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The Cluelessness of Thomas Friedman

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It's not so much the policy prescriptions in Tom Friedman's column today that are so irksome. Yes, there is the ongoing deficit fetishism, the necessary dues one pays to be a card carrying member of respectable elitedom. The real problem with today's column -- a call for re-thinking of American capitalism by striking a series of "grand bargains" -- is that his analysis of what stands in the way of such grand bargains bears no relationship to the realities of American politics. In this, Friedman has been amazingly consistent in his cluelessness about the causes of political deadlock and America's difficulty in solving vexing problems.

Friedman argues, obviously enough, that we cannot take an all-or-nothing view of our major debates, whether in education, health care, energy policy, deficits or, above all, in the very structure of our economic system. We need markets, he tells us but we have thrived economically over time because "government provided the institutions, rules, safety nets, education, research and infrastructure to empower the private sector to innovate, invest and take the risks that promote growth and jobs."

But Friedman's larger lament -- that we need a reasoned, balanced discussion of capitalism, but aren't having one because of our political strife -- is simply incoherent. First, he continues to pine for some sort of non-partisan political force that would magically transcend today's polarized political environment. Friedman writes, "the ideal 2012 election would be one that offered the public competing conservative and liberal versions of the key grand bargains."

But as others have previously noted, the actual policy direction Friedman charts largely mirrors those of an already-existing political party, namely the Democrats. And some of Friedman's ideas - as in his call for a German-style model of labor relations - place him to the left of the Democrats. Second, his diagnosis of what stands in the way of the emergence of such a transcendent force is that equal and opposed political forces have staked out absolutist stances that brook no compromise. This he-said/she-said, pox-on-both-their-houses lament is, of course, standard doctrine in elite pundit circles and is as bizarre as it is insidious. And no matter how many times it's pointed out how woefully off-base he is, Friedman persists in propagating it.

Could it really be that Friedman has failed to notice that many Democratic issue positions in precisely those areas in which Friedman calls for a Grand Bargain -- such as Obamacare and Cap and Trade -- already reflect profound ideological compromise with "free-market" conservative solutions to pressing problems? Or that those policies, birthed in part at conservative think tanks are now anathema to virtually the entire national leadership of the Republican Party because the GOP views them as insidious socialist plots? How is it not painfully obvious to Friedman that the reason we don't have an edifying, solution-driven policy debate centered on competing visions of "key grand bargains" isn't because of mutual intransigence, but because one party isn't capitulating fast enough for the others liking?

Quoting from Foreign Policy magazine editor David Rothkopf's new book, Power, Inc., Friedman says we need to end this 'cartoonish' "argument that the choice is either all government or all the market." I dare Friedman to name one prominent national Democrat whose economic philosophy could reasonably be described as "all government." In fact, I double dare him. Senator Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist, cannot remotely be said to maintain such a view (whatever it actually means), and he represents the "extreme" left of Congressional Democrats.

The "cartoon" here is Friedman's absurd characterization of the nature of political debate in America. In fact, you occupy the leftward edge of (barely) respectable opinion if you openly espouse Keynesianism, as Paul Krugman most famously does. Keynesianism, of course, is the very definition of an economic philosophy predicated on the need for an interplay between government and the market, precisely the sort of "grand bargain" thinking that Friedman insists is woefully lacking on both sides. Now, quick, name for me someone on the left with remotely the influence of Grover Norquist (of drown-the-government-in-the-bathtub fame) who advocates anything close to the converse of Norquist. Many members of Congress, as well as a recent past Chairman of the Federal Reserve are unabashed devotees of Ayn Rand. Where is the contingent of high profile Democrats who pay similar ideological fealty to Karl Marx?

Friedman's implicit assertion that the barrier to a serious solution to our energy and climate challenges is mutual ideological pigheadedness is especially laughable. We can't come close to addressing those issues because the dominant energy players, like Big Oil, are categorically opposed to any meaningful changes in their behavior and they have littered Congress with enough money to ensure that nothing can be accomplished on that front. As noted above, an originally free market inspired solution to carbon emissions, the aforementioned cap and trade, is now excoriated by the right. And the President's own spokesman just yesterday touted the "dramatic increase" in domestic oil drilling since Obama took office -- not exactly a radical, intransigent polar opposite position to that taken by the GOP on energy policy. Now, these realities certainly provide clues as to why we're so screwed on environmental policy. But they aren't remotely related to Friedman's understanding about what ails us politically.

Friedman concludes by again quoting Rothkopf that "we continue to treat politics as a reality show played for cheap theatrics." I haven't read Rothkopf's book, so I can't comment on the context in which he says this. But Friedman's intent is clear -- to claim that the problem is "politics as usual" for which both sides are responsible, notwithstanding the fact that on the key issues he's raised - deficits, environment, health care -- the current Democratic position represents a series of accommodations to dominant private-sector actors. That these accommodations are, in fact, counter-productive to our longer-term well being is besides the point (and they *are* counter-productive. In addition to environmental policy, consider that single payer systems generally produce better health outcomes, with far greater equity and far less cost and that, these facts notwithstanding, Democrats settled for a second, or third, or fourth best solution that was much closer to what private sector advocates wanted).

One wonders what it would take to convince the likes of Tom Friedman that, short of rolling over and playing dead, everything he wants in a "grand bargain" oriented party acutely attuned to the whims and biases of elite interests already exists.

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