Just Saying We’re Great Doesn’t Make It So

By James Kwak

David Brooks has competition for the title of most inane New York Times columnist. I generally never read anything by Thomas Friedman—I gave up less than one hundred pages of The World Is Flat because of his blissfully uninformed discussion of workflow software—but I made an exception today because of this brilliant tweet by Benjamin Kunkel:

I mean, I co-founded a company, and it’s not as if we had a secret laboratory churning out clones to work for us. One reason we founded the company when we did—2001, after the collapse of the technology bubble—was that we knew there were many talented people out there looking for a satisfying and challenging place to work. (One of the things I’m most proud of is that that, fourteen years later, my old company is still one of the best places to work in the economy.) In other words, skilled and motivated people (most of whom already have jobs) are a precondition for entrepreneurialism.

I assume Friedman’s point is that to have new jobs, you have to have people willing to take risks and start businesses. Of course, this isn’t completely accurate, since big companies often keep getting bigger and hiring new people. But I agree with the general point that entrepreneurial activity is a good thing. However, Friedman presents as undisputed fact this quotation from a report:

With enough hard work anyone can use entrepreneurship to pave their own way to prosperity and strengthen their communities by creating jobs and growing their local economy.

Does Thomas Friedman really think that literally anyone can become rich just by working hard and “using entrepreneurship”? Anyone?

Friedman’s column only compounds the vapidity in other ways. He criticizes Bernie Sanders for “bleating about breaking up the big banks.” Here is Friedman’s basis for his position:

Wall Street excesses helped tank the economy in 2008. But thanks to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, that can’t easily happen again.

Huh? We passed Dodd-Frank, and now everything is solved?

Friedman blames both parties for tolerating illegal immigration, or at least that’s the only way I can interpret this sentence:

It’s an outrage that we can’t control our border, but both parties have been complicit — Democrats because they saw new voters coming across and Republicans because they saw cheap labor coming across.

He thinks that Democrats welcome illegal immigrants because we want their votes? (If he’s talking about waiting for the “anchor babies” to grow up and vote, that’s more foresight than I give any party credit for.)

But the most baffling thing is Friedman’s unthinking faith in the “quality of our governing institutions.” He particularly has it in for Ted Cruz and his “trashing of Washington, D.C.,” but Sanders and Trump also make a big deal about how the political system is broken. The idea that we have the best political institutions in the world is a touching example of that curious American belief that, because we’re America, we must have the best of everything that matters.

Friedman contrasts federal government agencies with those in Russia and China. Well, OK. But what about Western Europe, Scandinavia, Australia, and Japan, among others? There are plenty of countries with democratic institutions, high standards of living, and relatively satisfied citizens. Some of them could even be characterized as social-democratic, like Denmark, #3 in the World Bank’s rankings for ease of doing business.

Looking at Washington today (or Lansing, Michigan), is it really clear that our institutions are really even average among prosperous countries? On the input side, think about the influence of money in politics; the domination of state politics by, in some cases, a single person; or, to take one example, the fact that we are actually having a fight about whether a sitting president can nominate someone to an empty Supreme Court seat. On the output side, think about the facts that we started a major war on the basis of a mountain of lies, we have the highest incarceration rates in the developed world, and we are singularly unable to do anything about climate change (even by comparison with Western Europe, which isn’t doing much).

In the long run of history, we probably have had pretty good political institutions, and that probably was a major reason for our tremendous growth in material prosperity through the nineteenth century and most of the twentieth century. But over the past forty years we have seen rising inequality, stagnant wages for the middle class, the emergence of the political superdonor, and the increasing separation of politicians’ priorities from the concerns of ordinary people (see Gilens and Page 2014). These are not trends to be proud of. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have described, the monopolization of political power by a narrow elite can lead to economic stagnation.

Instead of blindly asserting that our governing institutions are the best because I Am America (And So Can You!), we need to recognize that something really is broken. Ted Cruz and I may disagree on how to fix it—I’m with Larry Lessig—but the first step in solving anything is realizing that you have a problem. Thomas Friedman doesn’t. Most Americans seem to think we do.

