Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Friedman Fallacy

Tom's latest dispatch — another one from the "America is so dumb, but if we make these buzzwords and cliches the centerpieces of our national agenda, we might just turn this thing around" category — features a prime example of what will henceforth be referred to as the Friedman Fallacy.

To be sure, Friedman is correct — places like Hong Kong, Beijing, Singapore and Tokyo generally put the U.S. to shame when it comes to public infrastructure. However, what the Friedman Fallacy refers to is the columnist's unfortunate tendency, when visiting foreign countries, to spend most, if not all, of his time in the most developed, cosmopolitan cities — and, within those cities, most likely spend most, if not all, of his time in cushy hotels and conference rooms, interacting with the best-educated, most cosmopolitan locals — and then generalize his impressions to the whole of said country. Witness how Friedman's trip to the Hong Kong airport at the beginning of the column later becomes "China may have great airports ..."

Friedman's reporting on China is especially noteworthy on this point, as it often adopts the tone of "China has arrived! They're dominating us! Our roads and airports and cities can't compete! Start teaching your kids Chinese!" that one tends to find in the writing of Western journalists who parachute into the country for week-long stints in showcase cities along the coast. Tom has spent plenty of time filing breathless reports from Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Guangzhou, but he might leave with a different impression of the country's airports if he flew into, say, Lanzhou, a city of 3.5 million people in western China where the airport consists of a single-building, low-lying former military installation more than an hour outside of town, and he might leave with a different perception of the country's roads if spent some time traveling around Qinghai Province, where villages of subsistence farmers living in mud and stone huts without indoor plumbing are connected to the outside world only by pockmarked unpaved roads.

Other things about China that Friedman rarely finds the space to mention include the fact that nobody, anywhere in the country, can drink the tap water, because it's far too polluted; the rampant corruption at all levels of government; the dire water shortage and desertification problem that threatens the livelihood of hundreds of millions of people in northern China; the tens of millions of migrant workers who live in tents next to construction sites in major coastal cities; the broken health care delivery system that makes America's look like Sweden's; the dramatically aging population that might put a brake on China's rapid economic growth; and the tens of thousands of "mass incidents" that occur every year in which rural inhabitants vent their anger against Communist Party corruption and land seizures by storming government offices and vandalizing public property — unrest that has lately begun to spread to manufacturing cities in the southeast, where China's implicit social contract of "We'll make you rich, you don't complain" appears to be fraying around the edges. Oh, and then there's the stuff like this, this and this.

But the man sure can turn a phrase, am I right?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Friedman Gets Pied

An early Christmas present for all you dear readers — footage of the mustachioed marvel being attacked by two cream pie-wielding environmentalists while giving a lecture at Brown University! The incident took place almost seven months ago, but no Friedman blog worth its salt would be complete without it:

Calling themselves the Greenwash Guerrillas, the perpetrators wanted to express their disapproval of Friedman's cheerleading on behalf of global capitalism, his repackaging of environmentalism as "a fake plastic consumer product for the privileged," his support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories and, more generally, "his pure arrogance."

As a Brown alum myself, I'd say that watching this video, I'm maybe like 90 percent ashamed of my alma mater, because it's a childish and disrespectful thing to do, but still maybe like 10 percent proud, because, well, that look on his face as he's walking back to the podium is absolutely priceless.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Analogies — betcha can't make just one!

Suppose you find yourself in the following situation. You're writing an article or giving a speech and have a point to make. The length of your article or speech is limited. You think that you might best be able to get your point across by using an analogy. However, after giving it some thought, you come up with not one, not two, not three, but four perfect analogies.

Do you:

A) include just the best one, in the interest of brevity?
B) include the best two, because repetition might help the point stick?
C) include the best three, on the theory that all good things come in threes?
D) include all four, because you're in love with the idea of yourself and overly enamored of your own analogy-making abilities?

See if you can guess how our beloved Mr. Friedman would answer that question, taking this section of his latest column as a hint:

"... our bailout of Detroit will be remembered as the equivalent of pouring billions of dollars of taxpayer money into the mail-order-catalogue business on the eve of the birth of eBay. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into the CD music business on the eve of the birth of the iPod and iTunes. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into a book-store chain on the eve of the birth of and the Kindle. It will be remembered as pouring billions of dollars into improving typewriters on the eve of the birth of the PC and the Internet."

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The human "gattling metaphor gun"

From an interview (really):
"And so I’ve kind of developed an answer that to me India and China are both two six-lane superhighways. And everyone’s going really fast.

Now China’s a six-lane superhighway — perfectly paved roads, perfect sidewalks, streetlamps on a lot of these highways. Just one problem. Off in the distance there’s a speed bump called political reform. And when 1.3 billion people going 80 miles an hour hit a speed bump, one of two things happens: your car jumps up in the air, slams down, everyone says, You O.K.? You O.K.? I’m O.K., drives on; the other thing that happens, car jumps up in the air, slams down and all the wheels fall off. And what will happen in China’s case? I have no idea. All I know is I’m rooting for the first scenario.

Now India’s also a six-lane superhighway — cracked cement, half the sidewalks aren’t finished and three-quarters of the streetlights don’t work. But off in the distance it looks like it smoothes out into a perfect six-lane superhighway. "

KOPPEL. Because?

FRIEDMAN. The question with India: Is that a mirage or is that the oasis? So those are the two big questions I have —

Particular gems in bold. The interview is also with Joe Stiglitz, whom Friedman (rightly) interrupts a number of times to deliver a flat smackdown. More to follow from this treasure trove of Friedmanisms.

Tom shrugged

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mix-up at the Times

In an uncharacteristic goof, the Web editors at the New York Times appear to have erroneously attributed a garden variety Friedman column about global flattening to fellow columnist Maureen Dowd. Either that, or Ms. Dowd is now donning a mustache of her own.

What's next — Friedman writing catty columns about the most superficial, personality-driven aspects of our political process, chock-full of demeaning nicknames and snark?

Gail Collins, Nicholas Kristof, Bill Herbert, Frank Rich and Paul Krugman — we urge you to stand strong and resist the temptation to replace your consistently excellent commentary on politics, economics and culture with formulaic columns about off-shoring and globalization. Meanwhile, David Brooks and Bill Kristol — you are free to do as you please, because, truth be told, we stopped reading you months ago.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Please, stop eating, please.

Tom does his bit:
So, I have a confession and a suggestion. The confession: I go into restaurants these days, look around at the tables often still crowded with young people, and I have this urge to go from table to table and say: “You don’t know me, but I have to tell you that you shouldn’t be here. You should be saving your money. You should be home eating tuna fish. This financial crisis is so far from over. We are just at the end of the beginning. Please, wrap up that steak in a doggy bag and go home.”
We would do well to follow his example. Not just in terms of interrupting other people's meals, though that would be a start, but in the earnestness with which we should try to save this interdependent and precariously balanced world. "Please". Imagine what his eyes looked like, the sadness. How poignant must his pleading have been. And note the modesty - how could anyone not be aware of The Mustache??

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Excellent news!

Yes, dear readers, it would appear that the mustachioed marvel has introduced a brand-new weapon to his analytical arsenal: massive hyperbole. Either that, or there's actually a chance that several of President-elect Obama's inaugural balls will be held in soup kitchens.

Also, Friedman uses the term "knuckle-dragging Neanderthals" to describe certain members of the House of Representatives. Which ones? He doesn't say, but presumably, they know who they are. Of course, this epithet bears striking resemblance to the "knuckle-head" favored by a certain blowhard talk-show host at Fox News. Is this a sign of the coming O'Reilly-fication of Friedman's column? We can only hope.

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: some preliminary comments

I feel the time has come to draw your attention to the latest offspring of Tom's ever-fertile imagination. The picture, you will note, is an obvious reference to Book IV of Paradise Lost, which is reflective of Tom's long-standing appreciation of Milton (he once wrote a treatise on outsourcing in Pushkin sonnets, but was unable to find a publisher bold enough to follow through) and the epic-theological leitmotif that runs through his work like a soaring tiger of insight. The sphere in the middle is representative of a bygone world, and the people on it (I think they're people) are the sorts of people who reject Tom's counter-intuitive yet deeply profound truths about the world 2.0 in which we habit so precariously on the edge of a green precipice with new horizons and interconnected bonds of informational speed and - sorry, carried away there.

As for the book:
In June 2004, I was visiting London with my daughter Orly, and one evening we went to see the play Billy Elliot at a theater near Victoria Station. During intermission, I was standing up, stretching my legs in the aisle next to my seat, when a stranger approached and asked me, "Are you Mr. Friedman?" When I nodded yes, he introduced himself: "My name is Emad Tinawi. I am a Syrian-American working for Booz Allen," the consulting firm. Tinawi said that while he disagreed with some of the columns I had written, particularly on the Middle East, there was one column he especially liked and still kept.
This is from the first page. Regular readers will note that this has many of the classic hallmarks of a Tom nugget of wisdom. The inclusion of seemingly irrelevant details, like the leg stretching in the plane (this is not, of course irrelevant: Tom;s adventures nearly always begin on aircraft, which is symbolic both of his prose and the image of Tom as a modern day Indiana Jones of political economy) and the name of the play. The properly high ratio of proper nouns to arguments. The fact that Tom's interlocutor specified the multinational for which he works, and the careful hyphenation of his ethnicity. The entire adventure, a delightful vignette of global intercultural dialogue, takes place in London; it is disappointing not to have a "metropolitan trio" in this story, of course - "Bethesda, Beijing, Bangok" or some such alliterative treat. But Tom cannot do everything at once. Please be reasonable. I must also add that there are no metaphors, mixed or otherwise, but I hasten to add that the book will not have a deficit of this trademark literary device. Most of all, though, the use of an anecdote to open the book is typical of Tom's incredible idiographic sensitivity to the particular, his grounding of the global in the local, and the way in which Tom - with such ease, such disdain - casts aside such minor hindrances as causal inference, falsifiable statements, deductive theories, or epistemological constraints like reasonableness; this is trule the audacity of flatness.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The mustache has spoken

From the oracle's latest polished gems of wisdom:
America is surely the only nation that could — in the same decade — go to war against a president named Hussein (Saddam of Iraq), threaten to use force against a country whose most revered religious martyr is named Hussein (Iran) and then elect its own president who’s middle-named Hussein.

