible, and he is in the Golden Rolodex, making frequent appearances on television chat shows. He is also the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, a book I believe will be featured in the intellectual histories of our time.

What Friedman has done is give many people -- especially in government, business and journalism -- a framework in which to think about globalization, which is one those things, like global warming, you'd probably rather not think about. Friedman not only reports on globaliztion, he is something of an enthusiast about it. In fact, from a certain point of view, he's in some danger of becoming the Rudyard Kipling of a new form of empire.

Which is not fair to Friedman, who is far too bright not to see the complexities, dangers and sheer, bloody unfairness of much of "The One Big Thing'' he touts. But it does bring us to the problem of the public debate over all this. Bob Ozer, a lawyer and something of Friedman fan, notes that the protests at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle sent Friedman into the screaming meemies. The reaction, of course, was to the two dozen violent protesters who got 98 percent of the media attention, not the tens of thousands who spent several days in Seattle listening to a splendid program of speakers and debates -- but that's showbiz.

Since Friedman is the Establishment media guru of globalization, others took his lead, and it is now chic to dismiss anyone who raises questions about globalization, much less condemns it, as too hopelessly retro, they don't get it, just afraid of change, and so forth. Organized labor, so passe, just wants to protect those union jobs. Bunch of nuts like Ross Perot, talking about that giant sucking sound and all that. All the forward-looking people, all those bright, high-tech movers and shakers and Wall Street wonders are fully in favor of globalization and think we just need to work out a few kinks along the way. Alan Greenspan kindly advises us not to be afraid of this brave new world.

But what if all those forward-looking people are wrong? What if we should be looking at all this in another framework entirely? What if we are seeing not some wondrous new world order, but the same old capitalism we know so well, only this time unrestrained on a global level? This alternative framework is well-presented by, among others, William Greider, who is also a superb journalist, in his book, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. You could say that Friedman and Greider are the two polarities of this debate, although that would be simplistic, since you will find they also agree to a remarkable extent. But if their descriptive analyses are similar, their prescriptive analyses are not. Greider thinks we needs some checks on the unrestrained flow of capital around the globe and the recent financial disaster in Asia certainly suggests he may well be right.

What annoys me is not that some agree with Friedman and some agree with Greider, but that the Friedman faction, if not Friedman himself, has taken to condescending dismissal of all those who are not chipper and gung-ho about globalization. It has yet to be shown that we are not witnessing a new form of colonialism.

To descend from these lofty macro-economic realms to the dreary particular, let's take the case of sweatshops. As you know, sweatshops are becoming an international symbol of what's wrong with globalization. They have touched off a wave of activism on college campuses and even spurred concern by some of the international corporations that run them because they make for very bad public relations. It's not nice to have it widely reported that your workers in Third World countries make a miserable pittance, work in abysmal conditions and are forced to run around in the sun for punishment, and so forth.

Ever on the qui vive on the PR front, something called the Apparel Industry Partnership in turn gave birth to the Fair Labor Association, which was supposed to be a lovely cooperative effort by concerned companies, labor and human rights groups to ensure our clothes are not being made by Chinese slave labor. Unfortunately, this outfit was just a wee, tiny bit imbalanced in favor of industry. So much so that both the labor representative on the board and the largest church group both quit. And as Alexander Cockburn pointed out in a recent column in The Nation, this toothless watchdog is set up so information on overseas factories is kept secret and a company can get a "No Sweat" endorsement for a product even if 95 percent of it is from slave labor.

Further, apparel companies like Nike have now taken to making large contributions to some of their former critics, leading to a distinct quieting of the criticism. Meanwhile, defenders of globalization assure us that all is now hunky-dory on the sweatshop front, since they have this dandy new system in place. See, say the Friedmanites gleefully, they fixed it.

Anyone who has ever done the maquiladora two-step on the Texas-Mexican border knows exactly how this mismatch between public relations and reality works. Of course International Mega Corp. would be delighted to have you visit their model factory with all the happy, smiling workers, who are so well paid by local standards. See how clean our factory is, see the good lighting, see the happy workers.

Try coming back sometime when the PR guy isn't giving guided tours. Try talking to the workers at home instead of in front of their bosses. This is a very old game. In my experience, many international corporations would a hell of a lot rather spend money on public relations than on paying their workers. And shame on those who allow themselves to be fooled by this old PR shell game.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.