Wishful Thinking from Tom Friedman?

Thomas Friedman calls for nation-building right here in the United States:

Let’s just hope our lean years will only number seven. That will depend a lot on us and whether we rise to the economic challenges of this moment. Our parents truly were the Greatest Generation. We, alas, in too many ways, have been what the writer Kurt Andersen called “The Grasshopper Generation,” eating through the prosperity that was bequeathed us like hungry locusts. Now we and our kids together need to be “The Regeneration” — the generation that renews, refreshes, re-energizes and rebuilds America for the 21st century.

and thinks that President Obama is just the guy to lead the charge:

President Obama’s bad luck was that he showed up just as we moved from the fat years to the lean years. His calling is to lead The Regeneration. He clearly understands that in his head, but he has yet to give full voice to it. Actually, the thing that most baffles me about Mr. Obama is how a politician who speaks so well, and is trying to do so many worthy things, can’t come up with a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics — when it is so obvious.

I’m afraid I don’t see it. Rather than catalog the accomplishments of the Obama Administration to date and try to fit them into Tom Friedman’s narrative of nation-building at home, I’ll leave it to you. I think the record is more one of appealing to core constituencies than it is of nation-building.

Mr. Friedman seems to see this as a connecting thread in the Administration’s actions:

Alas, though, instead of making nation-building in America his overarching narrative and then fitting health care, energy, educational reform, infrastructure, competitiveness and deficit reduction under that rubric, the president has pursued each separately. This made each initiative appear to be just some stand-alone liberal obsession to pay off a Democratic constituency — not an essential ingredient of a nation-building strategy — and, therefore, they have proved to be easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and appearances aren’t deceiving.

I also think that Mr. Friedman waxes a little too poetic on the virtues of the “Greatest Generation”. I loved my parents, too, but for the first twenty years of my working life working 80 or more hour weeks was a commonplace and I’ve lived pretty frugally. I didn’t vote for the enormous expansion of entitlements over the last forty years or the tremendous expansion of America’s overseas military commitments. That didn’t happen under my watch; it happened under theirs.

Each generation has its own challenges to face. We continue to have ours, the generation that follows us has its own and I don’t envy them one bit. However, I can’t say that I see any great popular upsurge of support along the lines that Mr. Friedman suggests:

Indeed, to lead now is to trim, to fire or to downsize services, programs or personnel. We’ve gone from the age of government handouts to the age of citizen givebacks, from the age of companions fly free to the age of paying for each bag.

Do you?

Our system doesn’t cultivate leaders of that sort. Particularly in recent years our leaders have been more the “find out which way the parade is going and get in front of it” sort. The banner I’m seeing these days is captioned “Free Beer!” rather than “Simplify!”. Mr. Friedman may be imagining a different parade.

I’m not entirely without hope. I don’t think that America’s great gift is the ability to shoulder any hardship and bear up under privation. Those are the gifts of our European cousins, not ours. Contrariwise, I see our great gifts as two.

The first is our capacity even relish for self-criticism. It is something you won’t find in Europeans, the Chinese, or the Japanese. We are brutal, honest, and never ceasing in our willingness to criticize ourselves and I think that is likely to continue to serve us in good stead in the years to come. Both our friends and our enemies see it as a weakness but it is our greatest strength.

The second is a total unwillingness to shoulder the hardships and bear up under privations. We strive to triumph over them rather than endure them. We want to create plenty rather than manage scarcity and we’ve been darned good at it so far. Although I don’t have any clear vision of how it will transpire, I do believe it will.

There’s one thing I hope we remember: the lion will always take the lion’s share. For me the moral of that story is put not your trust in lions.

7 comments… add one
  • Andy

    Good post Dave. The problem, as is usually the case, is Congress. A President with the best intentions is still sitting in an office with limited powers. A lot of Americans, including Friedman, it seems, have this notion of the President as a kind of king with the power to solve the country’s problems. Friedman should be addressing Congress and not the President, but we both no how futile that would be.

  • steve

    I would disagree with the part about criticism. We have lost the ability to criticize ourselves, while retaining the ability to criticize others. Look at how our politics works. How often do you have political discussions nowadays with people who disagree with you? How well does it go? Maybe it is different where you live, but where I live, in the part of Pennsylvania between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it is a one sided hostile conversation a good deal of the time.

    Steve

  • Steve, have you ever lived in any country other than the U. S.? That’s not a snarky question but a straightforward one. I have lived and worked in Germany. Maybe it’s different here in Chicago but on any given day on any given street corner I hear more self-criticism than I did the entire time I was in Germany.

  • steve

    Not really, other than the year I spent in Saudi deployed. I do not dispute your contention that we are better at it than other countries, merely that it is a trait that we are losing. Look at what happens when a Republican criticizes a Republican. James, whom I respect, regularly takes heat for that. Same on the Dem side, though they are generally more disorganized to begin with.

    Steve

  • I also think that Mr. Friedman waxes a little too poetic on the virtues of the “Greatest Generation”. I loved my parents, too, but for the first twenty years of my working life working 80 or more hour weeks was a commonplace and I’ve lived pretty frugally. I didn’t vote for the enormous expansion of entitlements over the last forty years or the tremendous expansion of America’s overseas military commitments. That didn’t happen under my watch; it happened under theirs.

    Finally. I totally agree with this. We are in the mess we are in because of policies and changes in how we view government that started…Hell back in the days of the Great Depression. It laid the ground work for the massive expansion of government entitlement programs and also our military commitments. We went from a country that was fairly isolationist when it came to military matters and a more minimalist government to one where there really is no limit on government power.

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