Is this a great country or what?
Or nothing, the mustache has spoken: America is a great country indeed. And it is surely only the counterintuitive wisdom and apparent non sequiturs of the Friedmeister that demonstrate this to ordinary folks like us.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friedman, explained

Those interested in a penetrating analysis of the Friedman phenomenon might consider picking up a copy of this week's New Yorker, which features Ian Parker's 12-page profile of the man behind this blog's namesake mustache. Though the piece unfortunately contains only two, relatively brief references to the mustache itself, it is positively brimming with anecdotes and observations shedding light on the personal braggadocio and sheer intellectual vapidity of this self-styled arbiter of international opinion.

Highlights include:

- Friedman employing an analogy to describe his own predilection towards analogy: "There's a pinball game going on in my head. Balls bouncing around."

- A lunch conversation with his friends at the National Press Club conducted "almost entirely in metaphors."

- The revelation that Pottery Barn in fact has no policy bearing any resemblance to the famed "Pottery Barn rule" Friedman cited to describe America's responsibilities after the invasion of Iraq.

- His matter-of-fact statement, made without a hint of self-reflection, that "I write my books by writing my books ... I don't start with six months of research."

- The author learning that upon hearing Paul Krugman had been awarded the Nobel Prize in economics, the most common reaction at the Times was, "How's Tom going to take that?" The author earlier remarks upon Friedman's evident difficulty reconciling the conflict between "the desire to have achievement recognized and the knowledge that one shouldn't brag." He also describes a one-on-one conversation by noting that Friedman "was gracious, but spoke to me as if to a room full of people."

- A venture capitalist reporting that Friedman is "the most cited thinker in business conversations" — a statement sure to fill you with confidence about the country's economic future.

- The author's description of Friedman's career as one "of growing reach ... and of rising rhetorical chutzpah."

- The author reporting that Friedman, "who is known for staking a claim on an idea by giving it a nickname," often refers to his wife, Ann, as Anncarta, for the key role she plays in his writing process.

- Friedman recalling how he became "pregnant" with the idea for his latest book. No doubt, the image of a sweating, grunting Friedman giving birth to his newest conceptual offspring is one that most readers will be happy to have.

- His wife's recollection that the letters Friedman sent her during their period of courtship "were not romantic ... They were Middle East peace plans."

- Friedman making the blissfully confused statement, "I'm not out to conquer the world. It's much more an inward-looking patriotism. I want everyone to become an American."

- Nandan Nilekani — familiar to disciples of Friedman lore as the inspiration for the columnist's "The world is flat!" revelation — explaining Friedman's role as "an intellectual entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs succeed because they get a business idea and then they move faster than the rest, they bring the product to market. He does the same in an intellectual sense." Which is fine, provided that you think ideas should be produced by means of the same process that has brought us, say, Beanie Babies, the deep-fried Twinkie, or the endless aisles of cheaply made, useless crap you can find at your neighborhood Wal Mart.

Thank you, Mr. Parker — a finer portrait of our beloved oracle of flatness has never been painted.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Gerard Baker: finally, a British Tom Friedman?

From Crooked Timber:
"In the course of an article arguing that a large vote for Obama is not a vote for his policies (and, equally curiously, that the total and utter failure of conservative policies is not in and of itself a reason to try something else), Gerard Baker, who is to Thomas Friedman as Ricky Valance was to Richie Valens, says..." (emphasis mine).
Thomas Friedman is .. Richie Valens? Coincidentally, the publication of Tom's latest book is colloquially known as "The Day that Coherence Died", though these types of slurs on Tom's good name are repudiated by the fact of the mustache.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Testimonial to the Mustachioed maestro

I am always grateful to see that Tom's talent does not go unappreciated in this digital age of ours. I am also comforted to see that it is now widely recognized that Tom's mustache is the fount and wellspring of his counter-intuitive and earth-shattering visions of contemporary life in a connected age of roaring trade within the electronic jungle.
"Amazing. Tom Friedman is a God. No, not a God so much as a moustachioed force of nature, pumped up on the steroids of globalization, a canary in the coalmine of an interconnected era whose tentacles are spreading over the face of a New Economy savannah where old lions are left standing at their waterholes, unaware that the young Turks—and Indians—have both hands on the wheel of fortune favors the brave face the music to their ears to the, uh, ground."
Kieran Healey, Crooked Timber

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Friedman shows familiarity with Alasdair Macintyre

"The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels"

(Imbalances of Power, May 2008)

Questions for Friedmanites: is the shovel preferable to a (i) hatchet, and (ii) scalpel? And are the number of shovels a linear function of the number of holes one finds oneself in?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008