The eighteenth century gave us lots of things – like Mozart and the steam engine and the guillotine – but it also gave us modern democracies. Monarchies would no longer do. Thanks to Rousseau and others, there was new talk of the rights of man and the citizen – as opposed to the divine or hereditary or de facto rights of any king or queen. Citizens could run any country just as well, or better, than some loopy king – they had their own interests in mind and, in charge, would make decisions for the common good. The whim or greed of personal issues of one man would no longer determine day-to-day life for everyone else.
That’s how things should be, so the French beheaded their king and queen, and quite a few others, and over here, we also decided we could run this place ourselves – we needed no king at all. Eventually even the British worked out a system where their king or queen at any given moment didn’t matter much at all. Their monarchs, and all those subordinate peers of the realm, became revered and respected curiosities, like fine old furniture. The House of Lords retained some power for a time, but it eventually became no more than a collection of loveable eccentrics, if you like fox hunting. All the action was in the House of Commons, and the Prime Minister, chosen by the majority party in the House of Commons, administered the affairs of the nation, with the king or queen’s blessing, which was, eventually, no more than a formality. Other western nations worked out analogous arrangements and Western Democracy was born. Now and then a dictator would arise, assuming monarchial powers, but each of those came to a bad end – like Mussolini hung dead by his heels. Citizens there had had enough of him. Here, George Washington stepped down after two terms. He didn’t want the presidency to be anything other than a temporary position of trust, granted by the citizens. He knew the age of kings was over. The world had changed.
There was only one problem with this. It became everyone’s duty to become an informed citizen – that’s the only way a democracy works. Otherwise you’d have chaos – folks voting for nonsense because they really didn’t know a damned thing about the issues at hand. Yes, we don’t have a direct democracy, where we each vote on every little thing, but in our representative republic we do vote for those who we think will represent our own interests and the general interests of the nation. You have to know something about the issues, at least in a broad sense, to choose the man or woman to send to Washington to do the right thing. You also have to have a sense of what the right thing might be.
That’s hard to come by. That’s the reason the very first amendment to the Constitution establishes an almost absolute right of free speech, and assures a free press, and keeps religion off to the side, as not an official function of government. All issues can be aired openly – no one is told to shut up, unless they’re shouting fire in a crowded theater. The press can present all the relevant facts, or what they see as relevant facts, as long as they don’t lie or commit slander or libel. They can even publish government secrets in some cases, because some of what is secret is no more than what’s embarrassing and what everyone really needs to know. The case of the Pentagon Papers comes to mind – in the end, the press had a First Amendment right to publish information significant to all of us understanding our own government’s policies, even if they weren’t pretty – or maybe precisely because they weren’t pretty. As for those walking around muttering about what God really wants the government to do, because God told them so, such folks are a dime a dozen and seldom agree with each other, and God’s not exactly parting the clouds and verifying which of them got it right and which of them was having auditory hallucinations. Nothing can be verified. What such folks say is always interesting, but it’s never that useful. The original agreement was to put that God stuff off to the side. Absolutist talk about the will of God was what got us into trouble in the first place. Kings talked that way.
That leaves us all with a need to know something about the issues of the day, at least in a broad sense, so we can decide what the right thing to do might be – and then elect an appropriate mayor or governor or congressman or senator or president to do just that. It’s just that there are endless people telling you what the right thing to do is, and you have to listen to them, because no citizen has the time or energy or even the inclination to do the necessary research. There’s the job and the wife and kids and the bills to pay and all the rest, and no one’s a combination economist and political scientist and historian. Someone had to do the grunt work for us, and distill it all down into a form we can understand, rather quickly. The cable news folks purport to do that for us – some watch Fox News to get a sense of what’s up, and what might be the right thing to do about it. Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity and the rest will tell you that. Others turn to MSNBC for the same – Rachel Maddow or Ed Schultz might do that, even if Chris Matthews is useless. CNN won’t tell you anything except on Sunday morning, if then. Fareed Zakaria digs deep and explains things clearly. The nightly broadcast news is useless – a quick skim of what’s hot but little more.
There’s talk radio too, with Rush Limbaugh, and wherever Glenn Beck is hanging out these days. Those two are fiery but a bit absurd, or an acquired taste – but there are also the major columnists. The problem there is the issue of reliability. Paul Krugman is an actual economist, with a Nobel Prize and everything – he deals with actual data and verified statistical trends – but on the conservative side, Charles Krauthammer is a former psychiatrist of all things, and George Will is simply a sour and prissy conservative who stuck around for years. They bring little to the table, other than strong opinions based on… strong opinions. William Kristol is the most amusing – the editor of the Weekly Standard and the man who said the Iraq War would be a breeze, and that the whole idea that the Sunni and Shia wouldn’t get along sheer nonsense, and who was the man behind convincing John McCain that Sarah Palin was wonderful and would assure McCain’s election. Kristol is still taken seriously for some reason, at least at Fox News – but then they also trot out Karl Rove and just hired Herman Cain. Where citizens turn to find out what’s what is a minefield.
