Perdido 03

Perdido 03

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Tom Friedman - The Imperial Messenger


How does a journalist with a track record of bad predictions and a penchant for superficial analysis - a person paid to reflect about the world yet who seems to lack the capacity for critical self-reflection - end up being treated as an oracle?

The answer is simple: Friedman tells the privileged, and those who aspire to privilege, what they want to hear in a way that makes them feel smart; his trumpeting of US affluence and power are sprinkled with pithy-though-empty anecdotes, padded with glib turns of phrases. He's the perfect oracle for a management-focused, advertising-saturated, dumbed-down, imperial culture that doesn't want to come to terms with the systemic and structural reasons for its decline. In Friedman's world, we're always one clich├ęd big idea away from the grand plan that will allow us to continue to pretend to be the shining city upon the hill that we have always imagined we were/are/will be again.

As a reporter, columnist, author or speaker, Friedman's secret to success is in avoiding the journalistic ideals of "speaking truth to power" or "afflicting the comfortable." Those ideals are too rarely met in mainstream journalism, but Friedman never goes very far beyond parroting the powerful and comforting the comfortable. Friedman sees the world from the point of view of the privileged, adopting in his own words the view of "a tourist with an attitude" when reporting on the rest of the world.

Actually comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted seems to be the defining characteristic of most American journalists.

Friedman just does it the best.

UPDATE: Here's how wrong Friedman was on the Celtic Tiger:

Writing in the New York Times on 1 July 2005, Tom Friedman argued that the rest of the world should "Follow the Leapin' Leprechaun." He argued one of the best things Ireland had done was to "make it easier to fire people, without having to pay years of severance. Sounds brutal, I know. But the easier it is to fire people, the more willing companies are to hire people." In a wildly inaccurate statement, he wrote that: "And by the way, because of all the tax revenue and employment the global companies are generating in Ireland, Dublin has been able to increase spending on health care, schools and infrastructure." In reality, the government at the time was not only not generating revenue, its investment in education was declining and it was beginning to accumulate massive debt. Today, Ireland's deficit is at 32% of GDP -- the highest in the Eurozone.

Of course, Ireland has not only a deficit crisis, but now a massive banking crisis which was the result of a skewing of the Irish economy in 2001 towards construction and mortgage lending facilitated by large international banking exposure, well underway when Friedman made his assessment. In 2005, Friedman argued that the Irish path was far superior to that of Germany, which was holding onto jobs and major industrial production. Meanwhile, a central assertion of Friedman was that Ireland had gotten its governance right. The then prime minister, Bertie Ahern boasted to Friedman in 2005 of having "met the premier of China five times in the last two years." Jump forward five years, and Bertie Ahern was run out of government in disgrace and the new party that led the polls heading towards a new election for 2011 was, for the first time in history, Labour. In March 2010, Eamon Gilmore, the head of Labour, called out the new leader of the government, Brian Cowen, for having committed "economic treason."

Now, Irish banks are to be bailed out by the EU and the IMF to the tune of 85 billion euro at a 5.83 percent interest rate that the country simply cannot afford to pay back. The government will reap enormous pain on its own population in deep budget cuts that are likely to hinder economic growth for years to come. Ireland is a nation lying in economic catastrophe and about to get much worse.

The legacy of Friedman's failed analysis is regrettably, important still today. Ireland, under strong pressure from the American Chamber of Commerce, is holding onto its low corporate tax rate of 12.5 percent hoping to keep the international businesses there. While Ireland gains from this, the impact of foreign companies is not going to solve the country's problems. In fact, Ireland could raise its corporate rate substantially and still be among the lowest in the European Union. The political calculation is, in effect, should Ireland tax international businesses? Or should it cut health benefits for seniors, punish the poor, and stand by while a new generation of talent emigrates?

Friedman loves to talk about giving companies the freedom to fire people.

Any writer as wrong as he has been on a host of issues - from the Iraq war to the Celtic Tiger - ought to be fired himself.

But that won't happen in these last days of the Roman Empire.

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