Tom Friedman provides a window to the thinking of our ruling elites

Our elites tolerate the republic, as it provides a stable political regime without limiting their ability to amass wealth and power (for details see “Wealth, Income, and Power” by G. William Domhoff).  Thomas Friedman explains how this works in “Our One-Party Democracy“, op-ed in the New York Times, 8 September 2009.

His logic is bizarre but inconsequential.

“The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying ‘no.’”

So a vibrant two-party democracy requires both political parties to agree.  Nonsensical, but it is after all just propaganda.

“From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
— Advice from Screwtape to his nephew, from chapter I of The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

More sincere, I suspect, is his admiration for autocratic states.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

This would be slightly believable if he gave Singapore as an example.  Anyone one familiar with its history might agree, or at least consider this proposition a reasonable one.  (For more about this, I recommend “From Third World to First – the Singapore Story:  1965-2000, by Lee Kuan Yew)

China is an absurd example.  While its notoriously corrupt rulers have put China back on track after generations of disastrous and murderous misrule, this hardly qualifies them for such praise.  And some observers suggest that the stability of its regime is grossly overstated by western observers (for more about this see The Coming Collapse of China by Gordon G. Chang).

Freidman’s love of technocratic despotism shines through his coarse reasoning.   Perhaps he imagines that he would be part of the elite in such regime, instead of the more likely outcome of writing political tracts for the daily Pravda.

Why does he have such a high profile in the mainstream media?  Column in the New York Times, respectful reviews of his books, and so forth?  It’s easy to see.  As cui bono?

Look at the climate/energy bill that came out of the House. … with basically no G.O.P. representatives willing to vote for any price on carbon that would stimulate investments in clean energy and energy efficiency, the sponsors had to rely entirely on Democrats … “China is going to eat our lunch and take our jobs on clean energy — an industry that we largely invented — and they are going to do it with a managed economy we don’t have and don’t want,” said Joe Romm, who writes the blog, The only way for us to match them is by legislating a rising carbon price along with efficiency and renewable standards that will stimulate massive private investment in clean-tech.

Government-sponsored profits (aka “free enterprise”),  the fast track to wealth for the politically well-connnected!

“The same is true on health care.” Friedman tell us. How true.

“The central mechanism through which Obama seeks to extend coverage and restrain costs is via new ‘exchanges,’ insurance clearinghouses, modeled on the plan Mitt Romney enacted when he was governor of Massachusetts,” noted Matt Miller, a former Clinton budget official and author of “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.” “The idea is to let individuals access group coverage from private insurers, with subsidies for low earners.”

More government-sponsored profits!  Friedman of course omits mention of Obama’s deal with Big Pharma, to guarantee their profits under the new health care system.

Friedman complains that “The G.O.P. used to be the party of business”.  What does he mean? First, the cost of insurance must shift from business to households:

Well, to compete and win in a globalized world, no one needs the burden of health insurance shifted from business to government more than American business.

Second, wages must be kept low by large-scale immigration:

No one needs immigration reform — so the world’s best brainpower can come here without restrictions — more than American business.

And, of course, more subsidies for big business (emphasis added to Friedman’s euphemism):

No one needs a push for clean-tech — the world’s next great global manufacturing industry — more than American business.

Perhaps inadvertently, Friedman’s conclusion aptly sums up the situation.

“Globalization has neutered the Republican Party, leaving it to represent not the have-nots of the recession but the have-nots of globalized America, the people who have been left behind either in reality or in their fears,” said Edward Goldberg, a global trade consultant who teaches at Baruch College. “The need to compete in a globalized world has forced the meritocracy, the multinational corporate manager, the eastern financier and the technology entrepreneur to reconsider what the Republican Party has to offer.

Fortunately the Democratic Party is there to help, in exchange for lavish campaign donations.  A changing of the guard indeed, with no substantive change in policy.

Change you should not have believed in.