What citizens get is either polemic or very conventional wisdom, which is seldom wisdom at all. The master of that is Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, whose most popular book is The World Is Flat – several hundred pages of the obvious on globalization. He does know the Middle East, but even there tends to state the obvious, and then there’s the once-famous Friedman Unit – a term first coined by Duncan Black on May 21, 2006. You see, a Friedman is a unit of time equal to six months. It has to do with the Iraq War, and how things might turn out – “the next six months” was the period in which, according to Friedman, “we’re going to find out… whether a decent outcome is possible.” Friedman made these six-month predictions for two and a half years, actually at least fourteen different times. It became a running joke. Any time anyone said “the next six months will be critical,” or said “just wait six months,” everyone would smile and say, “Ah, a Friedman Unit, an FU, as it were.” On the other hand, the “the newspaper of record” paid him for such analysis.
You might also remember how he initially felt about that war as he explained to Charlie Rose on PBS:
I think it [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie. … We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big state right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it. … What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?” You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, that we’re just gonna to let it grow? Well Suck. On. This. Okay.
That was crude and brutal, and made no geopolitical sense, or moral sense, but that’s what everyone was feeling at the time. That’s what he offers. What he thinks everyone is thinking, because he thinks it, and it’s usually true – and the opposite of useful insight. He’s a mirror, not a searchlight. A few years later he said 9/11 Is Over and he was just wrong about America’s need to break down doors from Basra to Baghdad for widespread fellatio by force, because sexual violation and dominance via oral rape was America’s moral right and in our self-interest. He didn’t say he’d been wrong – just that time had passed and there were other things we could do now.
That might make Friedman seems like a moral monster, but he’s still chatting with Charlie Rose and writing columns for the New York Times. He also has changed his ways. His latest is How to Unparalyze Us – about political gridlock in Washington and the debt crisis and economics and entitlements – which is not his area of expertise at all. It doesn’t matter. He makes his arguments:
Apple is currently sitting on $137 billion of cash in the bank. There are many reasons Apple has not spent its cash hoard, but I’ll bet anything that one of them is the uncertain economic and tax environment in this country. Think about how much better we’d all be if Apple, and the many other companies sitting on cash, felt confident enough in the future to spend it. These are the most dynamic companies in the world. They don’t need any government help to innovate.
Does that seem right? Dean Baker at the Center for Economics and Policy Research calls this mass marketing of misinformation on economics:
Okay, Apple is so uncertain about the economic and tax environment in the U.S. that they don’t invest. (Funny how that works since they sell largely to a world market of which the U.S. is a substantial part, but not the majority.)
Friedman goes on to say this:
Message: There is no doubt our economy is primarily being held back by the deleveraging and drop in demand that resulted from the 2008 financial crisis. But they are being reinforced today by uncertainty and worry that we do not have our political house in order and, therefore, our tax, regulatory, pension and entitlement frameworks are all in play. So businesses, investors and consumers all hold back just enough for us not to be able to move the growth and employment meters with any robust momentum.
The whole idea is that the way to get the economy moving again is with a “grand bargain” that “slows the growth of both Social Security and Medicare entitlements” along with “reform” that cuts taxes for the rich and corporations. Friedman says that even a cab driver would know this, but Baker, the actual economist here, is having none of it:
Okay, let’s imagine that one of Friedman’s cab drivers had access to the Internet and could go to the National Income and Product Accounts that the Commerce Department posts. The cab driver would explain to Friedman that investment in equipment and software is actually pretty healthy. Measured as a share of GDP it is almost back to its pre-recession level. Furthermore, apart from the tech bubble days of the late 90s it has never been much higher than it is today. …
In short there is no reason to expect investment to be much higher than it is currently. It doesn’t appear that uncertainty is very important in this picture.
Friedman’s cab driver would then explain to him that he is also wrong about consumption. Consumers are actually spending at a high rate relative to their income, not the low rate he seems to believe. …
Baker has tables and graphs that document this, with details, but notes Friedman also offers this:
Our choice today is not “austerity” versus “no austerity” – that is a straw man argument offered by both extremes. It’s about whether we phase in – in the least painful way possible – a long-term plan that balances our need to protect the most vulnerable in this generation while funding the most opportunities for the next generation, and still creating growth. We can’t protect both generations in full anymore, but we must not sacrifice one for the other – favoring nursing homes over nursery schools – and that’s what we’re on track to do.
You have to love the line:
“We can’t protect both generations in full anymore.”
