Last Friday, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman gave a talk at the Naval Postgraduate School, where I teach, and I had a front-row seat. Here are some impressions and responses to his talk.
First, I arrived with a bias against him. I hated his "Suck on this" line and all the stuff that went before it in his interview with Charlie Rose. He was justifying an invasion of Iraq in 2003 based on terrorist attacks on the United States. Yet Saddam Hussein had virtually nothing to do with those attacks.
Second, he's one of the best speakers I've ever seen. I recorded his talk on my iPhone and downloaded it to my iTunes. When I'm driving on my own up in Canada next week, I'll listen to it for pointers. Putting aside whether he is right or wrong, his speech was an exquisite combination of facts (or, at least, factual claims), stories, name-dropping (just the right amount--didn't come off as full of himself, more as "Gee, look at the tall cotton I get to walk in"), slight analysis, and well-timed humor. I aspire to speak like that and I'm way closer than I was, say, 20 years ago.
Well, I don't quite aspire. The one problem is that I am an economist and he's a popular columnist and author. So for me it's important, in a way that it isn't for him, to lay out the reasoning behind a claim, and sometimes that reasoning is complex. Still, I could go further in his direction without compromising my standards.
Now to content, and I won't be comprehensive here. I'll hit highlights, good and bad, that I made notes on, seriatim.
The title of his new book: Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide for Thriving in the Age of Acceleration.
Interesting story about his interaction with a parking attendant where he leaves his car to get on the D.C. Metro. "Oh my God, the parking attendant is now my competitor." Referred to a 6-page memo he wrote the guy on how to write a column. I would love to see that memo.
Talks about 3 great forces: (1) the market, mother nature (he expressed his belief in the climate hockey stick and seemed to have no awareness of the controversy), and (3) Moore's Law.
Laid out an amazing number of things that happened in 2007: Twitter and many others. The rate of progress increased in 2007 (like many people nowadays, he referred to it mistakenly as an inflection point) but was completely disguised by the financial crisis of 2008.
Population of Niger: It is now 17 million (I checked and it's more like 18.5 million) and in 2050 will be 72 million. I'm virtually positive that he's wrong, but there's no point in betting: I probably won't be around and the probability that both he and I will be around is, I'm sure, under 0.2. His prediction implies an annual population growth rate of 4.078 percent.
Tax and Spending Policy: He wants: single-payer health care (although he didn't specify whether he wants Canadian style where people are forbidden in many cases from spending their own money on health care or British style, where people are allowed to spend their own money); mandated family leave; end the corporate income tax; reduce the payroll tax; have a high tax on carbon, bullets, sugar, and stock transactions (Tobin tax, although he didn't use that term.)
"Is God in cyberspace?" asked a young man in Portland. Friedman then pointed to all the yuck in cyberspace that seems to argue against God's presence: porn, people trying to rip you off, etc. I was surprised because with his somewhat optimistic view, I thought he would point to much of the good stuff: Airbnb, eBay, etc., with the incentive to establish reputation. I'm not an expert on God, but didn't people believe there was a God in the universe when porn, cheating, etc. existed well before cyberspace?
Naive foreign policy: "Drones and walls where necessary; chicken coops and gardens where possible." But where are the drones and walls necessary? He said Obama's policy is "If you see bad guys, then kill them," and that's Friedman's belief too. Really? Any unintended consequences there, Tom? How did it work out after Qaddafi was killed?
On the chicken coops, he told a story of Bill Gates laying out how if you started with 3 hens and didn't eat their eggs, you, in the third world, could, after one year, raise your income from $2 a day to $4 a day. That's great. It really is. But he suggested that would cause way fewer people to want to immigrate from Africa to richer countries. He stated: "If we don't find a way to anchor these people, they're going to keep coming." But, according to his own earlier exposition, they see the richer world on their cell phones and they want it. If they can immigrate and make $30 a day, I would bet that over 80% of the people who wanted to leave a place where they earned $2 a day would want to leave that same place if they were leaving an income of $4 a day. Maybe he had in mind that if you hold off another year from eating the eggs, you make $8 a day. I'm not sure.
"We need the mother of all Marshall Plans." Hmmm. One of Tyler Cowen's best articles ever laid out the truth about the Marshall Plan. See my reference in "German Economic Miracle," The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. It would be much more effective to increase the immigration quota by 200 percent.
Great line: "If you break it, you own it. Colin Powell got that line from me."
"Which is the one Arab Spring country that managed to succeed? Tunisia. Which is the one Arab Spring country that we [U.S. government] had nothing to do with? Tunisia."
Are you listening to yourself, Tom Friedman?