It has been a while since anyone mentioned Tom Friedman in any serious capacity. More likely than not, this has something to do with Tom Friedman never saying anything serious.
I went to check in on the NYT's chief blatherer, and was delighted to see that he was still stringing together meaningless metaphors about complicated subjects he doesn't really understand. In last week's column, Friedman attempted to boil down the turmoil in the Middle East by asking three completely random questions, seemingly pulled directly out of his ass.
Here was Friedman's most important question:
"Why are the three most important numbers to keep in mind when thinking about the Arab world today 1, 5,000 and 500,000?"
"When people in a country are ready to live together, you just need one Nelson Mandela — a unifying leader — to galvanize the political system to work productively. When people are not ready to live together but are ready to live apart — as in Bosnia or Lebanon after years of civil war — you just need 5,000 peacekeepers to police the de facto or de jure lines of partition. But when people are not ready to live together or apart — because of a lack of trust, lack of exhaustion or one or all parties still think they can have it all — then you probably need 500,000 peacekeepers to come in, remove the dictator, eliminate the most extreme elements on all sides, and protect the center for a long time while it forges a new citizenship and party system able to share power"
I've been thinking about how to explain the crisis of democracy in America, and thankfully Tom Friedman has provided me with the template.
"Why are the three most important numbers to keep in mind when thinking about American democracy today 7, 6,246 and 820,030?"
"You need 7 (or less) multi billionaires to agree to buy a Presidential candidate, 6,246 (or more) politicians to sell out, and 820,030 (or less) regular citizens not to vote in Florida to cause a crisis in confidence in the state government that potentially creates a nationwide crisis"
Voila! Article done!
Not only did Friedman manage to reduce the crisis in the Middle East to a question about numbers, he summed it up with the following shockingly brilliant insight:
In short, what ails the Arab world is something we alone can’t fix: an inability to manage pluralism in a democratic way. We can stop the worst of it as long as we are there (see: Iraq). But only they can make the best of it — and make it self-sustaining.
Amazing! As per my own article, how about the following?:
"In short, democracy in America is something Arabs/Greeks/Lithuanians can't fix alone. Only America can make the best of it, and make it self-sustaining"
How easy was that?
Anyway, having waded through a few of Friedman's pieces (all equally banal and meaningless), I decided to compare what I'd read to the hilarious 'Tom Friedman Op/Ed Generator' website, a creation of developer Brian Mayer that allows readers to randomly create Friedman columns with the click of a button. Here's what came up:
One for the Country
An interesting thought occurred to me today—what if small business owners sat down with ordinary people like you and me and ironed out some real solutions to our higher education crisis?
With the election season over, maybe you’ve forgotten about higher education, but I certainly haven’t. It would be easy to forget that the problem even exists, when our headlines are constantly splashed with the violence in South Korea, the authoritarian crackdown in Uruguay and the still-unstable democratic transition in Swaziland. But the higher education problem is growing, and politicians are more divided than ever. Republicans seem to think that higher education can just be ignored. Democratic politicians like Harry Reid, on the other hand, seem to think that unscientific rhetoric will substitute for a argument.
But the Democratic party of Harry Reid is not the Democratic party of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR wouldn’t stare down the opposition, he'd reach across the aisle because he'd understand that the fate of the country, and his own political career, depended on a lasting solution to the problem of higher education.
The first rule of holes is that when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels. If I had fifteen minutes to pitch my idea to politicians, I'd tell them two things about higher education. First, there's no way around the issue unless we're prepared to spend more: and not just spend more, but spend smarter by investing in the kind of human capital that makes countries succeed. That's going to require some tax increases as well, but as they say, "them's the breaks."
Second, I'd tell them to look at Iceland, which all but solved its higher education crisis over the past decade. When I visited Iceland in 2004, Mbantu, the cabbie who drove me from the airport, couldn't stop telling me about how he had to take a second job because of the high cost of higher education. I caught up with Mbantu in Reykjavik last year. Thanks to Iceland's reformed approach toward higher education, Mbantu has enough money in his pocket to finally be able to afford tennis shoes for his kids.
That's all it takes. Don't expect to see any solutions as long as politicians insist on playing a high-stakes game of chess with one another. America has to rise above it all.
How scary is that?