Somehow Friedman missed the fact that the problem we are facing is a lack of demand. We need people to spend more not less. How does austerity reduce unemployment and get the economy back to full employment? It hasn’t worked in Ireland, Greece, Spain, the United Kingdom or anywhere else that can be identified. How on earth does the fact that we now face a huge gap in demand mean that we are less well-situated to “protect both generations.” (Of course he doesn’t say anything about income distribution.)
Again, if Friedman could be taught some intro economics it would be hugely helpful here. Suppose Friedman gets his wish for a grand bargain and everyone working today knew that they would be seeing sharply lower Social Security and Medicare benefits in the future. All of those consumers who Friedman thinks are paralyzed by uncertainty will suddenly realize that they can be certain that they will need more money to support themselves in retirement because the Thomas Friedmans of the world have taken away their Social Security and Medicare.
Friedman is writing nonsense again, of the moral-monster sort actually, and Dave Johnson at Seeing the Forest adds this:
You see, the problem isn’t high unemployment leaving people out of the economy, resulting in businesses not having enough customers coming in the door. That is not the reason businesses don’t feel confident enough to expand and hire.
And the budget problem isn’t because Bush doubled the military budget after Reagan did the same, after cutting taxes on the rich… And never mind that the budget didn’t have a deficit before those things… And never mind that they said they were “cutting the government’s allowance” and “starving the beast” in order to manufacture a deficit crisis so they could scare people into cutting the things we do to make our lives better. Never mind that they said that was the plan…
The real problem with our economy is that regular working people have too much, and the wealthy and their corporate masks have too little.
And we need a “Grand Bargain” imposed on us from the top, instead of just going with the results of the election we just had or all of the polls in which people said they want JOBS, higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations, military spending decreased, and better retirement and health care packages for regular people…
Tom Friedman thinks the wealthy people at the top should be making the decisions, not the people. Surely anyone can see the wisdom in that, right?
Right, and don’t forget this:
Thomas L. Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize recipient for The New York Times. In 1978 he married an heiress to a fortune in shopping mall properties, and her $3-billion makes the Friedmans one of America’s wealthiest families.
One blogger put the whole thing this way – Another Billionaire Calls for Human Sacrifice – but that may be too harsh, or maybe not. Friedman and his fellow plutocrats argue that raising the minimum wage would hurt business, deepening the recession, but Paul Krugman, the economist, says that’s not so:
First of all, the current level of the minimum wage is very low by any reasonable standard. For about four decades, increases in the minimum wage have consistently fallen behind inflation, so that in real terms the minimum wage is substantially lower than it was in the 1960s. Meanwhile, worker productivity has doubled. Isn’t it time for a raise?
Now, you might argue that even if the current minimum wage seems low, raising it would cost jobs. But there’s evidence on that question – lots and lots of evidence, because the minimum wage is one of the most studied issues in all of economics. U.S. experience, it turns out, offers many “natural experiments” here, in which one state raises its minimum wage while others do not. And while there are dissenters, as there always are, the great preponderance of the evidence from these natural experiments points to little if any negative effect of minimum wage increases on employment.
Why is this true? That’s a subject of continuing research, but one theme in all the explanations is that workers aren’t bushels of wheat or even Manhattan apartments; they’re human beings, and the human relationships involved in hiring and firing are inevitably more complex than markets for mere commodities. And one byproduct of this human complexity seems to be that modest increases in wages for the least-paid don’t necessarily reduce the number of jobs.
What this means, in turn, is that the main effect of a rise in minimum wages is a rise in the incomes of hard-working but low-paid Americans – which is, of course, what we’re trying to accomplish.
And it should go without saying that thinking of workers as bushels of wheat or Manhattan apartments is moral monster territory. It’s just that this won’t happen:
So Mr. Obama’s wage proposal is good economics. It’s also good politics: a wage increase is supported by an overwhelming majority of voters, including a strong majority of self-identified Republican women (but not men). Yet GOP leaders in Congress are opposed to any rise. Why? They say that they’re concerned about the people who might lose their jobs, never mind the evidence that this won’t actually happen. But this isn’t credible.
For today’s Republican leaders clearly feel disdain for low-wage workers. Bear in mind that such workers, even if they work full time, by and large don’t pay income taxes (although they pay plenty in payroll and sales taxes), while they may receive benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. And you know what this makes them, in the eyes of the GOP – “takers,” members of the contemptible 47 percent who, as Mitt Romney said to nods of approval, won’t take responsibility for their own lives.
There you have it. This has nothing to do with the economics, or the particular issues at hand. It’s kind of abstract, in a moral way, or an immoral way. Yes, it is everyone’s duty to become an informed citizen – that’s the only way a democracy works. Otherwise you’d have chaos – folks voting for nonsense, or voting for those who will vote for nonsense, because they really didn’t know a damned thing about the issue at hand. And we have columnists, and the cable news folks, explaining things they don’t quite understand, so we understand those things just as badly as they do. No one expected this. We just wanted no more kings – but nothing is ever simple.