Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Tom Friedman's Future

In a piece complaining about the Brexit vote, Thomas Friedman lays out his vision for the world's future:
Because although withdrawing from the E.U. is not the right answer for Britain, the fact that this argument won, albeit with lies, tells you that people are feeling deeply anxious about something. It’s the story of our time: the pace of change in technology, globalization and climate have started to outrun the ability of our political systems to build the social, educational, community, workplace and political innovations needed for some citizens to keep up.

We have globalized trade and manufacturing, and we have introduced robots and artificial intelligent systems, far faster than we have designed the social safety nets, trade surge protectors and educational advancement options that would allow people caught in this transition to have the time, space and tools to thrive. It’s left a lot of people dizzy and dislocated.

At the same time, we have opened borders deliberately — or experienced the influx of illegal migration from failing states at an unprecedented scale — and this too has left some people feeling culturally unanchored, that they are losing their “home” in the deepest sense of that word. The physical reality of immigration, particularly in Europe, has run ahead of not only the host countries’ ability to integrate people but also of the immigrants’ ability to integrate themselves — and both are necessary for social stability.
But as far as Friedman is concerned, whether you like globalization or not is pretty much irrelevant, because it is the only path to a prosperous future:
Indeed, in my view, the countries that nurture pluralism the best will be the ones that thrive the most in the 21st century. They will have the most political stability, attract the most talent and be able to collaborate with the most people. But it’s hard work.

Yet in an age when technology is integrating us more tightly together and delivering tremendous flows of innovation, knowledge, connectivity and commerce, the future belongs to those who build webs not walls, who can integrate not separate, to get the most out of these flows. Britain leaving the E.U. is a lose-lose proposition. I hope the “Regrexit” campaign can reverse Brexit and that Americans will dump Trump.
Let me offer a model of contemporary politics. I would argue that voters ask three things of their governments: security, prosperity, and the promotion or preservation of the sort of society they want to live in. Friedman is arguing that for many people, the second and third are in direct conflict. He believes that the only way to achieve greater prosperity is through greater openness to the world in terms of both immigration and trade. If we choose to close our borders, we risk our nation becoming an impoverished backwater. So the only serious option is to push for openness while spending whatever it takes on the domestic front to maintain the social peace: education, retraining, massive infrastructure spending, jobs programs, disability, etc.

As I said yesterday, you can look at Japan to see what Friedman is talking about. Japan is the world leader in manufacturing and many other technical fields, it runs a trade surplus, and its companies are investing massively abroad to make up for the shortage of workers at home. Still, it is mired in a decade-long recession and can look forward to supporting its aging population with ever fewer workers.

This leaves me conflicted, because Friedman's vision is anything but exciting to me. I have no issues with immigration and increasing multiculturalism, but must we really sacrifice everything else for economic growth? Friedman imagines an ever more intensive meritocracy in which the smartest and hardest working from around the world compete ever harder for the cool jobs, and constant disruption means that only the "agile" who can hop from one gig to the next will thrive. The world will get more mixed-up ethnically but culturally ever more uniform; already you can't tell from looking at an office building or the clothes of its denizens what continent you are on, and this seems likely to intensify.

But what is the alternative? There are about five economists in the world who don't agree with the basics of Friedman's vision. At this point the notion that we could bring back a manufacturing economy with thousands of new jobs in coal and steel – what Trump has been promoting – just seems absurd to me. All of the cold-eyed rationalists, from Obama to Jerry Brown to Mitt Romney, look at the world and see the same thing, a competition that we have to take part in and win if we want any sort of prosperous future. People in what we might call this Open Future party disagree about many details, like how much social spending we can afford and whether strict environmental rules help or hurt, but they share the same vision. Going back to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign you can find the same rhetoric: this is the modern world, and we can either adapt to it or sink.

Of course the success of the Leave vote reminds us that even if people agreed with the choice Friedman presents they may still choose to become in impoverished backwater. But I wonder if that is really a stable, long-term solution for anyone.


kathy said...

James Hillman has pointed out that at a certsin point excess growth looks like cancer.

G. Verloren said...


Well that's one of the fundamental flaws of capitalism - it requires constant growth to function. When expansion is no longer possible, the system collapses. There's a reason it was dreamed up during an age of rampant Nationalism and Imperialism, after all.

The simple fact is that there aren't really any frontiers left to exploit. Europe rose to prominence in the modern age on a tide of wealth extracted from other parts of the world. And even in the wake of colonial collapse, the West maintained an edge through technological and military advancements.

But that edge is swiftly disappearing. There are many developing nations rapidly closing the gaps. Modern technology is seeping into the furthest corners of the globe, and warfare itself has reached a point where it has become too costly to be considered in most cases, both economically and socio-politically. There is nowhere left to colonize, and soon there will be almost no one left to exploit.

And so we're left with the borders of the map filled in, unable to rely on superiority of technology of or arms to elevate ourselves. We're becoming equal to the rest of the world, and for people who have grown accustomed to seeing themselves as superior to others, that comes as a terrible fright.