Friday, April 06, 2007

Is Thomas Friedman a Flathead?

Since the publication of his mega-bestseller The World is Flat in 2005, Tom Friedman has become the darling of the neoliberal intellectual world. Like many intellectuals who have achieved prominence, Friedman has seized the imprimatur to offer weighty pronouncements on all manner of public issues ranging from environmentalism to tax policy to war strategy. The public response has been nearly uniform appreciation for a guy who seems to know his stuff.

So who is Thomas Friedman, and why are so many people listening to him? His bona fides are impressive. Friedman received a BA in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University and an MA in Middle Eastern studies from Oxford. He was a war correspondent in Lebanon and Palestine and a political reporter during the George H. W. Bush and Clinton years. Currently he is the international affairs columnist for The New York Times, a famous author and a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Thomas Friedman is a passionate missionary for the neoliberal world view (shared with Alan Greenspan and the late Milton Friedman) that sees the free market as the fountainhead of human freedom. He believes that globalization—the ongoing process of worldwide industrialization— is only compatible with capitalism and that this economic system enables humanity to leave war, tyranny, and poverty behind. As such Friedman is a classical utopian intellectual. Replace capitalism with socialism and his views are consistent with the positions expressed by Karl Marx in the The Communist Manifesto.

Unfortunately, Tom Friedman shares Marx's blind spots. “For Marxists and neoliberals alike, it is technological advance that fuels economic development, and economic forces that shape society. Politics and culture are secondary phenomena.” (John Gray, “The World is Round,” International Journal on World Peace) In Friedman’s own words, “I am a technological determinist! Guilty as charged.”

While embracing the weakest features of Marx's thought—its consistent underestimation of nationalist and religious movements— Friedman failed to absorb Marx's insights into the self-destructive qualities of capitalism. Marx viewed the free market as a revolutionary force, and understood that its expansion throughout the world was bound to be disruptive and violent. Just look at Russia today to see an example of Friedman’s myopia.

Globalization clearly makes the world smaller. It may also make it richer. It does not necessarily make it more peaceful or more liberal. Adam Smith, the 18th century moral philosopher and pioneering political economist, was much closer to the truth when he wrote “Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” Note that it’s not all about economics; peace and justice are required as well for prosperity to reign.

Taken together, Friedman’s two part paean to neoliberal socio-economic theory [The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999) and The World Is Flat (2005)] tells a compelling story of globalization fueled by advances in communications technology and the Internet. But they naively suppose that globalization leads ineluctably to capitalism and capitalism to harmony, and fail utterly to comprehend the primacy of nationalistic and religious forces. But, what the heck, prominent intellectuals can be as narrow-minded as Joe 6-pack.

That does not deter intellectuals from venturing well outside their areas of expertise. Consider Friedman’s television documentary “Addicted to Oil” shown on the Discovery Channel. He warned that “This is not your parents’ energy crisis” and presented three good reasons: America is engaged in a war on terror with an enemy that it is funding through its reliance on oil; with the rise of India, China, Brazil and Russia there are three billion new global consumers; and as the price of oil goes up, the pace of freedom in oil-rich authoritarian countries slows down.

Then he adds the neoliberal carrot: green technology may as a result become the largest growth industry of the new century. “Being green is going to be a source of so much industry in the 21st century, whether it’s green appliances, green design, green manufacturing, and green consulting.” And China is going to have to go green, because they can’t breathe.

This is intellectual utopianism run amok. Never mind the Chinese construction of a new coal fired power plant every week for the next ten years in the current phase of building. Never mind that energy use in the developing countries is going to triple by 2050. Pay no attention to the fact that the energy used is going to be the cheapest available, i.e. coal and oil. Friedman has faith: China will “leap ahead and provide the breakthrough for really cheap solar power.” Sure it will.

Tom shares the primary characteristic of the public intellectual, the belief that social engineering through government intervention will lead to utopia. Thus he is happy to support European-level taxes on gasoline to drive down consumption and Hillary Clinton-style confiscatory takings (“I want to take those profits.”) of oil company profits to fund government development of alternative fuels. Milton Friedman would be appalled.

Since both of these actions would harm the economy, and poor people preferentially, they will not happen. They are empty sound bites (or bytes for Tom) signifying nothing. The fact is that an increase in bio-fuel usage might have a beneficial effect. The “Saudis might increase production enough to drive down oil prices, in order to make investments -- investors beware -- in alternative fuels even more uneconomic than they already are.” (George Will, “Let's get real about soaring gasoline prices”)

Even more effective would be to greatly expand US oil production. We currently have a proven reserve of 30 billion barrels (BB) plus 15 BB in the new field 175 miles off the Louisiana coast, plus 10 BB in the Artic National Wildlife Preserve. Yet the US produces only one quarter of the 7.5 BB that we use yearly. If we produced more the world price would drop and the Muslim despots would profit less.

And if you are worrying about running out of oil, don’t. Here is the record. In 1971 the worldwide proven reserves of oil were 612 BB. By 2002 the world had used 767 BB – and the proven reserves were 1,028 BB. The more we look, the more we find.

Netting out Tom Friedman: a classical utopian intellectual, a technological determinist, an ordained expert in fields he knows just enough about to be dangerous, yet a naïve believer in the efficacy of government intervention in financial markets when it suits his agenda -- i.e., a hypocrite, or not as smart as he would have us believe.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill — If I were defining him anatomically, I would aim a couple of feet lower and to the rear.


11:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think your essay is on the money. Your evaluation of Friedman is an intellectual critique of a series of T.F's theses, flawed by inconsistencies you point out and his over-reliance on unjustified faith in the ultimate determinant influence of certain social and economic factors without regard for how other forces may have played (or will in the future play) key roles in determining an outcome.

Such critiques of intellectuals or their stated ideas, are not anti-intellectual - they are the enlightening residue of intellectuals validating the power of intellectualism to find and identify or correct the mistakes of its practitioners. You are effectively intellectually engaging in peer review with your piece.


11:47 AM  
Blogger fetching jen said...

yes, right on.

9:04 PM  
Blogger Free Agency Rules said...

I also agree that you are right on with your review.


11:14 AM  
Blogger haroldx said...

Since no decision has been made to develope the Jack-2 discovery in the Lower Tertiary of the Gulf of Mexico I believe your suggestion that 15 BB of oil has been added to the US inventory is a little premature.
It is my understanding that only one test well has been drilled in ANWAR and since the information from that well is secret I have to suggest, again, that adding 10 BB from ANWAR is premature.

11:06 AM  

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