Reading Tom Friedman Is Like Looking For Diamond Needles In A Haystack, Only Made Of Crap Instead Of Hay. Would That Make It A Crapstack?

Apologies for the title, although I am pretty confident it’s the first time I’ve ever used the word ‘crapstack’ since I saw it on my ‘Word Of The Day’ calendar last year.

Anyhow.  I used to absolutely love Tom Friedman.  If you have never read ‘The Lexus and the Olive Tree’, it’s a book he wrote in 1999 which is probably the best description of the way that globalization ought to change the way we think about how the global economy functions.  In particular, he does a great job discussing how disputes over old disputes, like the battle for land in the Middle East (the “Olive Tree”) can be completely overwhelmed if one of the countries refocuses on a drive for production and prosperity (the “Lexus”).  And, going back a bit further, ‘From Beirut To Jerusalem’ is a really fascinating on-the-ground look at the mid-80’s Middle East.

Friedman’s core ability, the one that makes him a unique commentator on global politico-economic developments, is his ability to see subtle threads in the fractious patterns of the world’s systems, the way that seemingly unconnected phenomena, at the root, actually share a common underlying cause.

However, this sort of ability isn’t so well deployed in the service of writing a weekly column.  The thing about seeing subtle threads that nobody else can find is that, well, it’s hard.  It takes a lot of thinking, reporting, and probably chasing down many blind alleys before finding the next Big Idea.  It can be a wonderful talent for a book author, or even someone who writes something every several months, instead of every week (Malcolm Gladwell is probably the best example of this, as someone who also gets a lot of credit for discerning subtle patterns in the world’s chaos, both in his New Yorker articles and his books).

So, as a result, most of Friedman’s columns are kind of terrible.  The worst ones try to tie something from that week’s news into whatever jag he is on at the moment, usually an effort to sell more copies of his most recent book.  I have not yet read his latest, ‘Hot, Flat, and Crowded’, but after reading the half-dozen or so columns that he wrote after it came out, I feel like I pretty much have the gist of it down.  The better ones are like the one he came out with last week, where he writes about three completely distinct topics, without really even trying very hard to tie them together.

In it, his overarching topic is understanding the root cause of three major problems President-Elect Obama is going to have to deal with early in his term.  His general point, which I don’t think qualifies as very controversial, is that failure to understand what actually caused the problems is, like, bad or something.  So, basically, he writes about the three problems, what he sees as the root problem, and the likely solution, or lack thereof.

His second and third topics aren’t so interesting.  He writes about how a surge is unlikely to work in Afghanistan unless there is some equivalent development to Iraq’s ‘Sunni awakening’ , when the citizenry finally decided that they would side with the government against the local insurgent forces.  To me, this is pretty obvious – you can’t win against an insurgency if the citizens are with the insurgents.  However, the Army’s new counterinsurgency strategies understand that you have to conduct a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign if you are to have any hope of winning, so it may be possible to create the conditions for a ‘Pashtun Awkaening’ in southern Afghanistan.

Also, he writes about the banking system, and basically points out that there are some banks which cannot be salvaged, because they simply lack sufficient equity for the debt they piled up, and that they ought to be allowed to fail, quickly, so as to get the economic pain over with quickly, as opposed to stretching it out over a decade, as the Japanese did.  This also isn’t exactly controversial, I think.

However, he makes one excellently subtle point, one that I have not seen made elsewhere, in discussing the question of whether or not a Detroit bailout is worthwhile.

Walk through any college campus today. You don’t see a lot of Buicks.

Over the years, Detroit bosses kept repeating: “We have to make the cars people want.” That’s why they’re in trouble. Their job is to make the cars people don’t know they want but will buy like crazy when they see them. I would have been happy with my Sony Walkman had Apple not invented the iPod. Now I can’t live without my iPod. I didn’t know I wanted it, but Apple did. Same with my Toyota hybrid.

That’s a good point.  One of the reasons I’ve generally been in support of a Detroit bailout is the fact that Detroit really doesn’t make decidedly inferior cars anymore.  Yes, they are still somewhat hamstrung by legacy costs, which means that their cars have to be made with slightly inferior parts, and so they aren’t quite as reliable, and tend not to be quite as fun to drive.  However, it’s more of a matter of degree now, than of kind – it’s not like a Honda Accord is so insanely better than a Chevy Malibu, or what have you.  And so, I thought, maybe the problem is just that the Big Three are suffering for the sins of the father, so to speak, still being punished for making utter crap in the 80’s and 90’s.

But Friedman is right.  They are now at the point where they make perfectly servicable Walkmans, while Toyota and Honda are putting out first-generation iPods.  The Big Three have become, in effect, the equivalent to the Korean carmakers, able to build a serviceable copy of the product everyone wanted last year, but not able to see or create a market to sell cars to people next year.

And that’s fine – the world needs copycat manufacturers to help drive down prices, improve productivity, and deliver quality to the masses.  But let’s not kid ourselves that this industry “deserves” the #1 spot any longer, unless they can prove to us that they can recapture some of that magic from the Japanese manufacturers.

To my mind, a big part of this would be spinning off some pieces of the Big 3, such as Saturn, to become their own, independent operations, to succeed or fail without having to be either tied down or propped up by the superstructure of the bigger operations.  There was a time when Saturn made fun, popular, competitive cars.  That time isn’t now, but it could be again, if they were allowed the opportunity to go do something fun, and exciting, and crazy.


One Response to Reading Tom Friedman Is Like Looking For Diamond Needles In A Haystack, Only Made Of Crap Instead Of Hay. Would That Make It A Crapstack?

  1. Piper says:

    1. It’s interesting that Friedman chose the title of a Paul Krugman book for the title of today’s column.

    2. I would buy a Ford Fiesta, but it’s not available in the U.S. until 2011. It can escape from baddies in a shopping mall: Sweet.

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