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PBS Traces Evolution of Global Economy

'Commanding Heights,' an engaging six-hour documentary, looks at World War I, the Eastern bloc and an era of reform.


Some concepts are bound to arouse the skeptic in almost anyone. Painless dentistry. Easy assembly. Vanilla Coke.

How about the idea of an engaging three-part, six-hour documentary on the evolution of the global economy? PBS has crafted just that with "Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy," a surprisingly brisk tale that speaks plainly to the intellectually curious--not just the economy wonks.

Based on the book by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, "Commanding Heights" starts tonight with "The Battle of Ideas" that arose from the ashes of World War I. It was a struggle over who would control the railroads, steel mills and other "commanding heights" of the economy, as Lenin called them.

The program continues in the same slot over the next two weeks, exploring "The Agony of Reform" in the Eastern bloc and elsewhere before concluding with a look at "The New Rules of the Game" in today's promising but perilous era of globalization.

Blending archival footage and frank interviews with world leaders, scholars and everyday folks, "Commanding Heights" captures the eternal reach and fluid rhythms of economic force.

Tonight's segment shows how the world moved for decades toward more government control before swaying the other way. At the center of the battle lay the ideas of two economists: John Maynard Keynes, the Englishman who advocated intervention to control booms and busts, and Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian emigre who argued that big government stifled innovation.

In the 1970s, economic crises prompted Western politicians to rediscover Hayek. In the '80s, the simultaneous rise of President Ronald Reagan and Britain's Margaret Thatcher set the stage for a worldwide capitalist revolution.

Next week's segment shows how the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded an era of reform around the world--in Russia and the Eastern bloc; in democracies like India, where a red-tape "permit raj" had replaced Britain's Raj after independence; and in Latin America, which had developed its own brand of bureaucracy.

New liberties brought new problems: In a leaner Poland, reform hurt workers whose struggle led to freedom, while in Russia, gangster capitalism ruled "the Wild East" with a heavy hand of its own.

The third segment shows how the global economy has been transformed by online financial markets, transnational mergers and currency speculation that dwarfs trade in goods and services.

With the story of a Thai entrepreneur who built a luxury condo complex in 1997, only to see it repossessed as the Asian currency crisis fueled by international hedge fund managers turned his customers into paupers, "Commanding Heights" puts a human face on the buzzword of globalization.

Now the man walks the streets of Bangkok selling sushi from a cart, dreaming of becoming "the McDonald's of Thailand," determined to control his fate.


"Commanding Heights" premieres tonight at 9 on KCET-TV. Episodes 2 and 3 air April 10 and 17 at the same time.

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