15 thoughts on “Just Saying We’re Great Doesn’t Make It So

  1. I would give up on this life time, and wait for the next one, if I could. One where a gold std could keep satan in check, taxes would be evenly spread at the register, and the middle class, through education, could afford a more healthy life style through lower prices.
    Today’s world sucks, tomorrows is gentile, more forgiving, more understanding, more worth living, at least for me. Having to live in two worlds at the same time can get confusing, and expensive not to say the least. A toast too tomorrows world, for this one is toasted, burnt, the crossroad between hopeless and useless, soon to be over and done with. And the sooner the better as far as i’m concerned.

  2. It may be hard to believe or for people to understand that i’ve been the only one right about so many things over so long a period of time, they simple won’t believe it, and that’s okay with me if, they are all dead wrong, they are all dead wrong. Now I can afford my wife to be to dead wrong, and I can afford my cousins to be dead wrong, I can afford my parents to be dead wrong, I can afford my friends parents to be dead wrong, I can afford you all to be dead wrong, all except one, my jeans won’t allow it, I can’t afford it physically, or mentally, or any other way. I can afford my jeans to be wrong, wrong about a lot of things, just not dead wrong, I simply can’t afford that.
    So if you think you are right about something, the probable odds are that you are not, you are more likely to be dead wrong, than right about just about anything, and that’s OKAY with me, consequence are to be paid at the end, not in the beginning, or the middle or anywhere in between, but in the end, there are consequences to be paid, trust me on that.

  3. With respect to Friedman’s “where do jobs come from?” formulation, most employers also don’t hire workers as a matter of charity. They don’t keep workers on the job for a long time at a loss. The employees have to generate income in excess of whatever they cost the business, or they don’t remain employees. The businesses don’t continue to exist without customers. Even at the kind of jobs where people are treated like disposable parts, the function that they perform doesn’t exist out of charity, and if the businesses fail to meet the demands of customers, they risk ceding market share to competitors. Most jobs continue to exist because there is a market for whatever product or service the company is providing. Employees are also consumers of goods and services, so in a round about way they play a role in their own employment.

    Friedman’s columns would probably have greater depth, insight and relevance if he took a two year sabbatical and worked as an entry level service sector employee, did it without relying on any accumulated wealth, and tried to survive on the service sector wage and benefits.

  4. SALON

    WEDNESDAY, FEB 17, 2016 10:16 AM PST
    Thomas Friedman’s America: The New York Times columnist is puzzled by populist anger
    Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz don’t mesh with Thomas Friedman’s obviously correct vision of America

    “Thomas Friedman is terribly perplexed. The New York Times columnist asks “Who Are We?” this morning, a question prompted by his chilling realization that some of this year’s presidential candidates are doing quite well despite not believing in the same things as Thomas Friedman. This disturbing rebuke of Friedmanism has left the man unnerved and unsure, grasping for any sort of anchor as the world he observes from inside taxi cabs and airports stops making sense.”

    “That leads Friedman to his big conclusion: they are all wrong, and I am right:”

    “It’s the pundit’s fallacy in action: Tom Friedman believes it, therefore it must be true.”


    “Being a pundit means that you have a preternatural ability to speak for “America.” The magic of punditry, the stuff that makes cable news hum, is the ability of the pundit to divine through telepathy or clairvoyance or good old fashioned gut feelings what “America” is thinking about any given issue at any given moment. Once the divination is complete, the pundit goes on television or writes a newspaper column and informs America of how they feel.”

    Wednesday, Oct 8, 2014 12:40 PM EDT
    Peggy Noonan channels America: If she (or Joe Scarborough) believes it, so must the nation
    What happens when your Hot Take has no evidence to back it up? Just say it’s what “Americans” believe
    Simon Maloy

  5. What about monopolization (and Mergers & Acquisitions)? Capital also has a way of destroying jobs when it over-consolidates due to a lack of regulation.

  6. Profiteering Tom is the problem and people are still stupid or greedy enough to hear in out.

  7. If only I could recall who said on the radio the other day that America is just one big pothole. .I know a lot who would agree…….now let’s hope Friedman falls into it and learns about the real–as opposed to his imagined–America.

  8. You know, today’s gvt is like a parent who goes out of their way to increase the cost of an off springs living, and then wants to hold them accountable financially. It’s absurd. Today’s gvt wants to put their citizens on a path of suicide and then make it illegal for them to kill themselves, it’s been proved over and over again, and, it’s absurd. So why should’nt we want to hold our parents or gvt morally accountable for such misdeeds? We should indeed, but how is the question, there are so many of them in denial one really doesn’t know where to start. Yelling is of no use, you will be called “out of control” and in need to see Dr. denial himself, which has no use or ends to a means. No, today’s society is doomed, failure, baked into the cake of hypocritical denial. It’s no wonder people arn’t mowed down standing in line at the voting booth for contributing to this disaster of nation. I keep suggesting it cycle after cycle, but never had one taker, go figure.

