23 September 2007

Thomas Friedman Is an Idiot

So far nothing in this post is that controversial and I plan to keep it that way. Friedman's writing often begs the question: is it better for people to remain ignorant about the world than to be misinformed about it? His latest NY Times op-ed is a stellar example of the puff-pieces that he churns out on a regular basis (and which he has on more than one occasion turned into books).

Exhibit A:

[C]an China really undertake the energy/environmental revolution it needs without the empowerment of its people to a whole new degree — à la the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004?
Mr. Friedman, I know that your article hinges on a pretty cheesy play on colors, but did it occur to you that orange is not really the universal color of democratic revolution? (Did anybody ever hear of orange velvet?) Do you have any real parallels to draw between Ukraine and China?

Exhibit B:
For China, going from communism to its state-directed capitalism, while by no means easy, involved loosening the lid on a people who were naturally entrepreneurial, risk-taking capitalists. It was tantamount to letting a geyser erupt, and the results of all that unleashed energy are apparent everywhere.
Sorry did I just read an appeal to national character? The Chinese are naturally entrepreneurial, risk-taking capitalists? Take note, social scientists: economic man is not only real but he is Chinese. Nobody profit-maximizes like an Oriental, eh Tom?

Exhibit C:
Going from dirty capitalism to clean capitalism is much harder. Because it involves restraining that geyser — and to do that effectively requires a system with some judicial independence, so that courts can discipline government-owned factories and power plants. It requires a freer press that can report on polluters without restraint, even if they are government-owned businesses. It requires transparent laws and regulations, so citizen-activists know their rights and can feel free to confront polluters, no matter how powerful. For all those reasons, it seems to me that it will be very hard to make China greener without making it more orange.
I get it. China's not a clean, green place. Did Mr. Friedman do some digging into the historical record of industrial revolution in other (say, democratic) countries? Was the road to wealth lined with clean-air bills and emissions standards? Is reining in environmental degradation a unique problem for authoritarian regimes, or does liberal-democratic corporatism also present a formidable barrier to regulation? (The answers: No. No. No, yes.)

It's simply a shame that Mr. Friedman's work appears prominently in a widely-read, highly respected publication and is collected into inexplicably popular books, so that impressionable young American students might more easily run afoul of it. For more on Friedman's tomfoolery, Dan Nexon wrote something a while back; his last paragraph says it more eloquently than I have.

And for the record: I try to restrict the ad hominem to responses to anti-rational appeals (to national character, for example).


Luke said...

Supporting your point that both authoritarian and liberal democratic governments share a difficulty in restraining their citizens is a point Friedman makes about the thermostats in Chinese government buildings, and the disinclination of bureaucrats to turn them down.

Having lived through a summer in the Ontario bureaucracy during which Premier Dalton promised that civil servants would similarly swelter in 26C heat - some sort of cosmic signifier perhaps? - I can assure HG readers that Ontarians are as stubborn about their AC as their Chinese counterparts. It was never 26 degrees inside. Never.

But, Aldous, I do take issue with your accusation that Friedman applies a "national character" analysis to your countrymen. Surely Friedman would argue that "a people" refers to humanity in general? I hope he would - otherwise, it would be interesting to see which people he'd pigeonhole as not being entrepreneurial, risk-taking capitalists.

Aldous said...

I'm not sure, but the way I read his article he was certainly implying that the capitalist spirit courses strongly in Chinese veins in particular. And I agree, it would be interesting to know who he believes does not possess that spirit.

Luke said...

Probably Teamsters. Or people who like Shelley Duvall.