It need not be like this.  Elections are a powerful, even irresistible instrument of change.  If we just had the wit and will to use them properly.

For other perspectives about Friedman’s article

Looks like none of our technocrats will confess to feeling guilty pleasure at the thought of rule by technocrats.  But the takedowns are fun to read.  Most are variants of this:  “Thomas Friedman, For One, Welcomes Our New Chinese Creditor Overlords“, Kenneth Anderson, the Volokh Conspiracy, 8 September 2009 — Excerpt:

Let me just say for the record that this is a monstrous column. When faced with American public defection from elite-preferred outcomes on certain policy issues that involve many difficult tradeoffs of the kind that democracies, with much jostling and argument, are supposed to work out among many different groups, Friedman extols the example of … China’s political system, because it’s both enlightened and autocratic? Who among us knew?

For a real look at our one-party system:  Politics of the FM site: radical leftist reformer or right-wing iconoclast?

More about Thomas Friedman

Flathead – The peculiar genius of Thomas L. Friedman“, Matt Taibbi, New York Press, 26 April 2005 — Review of The World is Flat.

Flat N All That“, Matt Taibbi, New York Press, January 2009 — A review of Friedman’s news book Hot, Flat, and Crowded.

And about his primo contribution to the study of history, the Friedman unit:  We are withdrawing again from Iraq, forever, 12 April 2008


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about change:

  1. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties, 18 May 2008 – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.
  2. “Don’t Let Barack Obama Break Your Heart” by Tom Engelhardt, 21 November 2008
  3. Obama’s national security team: I hope you didn’t really believe in change?, 26 November 2008
  4. Obama supporters mugged by reality (and learn not to believe in change!), 9 December 2008
  5. Change you should not have believed in, 10 February 2009
  6. Quote of the Day, 20 May 2009 — Connect the dots between Bush and Obama to see the nice picture.
  7. Stratfor looks at Obama’s foreign policy, sees Bush’s foreign policy, 30 August 2009
  8. Motto for the Obama administration: “The more things change, …”, 5 September 2009

13 thoughts on “Tom Friedman provides a window to the thinking of our ruling elites”

  1. I posted this on VOLOKH CONSPIRACY YESTERDAY at “Thomas Friedman, For One, Welcomes Our New Chinese Creditor Overlords“, 8 September 2009. Think it is a good starter.

    You know we are in serious trouble when Thomas Friedman gets anything right. He was a boob as a foreign correspondent in Beirut when he missed the civil war, amazing really, and he has been a consistent, and extremely successful, boob ever since. We are a one party oligarchy, the National Treasury Party, and have been since we accepted OPEC for our sins with Nixon/Kissenger. When LBJ institutionalized the New Deal with the Great Society, he set us on the course to the nationalization of Everything with Medicare and Medicaid. These Trojan Horses have accomplished their work and now we are faced with the logical consequences of these bipartisan monstrosities. I do not demonize Obama, who seeks to enact the statist program pursued for decades, sustained by a dreadful foreign policy that coddles real enemies of our way of life– remember The American Way, which is in need of serious drycleaning in case you have failed to notice. The New Politics we need to really get the possibility of change going has not really begun. It will have to get much worse before that happens. But do not fret, it will. Yes, it will.

  2. What really rankles Americans is that “enlightened despotism” in Asia demonstrably works and not just in Singapore but places like Japan, Korea and Taiwan too. That it isn’t a perfect system and has problems scaling, requires hierarchical societal structures etc etc etc, is beside the point – it’s not supposed to work AT ALL – See Cold War and There can only be One!

    Recent attempts to rehabilitate India as the true way are hilarious if you have ever visited the place.

    Politics follows economics particularly in places where there is little attempt to balance economic power – with say compulsory voting.

    The reduction of the middle class in the US over the last few decades with policies that were widely popular core American values was inevitably going to lead to a smallish group of monied elite and a larger group of disenfranchised poor. I see little that shows that that process won’t continue.

