Face to face: Thomas Friedman. Lessons from the US

Thomas L Friedman, American journalist, columnist and author, is contentious commentator. He is, like any opinionated personality, both loved and loathed at home and abroad.
He’s the author of bestselling books The Lexus and the Olive Tree; Hot, Flat and Crowded; The World is Flat and, most recently That Used to be Us, which he co-authored with his rather more academic friend and foreign policy analyst Michael Mandelbaum. Friedman is worth around US$25 million, according to Wikipedia. Not bad for wordsmith.
He came to New Zealand as the wrap guest speaker for Wellington’s Writers & Readers Week at the capital city’s International Arts Festival. As part of the package, he spent couple of weeks “thoroughly enjoying himself” travelling around the country. What he found “impressed” him. “If New Zealand were stock I’d buy it,” he said.
The title of That Used to be Us includes the sub phrase What went wrong with America and how it can come back. rash of introspective US literature, examining the nation’s recent stumbling economic, social and political performance, has hit the market lately. Friedman and Mandelbaum’s contribution will, in all probability, sell more than most despite some piercingly barbed and cogently argued media criticism.
So how serious are America’s problems? “They are so large they can only be addressed through collective action,” says Friedman. “They require the kind of collective action we exhibited in our best days – such as the years after the Second World War. We have lost the ability to do big, hard things together.”
He blames “a leadership deficit” for the lost focus. “We are short of leaders both ready and able to frame the issue and explain why it is so important,” he says. “Our leaders are unwilling or unable to convey the hard truths” which, if they did, would get people “up out of their chairs” and “declare willingness” to follow.
“We don’t have leadership in America right now. We have what former US comptroller general, Dave Walker, calls ‘laggardship’. That approach involves waiting to see which way the wind blows before trying to catch up with it.”

Friedman thinks Americans are “starved” for plan. The plan he advocates would comprise three components.
“First we need to address the problem, economic or whatever, and the true scale of that problem,” he says. “In the case of the economy, it requires 10-year plan to put our fiscal house in order.
“Second, the plan must be fair. It must be one in which the rich pay more but everyone would pay something. We are all in this together. People need to know that if they are going to feel the pain, so is everyone else. No one gets free pass.
“Finally, they want something that is aspirational. Everyone must be sold on the need to make our country great again and be proud to pass it on to our kids. Americans want plan for the future that is honest, fair and aspirational. The leadership required to rise to this challenge is missing,” he asserts.
If America’s political leadership has gone to the dogs, so too have the values of its baby boomers. “We have gone from our greatest generation – one that believed in saving and investing and in sustainable values, to generation of borrow and spend,” says Friedman.
He concedes baby boomers have done some impressive things but, sadly, their values are more situational. In other words, do whatever the situation allows. “If the situation allows you to take out million-dollar sub-prime mortgage on just $10,000 of income and United Airlines ID card, just do it because the situation allows it,” he offers. “Sustainable values would tell me I never should.”
Presumably, that same situational value set is responsible for executives and directors stripping billions of dollars in cash, bonuses and stock options out of their enterprises. The governance situation allowed it.
According to Friedman, the “generational shift” coincided with the end of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. “The Cold War was huge disciplining force for America. It made us serious. Can you even imagine Americans thinking about defaulting on their debt during the Cold War? It would be unthinkable. But we just did that. We almost defaulted on our debt,” he says incredulously.

The previous generation was serious because, he says, “they were born in the depression, steeled by World War Two and hardened by the Cold War. The baby boomer generation simply hasn’t had those forging experiences.”
He agrees that turning this state of affairs around won’t be easy. He suggests starting with leadership.
He thinks Americans need to see their political leaders taking some personal risks. “If individuals are going to take on pain, take on personal risk, they need leaders who show they are equally willing to share that risk.
“If [President] Barack Obama had come out after the financial failure and declared his willingness to cut spending – on medicaid, social security and the like – and simultaneously imposed tax hikes on higher incomes and by so doing show willingness to pay the political price for clear leadership, he would have stolen the [moral] high ground. But he didn’t do that,” he adds.
There are, he says, couple of disciplining forces still out there – the market and mother nature. “Unfortunately we are now taunting both of these. And we can only taunt these two realities for so long.”
Friedman believes that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the market will turn on its abusers, punishing them for their lack of economic discipline. When that happens, the market will presumably collapse. Similarly, nature will respond catastrophically to repeated environmental disrespect. “We are taunting and tempting both these forces to do their worst.”
So on what grounds are both he and Mandelbaum optimistic that the US can find its way back to greatness?
Again, it’s about leadership. “Strong leadership that must come from the centre,” he says. The centre will, he believes, declare that it is going to assert its interests over the special interests that currently hold sway in both the economy and society. “As I said before, the only way to solve our problem is collectively,” he says, returning to his theme. “We have to tell the oil lobby or the banking lobby or whatever, that their actions are not okay any more. That is difficult, if not impossible, to do without acting collectively.”

Head stands
Despite his personal and the book’s articulation and cataloguing of America’s problems, Friedman insists that Americans are still motivated to excel. “If you want to be an optimist in America, stand on your head. The country looks so much better from the bottom up than from the top down,” he says without hint of irony.
“If, as I do, you go around the country you will see innovation exploding everywhere. Washington DC is the outlier. And it is an outlier because of the unique way in which special interests, money and politics have collectively gummed up the works there. They aren’t able to do that in the rest of the country.”
America, he insists, is not in fact defined by its gaps. “The gaps are unquestionably there, but what has distinguished us historically was not dwelling on the gaps but rather on doing things about them. That is what I hunger for right now.”
He agrees the discipline of the Cold War has, to some extent, been replaced by the emergence of China as global foil. “What we also see in China is the sense of focus, discipline and ability to do big hard things together that used to be us. These are things we now miss in ourselves. China has become mirror for that.
“There are segments of the political spectrum that try to use China’s growing influence as disciplining argument, but not very effectively.”
Affluence has shaped the American c

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