Thomas L. Friedman and Lady Dowd speak: Does Thomas L. Friedman still live on this planet? Some parts of his new column make sense. But he starts by quoting one of his favorite Singaporean savants:
FRIEDMAN (9/7/11): Meanwhile, in America, added Mahbubani, now the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, “No U.S. leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on a mythical assumption that ‘recovery’ is around the corner. Implicitly, they say this is a normal recession. But this is no normal recession. There will be no painless solution. ‘Sacrifice’ will be needed, and the American people know this. But no American politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told.”
No American politician dares utter the word “sacrifice?” As Thomas L. Friedman thundered ahead, he made it clear that he was affirming this fiery complaint. He asked a poignant question: “Can you remember the last time you felt a national leader looked us in the eye and told us there is no easy solution to our major problems…?”

Actually, national leaders say things like that all the freaking time! Even before his inaugural address, president-elect Obama was all about “shared sacrifice.” On January 10, 2009, George Stephanopoulos was limning it thusly:

“In my exclusive interview with Barack Obama airing tomorrow on This Week, the president-elect told me that fixing our economy over the long term will require sacrifice from every American and scaling back some of his campaign promises.”

Major pols constantly talk about sacrifice. The problem begins when they start discussing who will have to make these sacrifices. (As Friedman continued, he imagined a highly regressive sacrifice, a $1 per gallon gasoline tax, offset by nothing at all.) In our view, Friedman made a good suggestion when he said that national leaders should “look us in the eye” and tell us that “we need to spend the next five years rolling up our sleeves, possibly accepting a lower living standard.” But to our ear, the basic premise of this piece seemed to come straight from the far planet Zarkon.

Does Thomas L. Friedman still live on this planet? Increasingly, we wonder. Perhaps he has decamped to the orb where the high Lady Dowd dwells. This morning, the pampered lady devotes her column to the termination of “the venerable House page program.” Alas! “When the House comes back into session this week, there will be no teenagers in blue blazers running around and filling up lawmakers’ water glasses and fetching documents,” Dowd sadly tells the nation.

Another set of jobs lost!

Ladies like Dowd type such vapid pensees from the planet on which our press elites dwell. If shared sacrifice is required, could the Dowds and the Friedmans relinquish their homes on these distant spheres? Could they return to the humble planet on which all the rest of us dwell?


  1. I know you know this, but Thomas Friedman is married to a multimillionaire commercial real estate heiress. He often seems willing to drop into out of the way foreign places and chat with cabdrivers and such, but he doesn't seem to have a clue as to how 98% of Americans--that is, those of us not billionaires, millionaires, wealthy connected media types, or married to any of the preceding three--live. He has been greatly pushing for the "Grand Bargain." I just wish some enterprising pundit or journalist would pick destinations all around the country (including in non-elite DC, Maryland and Virginia) and just ask middle-class people, working-class people, the elderly, the disabled, people of all races and religions and sexual orientations, but especially focusing on those hit by the economic crisis, whether they would want 1) a return to the Clinton rates, with higher top marginal taxes and an more equitable capital gains rate, on the more fortunate, coupled with some modest budget cutting or 2) the current plans to gut what remains of the US's social safety net, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. Why don't journalists do this basic thing, and then ask perhaps ask people where their representatives stand? Would this require too much effort? Because it just might help enlighten the Tom Friedmans and Eric Cantors and Barack Obamas and Koch brothers and so on of what the vast majority of people in this country, including the oft-reviled "Tea Party" faction, really want. Slashing the safety net, regressive taxes and endless spending on the military and Wall Street at the expense of the majority of Americans, at least from every poll I've seen, ain't it!

  2. Bob Somerby:

    You write:

    "In our view, Friedman made a good suggestion when he said that national leaders should “look us in the eye” and tell us that “we need to spend the next five years rolling up our sleeves, possibly accepting a lower living standard.”"

    Why exactly is that a good suggestion, in your view?

    Should the leaders of nations such as, say, Germany, tell their citizens that their First World standards of living are inevitably on the way down?

    Should Franklin Delano Roosevelt have told the American people that depression was here to stay, and that the world had simply changed into a futuristic yo-yo in which wildly spasmodic business cycles could mean decades of mass misery, or that, at any given time, giant banks could lose everyone's money overnight?

    Or should our political leaders be the ones to be rolling up their sleeves, and getting on with the task of reducing our plutocratic interests' standards of living, perhaps just a tad downward from current, Caligula-like levels of opulence, thus severing their grasp on the levers of state power?

