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