Sometimes Tom Friedman says something that sounds like the start of a good column. Well, almost the start — there were a couple of paragraphs of crappy writing to skim through before we get to it, but it’s the cabby stenographer, that’s expected. Anyway, here is the germ of an idea:
Our slow decline is a product of two inter-related problems. First, we’ve let our five basic pillars of growth erode since the end of the cold war — education, infrastructure, immigration of high-I.Q. innovators and entrepreneurs, rules to incentivize risk-taking and start-ups, and government-funded research to spur science and technology.
Not bad, Tom, not bad. We have heard you beat this drum before, but it’s a beat we can all dance to. From here you should elaborate on steps we should take to remedy these areas of neglect, argue why they are important, and suggest even a specific policy or two. It’s a lot for a single column, so maybe a series of columns on this topic. It’s huge, Tom. I hope you did your research.
What follows instead is bloviating on squandered opportunities following the end of the Cold War, and much hand-wringing over the public debt, with requisite wordy quotations from a Harvard economics prof Tom talked to. To be fair, it’s not all poppycock: “Until we find ways to restructure and forgive some of these debts from consumers, firms, banks and governments, spending to drive growth is not going to come back at the scale we need,” Tom concludes. This begs a lot of questions, the biggie being, Who will do the debt forgiveness? Almost a third of U.S. debt is owned by China, Japan, the U.K., and Brazil (thanks, Wikipedia!), and I doubt any of them are in a forgiving mood while our government keeps playing chicken with the global economy.
Yet what’s really strange is just as he pooh-poohs spending, Friedman throws together a few repetitive paragraphs collecting his vague policy prescriptions, among them being “to invest in the pillars of our growth, with special emphasis on infrastructure, research and incentives for risk-taking and start-ups.” Er, that requires spending, Tom. I’m glad you’re on board with the raising of revenues, it shows you’re not insane; the money we spend has to come from somewhere. But not all the growth is going to come overnight; it’s going to require contributions from more than just the high-IQ crowd; and the consumers caught in their own liquidity trap require the very social services and job programs and education programs that are on the chopping block of deficit hawks whose rhetorical traffic you play in.
Meanwhile, Tom completely fails to mention the enormous costs of our two failed wars — three, if Libya counts as a war that we are failing — and the bloated Department of
War Defense budget. He doesn’t have to flog himself for supporting those ventures in the past, it’s just that we can’t have a coherent discussion of our fiscal problems without acknowledging thirty years of military spending at hundreds of billions annually or the trillions spent on wars that are still ongoing. Sadly, in this Tom is not alone. He’s got company in the White House.