Thomas Friedman was in New Zealand late last year and he did a radio interview with Kim Hill. She beats the shit out of him. From his first word Friedman is on the defense, I assume because he already knew who Hill was. It is nice to hear someone go after him. In the United States, I’ve only ever heard fawning interviews.
There are a couple of things that really stand out. One is how Friedman is constantly trying to walk back his entire career. A few times he says that he didn’t create globalization and (supposed) free market economics; he just reported on it. While this is technically true, Friedman has been one of the biggest and most influential cheerleaders for this conservative utopia.
He also claims that we went too far in the free market direction and that now we are adjusting in the other direction. He says this many times. But I don’t see the evidence for it. In fact, if Romney is elected President, we will push forward in the loony free market direction faster than we ever have before. But what is most annoying about Friedman’s comments is how his own writing has pushed against any trend to ameliorate the problems associated with his neo-liberal doctrine. The most obvious example of this is his constant wish that Obama would “move to the center!” But Obama is already radically free market. The only changes he’s made to the government have been very minor things around the edges. If Friedman can’t applaud these things, then he is not for curbing the abuses of the free market.
One thing he said really blew my mind, and it caused me to start writing this. He seems to think there are only two options. The first is his: free market radicalism with some (apparently) minor government programs to stop people from starving to death. The second is what he claims is the option of anyone who would question him: shut the borders. So it’s either America or North Korea: which would you rather have? This is a ridiculous comparison, of course. Canada is as globalized as the United States, but things are better there. Sweden is as globalized as the United States, but things are better there. Things are even better in the United Kingdom!
But in claiming that his free market utopia is the only possible future, he claims that people don’t want to go back. People don’t want to give up their iPhones. Okay. People don’t want to give up the internet. What?! The internet?! The internet came out of a government program. The web came out of work by a bunch of socialist European physicists. The internet is not the result of globalization and unregulated markets.
In addition to the complete stupidity of his claim, I think it is telling of Friedman and those of his ilk. For most of the people I know, the internet is best summed up by Wikipedia and YouTube (but not the professional YouTube, just the junk that people put out). For Friedman, the internet is about commerce. Before Amazon and iTunes, Friedman didn’t care about the internet, if he had even heard of it. If you can’t buy or sell things, what is the point?
This can be taken further. Friedman’s whole approach to the world is consumerism. It is all about getting more iPods in more hands. He has no interest in the music that is played on those devices. And frankly, he has no interest in technological development. As Ha-Joon Chang has documented, it is very often the case that only by limiting competition can we build new, vital industries. The MP3 player was around long before Apple entered the market. And all Apple did was package the device well and make it much, much, much less free with their licencing system.
I used to be embarrassed when George W. Bush went abroad. But the truth is there is an endless supply of American idiots to embarrass our country. I’m glad that Bush has mostly disappeared. But I fear we will be cursed with Friedman to his dying breathe.
Has anyone ever choked on a mustache?