January 19, 2011

Just read this book and nobody gets hurt

Thomas L. Friedman is on book leave.

These are among the most frightening words in the English language. They are posted now on the Op-Ed page of the New York Times. These words, really six words and an initial, portend another disaster for American society, for they mean that Thomas L. Friedman is going to publish another book. There is probably no way to stop him. I am personally a supporter of First Amendment rights, I do not believe in prior restraint, and I don't suppose there's a way to characterize a Friedman book as yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Although it's a close call.

It could be argued, and I suppose I'm arguing it now, that Thomas L. Friedman has been perhaps the single-most deleterious force in American society over the last 15 years or so. Certainly from the time he began cheerleading for the Iraq War in 2002, but his destructiveness cannot be confined to his insane insistence that after 9/11 the important thing was to attack an Arab country, virtually any Arab country, as he told Charlie Rose in that infamous interview. No, all of that, even his hypnotically boring insistence that the Iraq war could produce a "decent outcome" if we would all just give it another Friedman Unit (6 months) - all of this was very bad for the country, indeed, but it was not fatal.

No, what was fatal was Tom's pimping for globalization. In a series of books with the clunkiest, most infelicitous titles in the history of American letters, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, The World is Flat, Hot Flat & Crowded, (it's painful just to look at them), Tom laid out his case for the unalloyed blessings of the "plug&play world," of integrated world markets, of offshoring of American manufacturing jobs so these "old economy" careers could be replaced with higher-tech jobs worthy of our educated, dynamic work force, and so that peasants in China and India and Malaysia could be lifted up out of poverty to become insatiable consumers of all that wonderful stuff America was going to be making in its New Economy.

It didn't really turn out that way. Instead, we went to Hell in a handbasket, replacing those solid middle class jobs with Wal-Mart greeters hired out of the probation department of the local medium security prison. Still, Tom had a lot of fun making up names for all the technological razzle-dazzle that made globalization such a cool thing: in-sourcing, for example. Throwing all those hip techie terms around like "fiber optics" and "work flow software." I had the sense, when I tried to read parts of one or two of the books, that Tom's real grasp of the underlying technical detail was nonexistent, that just using the names was as deep as it went. Still, here's the important point: the one certain way to make money from globalization, aside from being a multinational exploiter of the lax labor and environmental laws of the Third World while dumping all of your overpaid American factory workers who had the audacity to demand a living wage - is to write books about it. True, they're terrible books. The writing is awful, the metaphors don't work, his neologisms make you cringe. But how do we measure the success of a book in America? I guess by its presence on...the New York Times Bestseller List! Here it must be admitted that Friedman has something of a built-in advantage.

I think we're beginning to see the end of globalization now. It depends so much on the availability of cheap and abundant fossil fuels to move all that stuff around (including oil itself), and even though Tom is a big advocate of "geo-green" technology (writing about it in the den of his 12,000 square foot house in Bethesda, Maryland, affluence made possible in part, aside from all the awful books, by his marriage into one of the largest shopping mall fortunes on the face of this Flat World of ours), we're probably not going to be able to "scale" such technology (one of Tom's favorite "verbs") in time to avoid a major disruption. Thus, along with surging food prices now leading to social unrest and revolution in Third World countries, secondary to the massive inflation caused by all the fiat money printing in the developed world, the table has been set for the general collapse of all this misguided global integration.

Like the guy at the Pond said, simplicity really is best. Organization on a "scale" that humans can actually understand and exercise some control over. The way it used to be before guys like Friedman came along with their grandiose, half-understood nonsense. Of which there appears to be more in the pipeline.

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