  9. Why the gvt would gamble with it’s citizens lives is beyond me, perhaps they feel they have no steaks involved, or perhaps they are so desperate they feel they have no other choices involved. Either way it’s foolish, and irresponsible to do such things. Time has a way with catching up to irresponsibility with sudden and fatalistic results for those who promote such behavior. Like an over wound jack in the box or a hungry bear needing food, something breaks or is sacrificed as a result from irresponsibilities, these are known facts.
    So don’t clown around w/ citizens lives for the day of reckoning is close at hand Mr gvt. The most corrupt gvt in the history of the planet can not be sustained, especially when it is serving blind injustice as it’s main course. You have been, once again, WARNED!

  10. Lets examine some reasons a Trump presidency will not be a great one for this country.

    1) He can’t shrink the military or the military budget, 1/2 of 911 was our fault just for letting the “terrorist” in the cock pit, another percentage belongs to lack of vetting during the training of the pilots. To blame the terrorist 100% and then act on the false premise is simply ignorant, financially and from moral sense perspective, period.

    2) He won’t control the oligarch’s (rich people who want to control YOU politically), they are at the heart of numerous poor political decisions, too many to list actually.

    3) He can’t and won’t address the failed war on drugs, he and his people are not smart enough or patient enough to resolve this issue. With decriminalization and education, you could place the responsibility more toward the citizens and less on the gvt shoulder, let the people decide themselves which avenue they need to take and for how long giving them a reasonable option and the education to know right from wrong, the laws of nature dictate this as plain as the nose on your face, politicans are not smart enough to do so and their approach is the unreasonable, animalistic, force it down your throat method. This has already been proved many times over.

    4) He won’t drug test politicians or the judigical branch, who needs politicians who are beholden to their drug dealer?

    5) He can’t or won’t have politicians do their own taxes, who needs a politician who can’t do his own taxes? Not me. Another beholden issue.

    6) He wants to build an expensive wall separating mexico so Mexicans can dig a tunnel back to United States while not addressing the Mexican gvts concern of all the weapons entering Mexico from the U.S.. Mexicans are not bright enough to make their own weapons, and using the someone else will make them for the Mexicans does not hold water, it idiotic. Others make weapons because the U.S. makes weapons.

    7) He (and his people) can not address the energy issue facing this country, cold fusion was sent away illegally because of the patent control situation (or the lack of our ability to control it) it had great potential. The wind is a terrific supplier of energy, (reduced from a big business stand point). Creating electricity from laser heating diamonds has “great” potential, again a big business subsidy issue. He has no answer for the spent nuclear rods building up across the country, or the defectively designed nuclear power plants and back up generators across this nation, this was proved in Japan w/ general electric/ Westinghouse designed plants which failed miserably and did not have too.

    8) He can’t address the transportation issue, gas mileage is a moot issue when we have the technology to keep automobiles and trucks on the road indefinetly, with little maintenance. It takes the energy of 4000 gal of gasoline to make the average automobile, that goes a long way especially during times of high energy costs.

    9) He can’t address the hunger and health issues this country faces, by requiring a years supply of feed for the animals in storage you eliminate the inflated food costs during times of shortages, and the health issues of food bring down health care costs dramatically. Sugar was not meant for human consumption, it was meant to make gasoline, period. he is not that smart in this arena.

    10) He wants to bomb terrorists in foreign country’s when what is really called for should be getting out of those country’s so they can resolve their own problems, we could help diplomatically, but once again we are not that good diplomatically, so the war option is the end of all means used today, and yesterday.

    11) He and his people can not educate this country properly, this has been proved.

    12) He is incapable of knowing when the constitution is being violated, putting your citizens on the path of suicide is not a prudent path to follow, which is where they are today, this much has been proved.

    13) He made his money off the back of the middle class, rather than making less money so competition for his services and goods would bring prices down rather than a competition for higher prices which is what we have today, he is not that “great” in this respect.

    finally, we are not having to take our lumps these days for what we are not about to do in the future, we are taking them because of what we did not do as a country yesterday. And this is all could drum up in a half an hour, imagine if I slept on it.

