Thomas Friedman: Top-Down Thinker


I haven’t been able to take anything Thomas Friedman writes seriously since reading Matt Taibbi devastating takedown of his 2005 book, The World is Flat. As Taibbi puts it, “Friedman is such a genius of literary incompetence that even his most innocent passages invite feature-length essays.” But if Friedman’s columns are rarely enlightening or persuasive, they at least have a lot of potential for humor. His latest does not disappoint:

Watching both the health care and climate/energy debates in Congress, it is hard not to draw the following conclusion: There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy, and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages. That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward in the 21st century. It is not an accident that China is committed to overtaking us in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power. China’s leaders understand that in a world of exploding populations and rising emerging-market middle classes, demand for clean power and energy efficiency is going to soar. Beijing wants to make sure that it owns that industry and is ordering the policies to do that, including boosting gasoline prices, from the top down.

It’s true that China’s current leaders aren’t as criminally incompetent as, say, Mao Zedong, but I think “reasonably enlightened” is a stretch. Mostly that’s because I think human rights are important, but it’s also because I’m less optimistic than Friedman about any government’s capacity to “order” technological innovation “from the top down.” Certainly, our government’s own efforts to promote alternative forms of energy don’t inspire confidence.

Anyway, the gratuitous compliment to Chinese autocracy is just a warm-up for the following remarkable analysis of the American political dynamic:

The fact is, on both the energy/climate legislation and health care legislation, only the Democrats are really playing. With a few notable exceptions, the Republican Party is standing, arms folded and saying “no.” Many of them just want President Obama to fail. Such a waste. Mr. Obama is not a socialist; he’s a centrist. But if he’s forced to depend entirely on his own party to pass legislation, he will be whipsawed by its different factions.

Will makes fun of this more effectively than I could:

Only the Democrats are really playing! You might think that would mean they can do whatever they darn well please. But no! The Democrats can’t do anything! Because the other party’s opposition is so effective! So it’s exactly as if there’s just one party: nothing gets done!

My hunch is that the Times’ editors see Friedman aiming the gun at his foot, but watching a man stupid enough to actually pull the trigger is so fun they hate to intervene. That or they’re trying to explode the myth of American meritocracy.

So where were we? Oh, yes: one-party democracy is aggravating because sometimes one party can’t do what it wants because the other party gets in the way. Sooo frustrating!!! Why have democracy at all when all you end up with is a single party stymied by the other one!

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