Thomas Friedman, Dirty Hippie
by David Atkins
The column is already a day old, but a warm welcome is due nonetheless to Thomas Friedman, who has joined the ranks of the shrill:
This gets to the core of why all the anti-Wall Street groups around the globe are resonating. I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo for the fall of Hosni Mubarak, and one of the most striking things to me about that demonstration was how apolitical it was. When I talked to Egyptians, it was clear that what animated their protest, first and foremost, was not a quest for democracy — although that was surely a huge factor. It was a quest for “justice.” Many Egyptians were convinced that they lived in a deeply unjust society where the game had been rigged by the Mubarak family and its crony capitalists. Egypt shows what happens when a country adopts free-market capitalism without developing real rule of law and institutions.
But, then, what happened to us? Our financial industry has grown so large and rich it has corrupted our real institutions through political donations. As Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, bluntly said in a 2009 radio interview, despite having caused this crisis, these same financial firms “are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they, frankly, own the place.”
Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from Opensecrets.org calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.
We can’t afford this any longer. We need to focus on four reforms that don’t require new bureaucracies to implement. 1) If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big and needs to be broken up. We can’t risk another trillion-dollar bailout. 2) If your bank’s deposits are federally insured by U.S. taxpayers, you can’t do any proprietary trading with those deposits — period. 3) Derivatives have to be traded on transparent exchanges where we can see if another A.I.G. is building up enormous risk. 4) Finally, an idea from the blogosphere: U.S. congressmen should have to dress like Nascar drivers and wear the logos of all the banks, investment banks, insurance companies and real estate firms that they’re taking money from. The public needs to know.
Capitalism and free markets are the best engines for generating growth and relieving poverty — provided they are balanced with meaningful transparency, regulation and oversight. We lost that balance in the last decade. If we don’t get it back — and there is now a tidal wave of money resisting that — we will have another crisis. And, if that happens, the cry for justice could turn ugly. Free advice to the financial services industry: Stick to being bulls. Stop being pigs.
That Friedman has belatedly woken up this reality some five years or more behind the curve is nice, but typical of the shortsightedness of the Very Serious People.
Back when Friedman was praising globalization, asset-based growth, bipartisan fetishism and all things neoliberal, it obviously never occurred to him that when you break down the ability of nation-states to control multinational corporations, you also break down the need for the global elite to adhere to any sort of rules. They become literally and figuratively above the law. When you use McDonalds to conduct diplomacy between nations, well, McDonalds will ultimately control the nature of the relationship between nations for its own benefit.
Who is it that Thomas Friedman believes will put in place the rules he advocates? The brave new world he championed for two decades led inexorably and inevitably to this point. Now Friedman is an open Sinophile, longing for a government that can move to get things done without the sclerotic inconvenience of bureaucracy and keep corporate corruption in check. But he only gives cursory acknowledgment to the rejection of democracy inherent in that position, and practically none to the fact that China is quite protectionist in its policies--a direct rejection of the stances Friedman has been advocating for decades.
An increasing number of "serious" people are coming to realize far too late the multinational corporations and the global financial elite really don't follow any rules anymore, and don't intend to. This is shocking to them. They never saw it coming even as they championed the asset-driven economic policies that empowered those same elites.
Conservatives and neoliberals alike assume that rule of law, infrastructure and basic decency just happen. They're part of the automatic background of society, and they notice it as little as fish notice the water they swim in. It really doesn't occur to them that when you weaken the structures that support those things, they can and do disappear. Infrastructure decays without upkeep. Corporations and elites realize that there are no consequences to openly flouting the rule of law. Decency is for losers and suckers.
And then they recoil in shock at the consequences of the ideologies they themselves advocated, without even realizing the implicit connection.
In the endless debate between whether our elites are evil or stupid, the kindest thing we can say about Thomas Friedman is that at least he's apparently not evil. Welcome to the shrill hippie club, Mr. Friedman. Here's hoping you spend a little time assessing how we got to this point, and your role in helping create our current predicament.