The Thomas Friedman Problem by David Atkins

The Thomas Friedman Problem
by David Atkins ("thereisnospoon")

Dean Baker has a fantastic smackdown today of Thomas Friedman's latest offensive bowel movement:

Okay, let’s get to specifics. We leave out the Arab world, skip China for a moment, and jump to the European Union. Friedman tells us:

“Farther north, it was a nice idea, this European Union and euro-zone: Let’s have a monetary union and a common currency but let everyone run their own fiscal policy, as long as they swear to work and save like Germans. Alas, it was too good to be true. Large government welfare programs in some European countries, without the revenue to finance them from local production, eventually led to a piling up of sovereign debt — mostly owed to European banks — and then a lender revolt. The producer-savers in northern Europe are now drawing up a new deal with the overspenders — the PIIGS: Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.”

There is lots of good stuff here. First, the European Union and the euro-zone are not the same thing. There are countries with names like the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden that have been longstanding members of the European Union that are not members of the euro-zone. While there have been some suggestions that heavily indebted countries consider leaving the euro, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone suggesting they leave the European Union.

This is not the only complete invention in Friedman’s story. The story of the heavily indebted countries as serious overspenders spits in the face of reality. Spain and Ireland were actually running budget surpluses in the years preceding the recession. Italy and Portugal had relatively modest deficits. Only Greece had a clearly unsustainable budget path.

The story of the debt crisis of these countries is primarily the story of the inept monetary and financial policy run by the European Central Bank (ECB) in the years leading up to the crisis. They opted to ignore the imbalances created by housing bubbles across much of the euro zone and the rest of the world. Rather than taking steps to rein in these bubbles, they patted themselves on the back for hitting their 2.0 percent inflation targets. Remarkably, none of these central bankers lost their jobs and the 2.0 percent cult still reins at the ECB.

If there is a crisis in the euro zone it is that a dogmatic cult has seized control of the euro zone monetary and financial policy to the enormous detriment of its economy and its people. And, there is no obvious mechanism through which they can be dislodged. Friedman might have devoted his column to this problem, but it requires far more knowledge of the economy than he seems to possess.

Baker also takes the time to correct the record of Friedman's willful ignorance when it comes to China and the U.S. as well. It's well worth reading the whole thing.

Thomas Friedman and his friends are wrong. Dreadfully wrong. And they're proven to be wrong time and time again. But that doesn't stop them from dictating conventional wisdom that makes it way into Washington Consensus "centrist" policy, no matter how wrong it is.

This is why so many Americans become extremist in their politics, or descend into apathy. Tea Party crazies and progressives--i.e., the real people in the real economy who spend the most time obsessing over and paying attention to politics, as opposed to those encased in the D.C. or Manhattan bubbles--know that Thomas Friedman and friends are horribly out of touch. Tea Partiers and progressives have radically different theories of politics and governance, and radically different explanations for why Friedman and friends are wrong, but each camp definitely agrees that the demise of this sort of sophomoric neoliberal commentary would be a great thing for democracy. Both Tea Partiers and progressives can see the economic destruction of the American way of life, and agree that it's being destroyed on behalf of elites. The two camps differ greatly in who they believe those elites to be, but both camps know this: Thomas Friedman and friends lie to serve the interests of the elites, not of ordinary working people.

The op-ed pages of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are supposed to be the places where the greatest writers and intellectuals on each side of the aisle hash out ideas based on a common set of facts. When the facts are consistently wrong and the ideas are gibberish, who can blame politically interested citizens for retreating into ideological silos that at least have some sort of explanatory power?

This, ultimately, is one of the biggest reasons why the Obama Administration's approach to public policy and communications cannot and will not work: the Administration is attempting match its policies to a conventional wisdom that is clearly and demonstrably wrong, and to bring together partisans on both sides who know good and well that it's wrong. Any policy maker who attempts to set their policy and communication compass by the sorts of ideas espoused by Thomas Friedman and the late David Broder is doomed to fail. The task Obama has set himself to "renew our politics" is not only misguided; it's simply impossible.

The national partisan divide will only be healed by throwing the Thomas Friedman acolytes overboard, and concentrating on pursuing a politics that respects the opinions of those who are consistently proven correct in their prognostications, and establishes a baseline set of facts that each ideological faction has to grapple with in an adult way. Most of those facts will have a liberal bias, and that's just too bad. That's why progressives are right and teabaggers are wrong, and why Krugman is the most accurate pundit and Cal Thomas is the least accurate. But some facts may have a conservative bias, too, and that's fine. But they should be judged on their merits, rather than on their post-partisan acceptability to the conventional wisdom of the D.C. and Manhattan bubbles.