    Somehow I think that you probably believe the latter, and not the former, Bob Somerby, and yet you're somehow willing to give Friedman --the same Friedman who has been wrong about just about everything, who declared in 2005 that recently-impoverished Ireland was the model for the First World-- the benefit of the doubt on his pronouncements about the need to accept reductions in everyone else's standards of living?

    Why would that be, Bob Somerby? Why would that sort of thinking "sound right" to you?

    As it happens, Tom Friedman belongs to a little club of elite, Versailles-bound Democrats who fantasize lots of things that aren't and weren't ever true. This group has magnanimously labeled their no labels, post-ideological, post-partisan ideology the "Third Way," and have taken it upon themselves to interpret events for us little people, so that we may better conform to their "Flat World". Friedman, Zakaria, Klein (the elder) --these are Third Way ideologues, as dedicated in their premises and convictions as any Trostky-ite or Ayn Rand devotee. That they possess the effrontery to pass their largely worthless policy prescriptions and Power-Point slide show-understanding of economics off as "pragmatic" and "non-ideological" says as much about the fish bowl in which they swim as the fish, as I'm sure you would agree.

    To this sordid crew, the vision of an elected leader lecturing the people of this nation on what spoiled fools we are for expecting that our daily toil might lead to better lives for ourselves and our kids will always be intoxicating. These savants live for the the chance to proclaim that the New Deal is long-dead, and that the bridge to the 21st century will be built on little peoples' sacrifices. To these elite dreamers, the measure of a public figure's "honesty" will always be the degree to which the pol panders to their futuristic fantasies, and not to middle-class Americans' desires to get ahead in the world. The truth always means something like "And now, for your own good, we're going to f you, you unfortunately uninformed, ordinary folks." It seems inherently good to the members of this club to tell us privileged, middle-class dummies out here to expect less in the way of protection against powerful interests from our elected leaders. It's a symbol of sorts to these ideologues, the way that Reagan's "Evil Empire" was a symbol of sorts to movement conservatives.


  3. (continued)

    That isn't the truth, however.

    Here is an example of a political leader clearly speaking the truth to a desperate, confused electorate about their choices:

    ". . . For twelve years this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. The Nation looked to Government but the Government looked away. Nine mocking years with the golden calf and three long years of the scourge! Nine crazy years at the ticker and three long years in the breadlines! Nine mad years of mirage and three long years of despair! Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that that Government is best which is most indifferent.

    For nearly four years you have had an Administration which instead of twirling its thumbs has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.

    We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

    They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

    Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.

    Now, it should be clearly said that we FDR-style liberals who are not part of this elite club of Friedman's aren't expecting miracles from our politicians, nor expecting all the various people of the United States to magically and unanimously rally around expressions that, at this late date, given sad states of the press corps, establishment liberals and the Democratic Party, might seem to many ordinary folk to be strange and anachronistic, Bob Somerby.

    But, if we don't stand up and say what we know --that Friedman and his New Democrat ilk are, for some odd reason, paid princely sums to convince educated, Times-reading Americans that the New Deal is an anachronism-- we would be derelict in our duties as citizens, wouldn't we? Surely our fidelity must be to reality-based thinking, am I correct?

    And so I have to ask, Bob Somerby, do you mean that Friedman made a good suggestion when he advocated for leaders telling the truth, or that his favored, Third Way policy regime, which would, inevitably mean decline in Americans' living standards "sounds right" to you, in the way that the centrists' and rightists' "Social Security is going broke" trope "sounds right" to ordinary Americans after so much repetition from the late host of Meet The Press?

    Thanks so much for your patience in reading and considering this question, Bob Somerby, and I hope you do not take offense to my having spelled it out in this verbose manner.

  4. Stuart:

    I can't speak for Mr. Somerby, but I think this will give you a hint to his thinking:

    If shared sacrifice is required, could the Dowds and the Friedmans relinquish their homes on these distant spheres? Could they return to the humble planet on which all the rest of us dwell?

    It's not the people at the bottom who need to consider making sacrifices.

  5. Verbosity accepted:

    We are a very rich nation which borrows from China, a rather poor nation. In part, that's because of changes in life-style which have been driven by corporate-pimped consumptionism.

    The largest problem in our current mix is the massively larger concentration of income and wealth in the hands of the few. But I'm also interested in the ways we have, as a nation, become super-consumers as opposed to investors. I'd like to see the concentration of income and wealth addressed. Biut I'd also like to see the patterns of consumption discussed.

    We go out and buy the six(teen)th pair of Nikes because Michael Jordan says to...

  6. myiq2xu:

    Being a movement liberal, of course I agree with the statement

    "It's not the people at the bottom who need to consider making sacrifices."