    In conclusion, there are still rather strange laws on the books which continue to be instituted, one are the Jay laws of the late 1700’s which state that in order to prove a law is defective, one must first break it. There are very few people today who have the talent to succeed in this manner, hence the phrase a lawyer who represents himself, has a fool for a client. But as an administrative law judge, I have these talents, just not the desire to waste my time on such foolishness. My motto is if there is law that needs to be changed, and you can not change it, you must break it. Possible risk for many, just not me, I would defend me and mine to the death of the law, knowing the law can not win, if only the law would step over the line, which they won’t. So I take my charges to the street where they enter the court in the after life as confusion and hate, it’s a mutual hatred without an end, until an end arrives in the form of a God which the law does not believe in, then I win my case in court and start the process all over again, fun, no, rewarding yes.

  11. It’s an important for day me, meaningful, significant, worthy of praise, because it wasn’t just 4 to 6 years ago when my wife, (we were happliy separated, then) came to me, begged me, to resolve a problem she had aquired, not for her, she could not be helped by this point, for women in general, she had something inside her, bugging her terribly, she had
    reached the end with her patience and suicide was her last option, the insanity of the world had grown so large she didn’t care so much about dying, but the problem needed addressing for the betterment of humanity, for women specifically.

    I told her I was conscious of her situation, had resolved the difficult issue, was sorry i couldn’t help her at this juncture, I explained to her we had no money or even worse, their was no cooperation or understanding anywhere to be found, it seemed, it was, hopeless. It perturbed me so that this was the case, but once people are admittedly on their way out of this world, they don’t care much for or about many things. I had plenty of experience with that already, and so reluctantly trudged on to do what ever it was I could do for the future of humanity. She ended up burning in a house fire she deliberately set knowing some of her others would blindly follow her path to nowhere, she must not have cared anymore.

    And they sure enough did, now I don’t mind change, especially her, she is beautiful beyond belief, at first sight, and even after first sight, I about did back flips after the

    first night sleeping with her. I awoke the next day and knew there was a big problem, real big I tell you, she had all the bells and whistles, the wavy hair, the full eyebrows, super cute face, permanently tanned body, perfect lips, teeth, slender body, back then she still had her outrageous eye lashes too, I mean it was over the top undeniable beauty to every degree. Now the problem was that after waking the next morning, she looked exactly like she did the night before, stunning indeed, now I had seen a lot of things up to that point in my life, but this was not to believed, I was already floored in love with this creature, and now this, wo. We got married 3 days later. Now like I said, I don’t mind change for the most part, the memory thing, yes, that bugs me, but I forgave that long ago with her.

    Recently though, she has aquired a different problem, one that does bother me too know end, she has been changing her mind, doing things the exact opposite of what she begged me just a few short years ago to find an answer for, why? Well I know, and wish she would know more of her own insides, her own body, but she doesn’t, and she won’t, she can’t right now.

    Now my problem is the commitment I made to her earlier in the decade, one which now she doesn’t recall or understand for some reason, all I get is the same as it ever was guillotine solution which never arrives because the world has gotten even more insane since she set that house fire at the farm, much more insane, I won’t do the suicide thing, don’t have the balls for that but she has left me no option but to stray and study the original problem further, so fewer mistakes are made in the future. Doing it for the kids won’t work, she wants things which have never been done in the history of the universe to occur before she will grant permission for me to stray. And I can’t abide by that, I made a commitment to her and G D it, i’m going to keep it. Come hell or high water I shall, even if lives have to be sacrificed, many lives, I don’t care anymore, almost like someone on their way out, it’s for the betterment of society and women in general, I wish she could understand, but she won’t, and so I leave it at that, so now we’re not so happily separated, I can’t HELP it, there is nothing more I can do for her at this point, it’s over now.

    Sincerely wife, Love always, SKUNK.

  12. I agree sloth, the bush tax cuts should have ended too, a whole bunch of BAD legislation was passed on the back of these taxes balancing the bad legislation. Bills which would never have seen the light of day are now compounded with the extension of the bush tax cuts, all compliments of the Fed, and a few congress critters.
    Our problem after ending the Fed is that the congress is no better suited to manage the citizens money now than was the Fed, no, a fair tax at the register,default of the gvt, and gold std are the only answers left to save the citizens, and that won’t happen in this life time, i’m not saying it won’t happen, just not in this life time.

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