    So how would you rebuild the middle class FM?

  3. Friedman is high on the smell of his own excrement. This is what happens when people pursue knowledge for its own sake and for the sake of self-aggrandizement. He is an educated, ignorant fool.

  4. Friedman’s writing always mixes plausible observation with fanciful generalizations which make silk purses out of sows’ ears. Overall his writing is a monstrosity, deserving of one of the lower rungs of hell, where intelligence is prostituted by self-importance and opportunism.

    Thank to FM for this excellent crystalization: “Our elites tolerate the republic, as it provides a stable political regime without limiting their ability to amass wealth and power.

  5. FM: “China is an absurd example.” What makes you think singapore is a better example? You’ll have to live there for several years to know, like some of my chums have. To hell with autocracy.
    Fabius Maximus replies: The post explains why I think Singapore to be a better example than China. But its history speaks for itself. As seen in Ian Flemming’s novel “Moonraker”, written in 1951 — in which James Bond describes Singapore as a dangerous place to visit. Now people from Singapore consider the United States a dangerous place to visit.

  6. 500 million Chinese, minimum, do not have toilets. They continue to use nightsoil as fertilizer. And ALL of the flus originate there. What relevance does China’s politics have to do with the U.S. We have a great constitution that is falling to autocracy. We will either restore our Republic kicking over a lot of sacred cows (that will be the fun part)that we fund endlessly on the way or we will continue to falter as we have for decades.

  7. To create wealth, you need saving and investment. Even a crappy government can induce savings, at the point of a gun if necessary, but investment is tricky. Technically, we’ve been investing in new homes. Look where it got us. The miracle in China I suspect had more to do with the bell curve than anything else. Let’s see how they do employing the remaining 90% of the peasants who are not the cream.
    Also, it’s easy playing catch up, all you do is ignore I.P. and steal as required. We have a triple whammy to overcome; too much debt, high capacity utilization of human capital compared to China (no bell curve cream skimming for us), and a whole world praying to god we show continued leadership, both technological and geo-political. We have overcome the first two before, and blew away the third after WWII, but who knows now? If we deliver number three, high tech advance and decent world leadership, paying our debts should be easy. If we fail managing these, then not so much.

  8. # 11 translate that into a political platform and we have something to contend with two election cycles down the road. We will flounder through this decade of increasing vituperation and I suspect violence before we get down to fixing what went astray in the mid-50s.

  9. For starters, I’d be impressed by the first politico who stood up and admitted we have a debt overhang problem. Private debt as percent of GDP is way off historical norms. The core political and economic issue of this time (not ten years hence) is how do we deal with this? Absent real time leadership of this sort, we will have “solutions” imposed on us, the way Argentina and Zimbabwe have chosen their respective answers. From a grass roots level, I advise support flow to guy’s like Steve Keen.

    One of our problems is the way “Flow of Funds” analysis is relegated to sideshow status by the current power structure: “‘No One Saw This Coming’: Understanding Financial Crisis Through Accounting Models“, Dirk J. Bezemer (Groningen U), 16 June 2009.

    Soon, there will be motion to reform “The System”, and these “Auditors” should have a prominent seat at that table. Right now, they are being ignored. The PDF cite is a great place to start.
    Fabius Maximus replies: For graphs of US private sector debt see A picture of the post-WWII debt supercycle. As for the role of models, I believe this mistaken. Politically powerful interest groups can ALWAYS find expert justifications for the policies they seek. It’s not an economic problem, but a political one.

    “I’d be impressed by the first politico who stood up and admitted we have a debt overhang problem.”

    Don’t hold your breath while waiting. Most Americans do not want to hear that the debt game is over, and so politicans will not tells us so. Hence the current policy of attempting to revive debt-fueled consumption. Hence the government taking over real-estate lending, and subsidizing purchases of homes (first time buyers) and cars (cash for clunkers). The policy is Party On!

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