Tom Friedman, New York Times columnist and master of the completely incomprehensible metaphor is sad. Very sad. On his travels around the world, Friedman gets to see America from other people's perspective, and he doesn't like what he is hearing.
In his latest piece for the Times titled "Calling America: Hello? Hello? Hello? Hello?", Friedman writes:
HAVING lived and worked abroad for many years, I’m sensitive to the changing ways that foreigners look at America. Over the years, I’ve seen an America that was respected, hated, feared and loved. But traveling around China and Singapore last week, I was confronted repeatedly with an attitude toward America that I’ve never heard before: “What’s up with you guys?”
Friedman then goes on to relay the depressing comments his list of important foreign friends made about America's inability to make important economic decisions or manage itself. America is no longer regarded as the “beacon on the hill”, worries Friedman, but rather “the cleanest dirty shirt.”
He writes, "Singapore is not a full-fledged democracy. What it does have is a government that wakes up each day asking: What world are we living in and how do we best use the resources we have to enable more of our citizens to thrive in this world?"
"Little things here catch my eye," he goes on. "Like the E.R.P.: the electronic road pricing system that greets you when you drive into the center city and tells you every minute, via an electronic billboard, how much it will automatically charge you when you drive into the downtown. It constantly adjusts the price based on the number of cars that can comfortably fit the roads."
(Remember, in Friedman's version of a perfect world, if you can't do everything via your smartphone, you may as well be in North Korea).
"The Bush team tried to fund a similar system to reduce congestion and pollution for Manhattan," he goes on, "but it was killed by other boroughs and lawmakers in Albany. And that is what bothers me most today. It’s not just that we can no longer pull together to put a man on the moon. It’s that we can’t even implement proven common-sense solutions that others have long mastered — some form of national health care, gun control, road pricing, a gasoline tax to escape our budget and carbon bind."
Friedman makes a good point - the US really is in a terrible state and its government a virtually worthless institution that can barely pass a budget let alone tackle issues like chronic child poverty, rampant financial malfeasance, and almost weekly gun massacres.
The problem is, this is the America (and world) Tom Friedman spend most of the late 90's and early 2000's arguing for. Friedman made a career cheer leading deregulation and the expansion of markets, writing several books extolling the virtues of globalization and American style capitalism. Why can't America pay for all the things Friedman wants? Because it went broke after the free market went bust and the bills for the wars Friedman argued for came in. Why is the government unable to pass anything? Because the oligarchs who gamed the system Friedman loves have made sure the government does nothing that would harm their interests, like creating a national health care system or passing a gasoline tax.
Friedman loves to make connections between things. In a column he wrote last year, he wondered out loud whether there was "a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter."
If Friedman can see a relationship between the amount of teenage girls signing up to facebook and the eroding capabilities of the global political class, surely he can see the connection between widening economic inequality, the epic hole in the economy Wall St left, and the immensely popular books he has published about the wonders of the digital free market and the marketization of every aspect of human life?
But as Friedman once famously stated on Meet the Press, "I was speaking out in Minnesota — my hometown, in fact — and a guy stood up in the audience, said, "Mr. Friedman, is there any free trade agreement you’d oppose?" I said, "No, absolutely not." I said, "You know what, sir? I wrote a column supporting the CAFTA, the Caribbean Free Trade initiative. I didn’t even know what was in it. I just knew two words: free trade."
So probably not.