    , but I sure as heck am well aware by now that Third Way Democrats like Tom Friedman and his coterie do not. Bubble-bound, ideological centrists like Friedman share the tendency with establishment, Bill Kristol-type conservatives to blame ordinary people for their troubles, instead of the gross, financial-meltdown-producing, wrong-country-invading errors of elites.

    That's why it seems important to me to understand where Bob Somerby is coming from with respect to this Third Way mumbo-jumbo about "reformed" entitlements, and falling wages, and lowered standards of living for the majority of Americans. If it were taken the wrong way, somebody might get the idea that the well-informed Bob Somerby actually believed in that Third Way, Panglossian claptrap about Chinese living standards rising at the expense of Americans in the short run (while, in the long run, everything will work out nicely, because some economists say we live in the best of all possible worlds).

    That's why I'm asking him to make his thoughts on the subject a little more clear.

    Thanks for reading through all of that, myiq2xu.

  7. Bob Somerby:

    Thanks so much for responding to commentary, it is greatly appreciated.

    I look forward to reading more from you on the subject of "corporate-pimped consumptionism," and how the institutions of both journalism and national government have let Americans down for decades by allowing public discourse to be hijacked by those in the ruthless business of creation of demand.

    Also, my genuine gratitude for taking the time to read through all of that.

  8. "[C]orporate-pimped consumptionism."
    A gently-chided commenter returns with a gracious thanks.
    Serious movie analysis.
    myiq2xu shows up from my blog-reading past.
    This comments board may bring out the best all-around.

  9. It's always been a pleasure to read Bob Somerby's writings because they have a passion and precision which really cuts through the crap.

    The comments are icing on the cake.

  10. The Two-Income Trap (2003)
    Elizabeth Warren, Amelia Warren Tyagi

    Chapter 2 The Over-Consumption Myth

    [p. 15] ...The Over-Consumption Myth rests on the premise that families spend their money on things they don't really need. Over-consumption is not about medical care or basic housing; it is, in the words of Juliet Schor, about "designer clothes, a microwave, restaurant meals, home and automobile air conditioning, and, of course, Michael Jordan's ubiquitous athletic shoes, about which children and adults both display near-obsession." And it isn't about buying a few goodies with extra income; it is about going deep into debt to finance consumer purchases that sensible people could do without.

    The beauty of the Over-Consumption Myth is that it squares neatly with our own intuitions. We see the malls packed with shoppers. We receive catalogs filled with outrageously expensive gadgets. We think of that overpriced summer dress that hangs in the back of the closet or those power tools gathering dust in the garage. The conclusion seems indisputable: The "urge to splurge" is driving folks into economic ruin.

    But is it true? Intuitions and anecdotes are no substitute for hard data, so we searched deep in the recesses of federal archives, where we found detailed information on Americans' spending patterns since the early 1970s, carefully sorted by spending categories and family size. If families really are blowing their paychecks on designer

    [p.16] clothes and restaurant meals, then the expenditure data should show that today's families are spending more on these frivolous items than ever before....

    Warren goes on to demonstrate that for the median income household spending did not go up on frivolous items, rather, even with a second earner in the work force, it has been; the cost of housing - in neighborhoods with good schools -, medical expenses, transportation --expenses what with the 2nd commuter --, taxes, child care, and the educational costs necessary, these days, to launch a grown child into the middle class which have claimed growing shares of household income. It is the pressure of these expenses which caused the soaring rates of bankruptcies -- well prior to the 2007 recession.

  11. The Conscience of a Liberal (2007, 2009)
    Paul Krugman

    Chapter 7 The Great Divergence

    [p. 278] fn. Dean Baker...estimates that "usable" productivity growth...was 47.9 percent between 1973 and 2006. However, non wage labor costs rose due to payroll taxes, rising health care costs, and other factors, so that the amount available for wages rose about 36 percent.

    [p. 140] What Piketty and Saez, Levy and Temin, and a growing number of other economists argue is that the contrast between GM then and Wal-Mart now is representative of what has happened in the economy at large -- that in the 1970s and after, the Treaty of Detroit was rescinded
    [i.e. the understanding that workers would share in productivity gains] the institutions and norms that had limited inequality after World War II went away, and inequality surged back to Gilded Age levels.

    [p. 128] ...[T]he upward redistribu-

    [p. 129] tion of income meant that the typical worker saw a far smaller gain. Indeed, everyone below roughly the 90th percentile of the wage distribution -- the bottom of the top 10 percent -- saw his or her income grow more slowly than average, while only those above the 90th percentile saw above average gains. So the limited gains of the typical American worker were the flip side of above-average gains for the top 10 percent.

    And the rally big gains went to the really, really rich....

    [p.136] For example, the median college-educated man has seen his real income rise only 17 percent since 1973....