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?

No comments: