Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thomas Friedman at his Thomas Friedmanest*

Confirmation bias, thy name is Thomas Friedman.

Leave it to Friedman to decide, as the U.S. struggles out of the steepest recession in 70 years, that our troubles are due to the moral failings of baby boomers, set off by a cartoonish Goofus/Gallant contrast with the Greatest Generation.  His column putting this moralizing mush across is so jaw-droppingly sloppy that it seems self indulgent to try to debunk it.

First, Friedman uncritically retails Robert Samuelson's recent claim that poor U.S. student performance can be ascribed to poor student motivation --and conveniently ignores Samuelson's main explanation:
The larger cause of failure is almost unmentionable: shrunken student motivation,” wrote Samuelson. “Students, after all, have to do the work. If they aren’t motivated, even capable teachers may fail. Motivation comes from many sources: curiosity and ambition; parental expectations; the desire to get into a ‘good’ college; inspiring or intimidating teachers; peer pressure. The unstated assumption of much school ‘reform’ is that if students aren’t motivated, it’s mainly the fault of schools and teachers.” Wrong, he said. “Motivation is weak because more students (of all races and economic classes, let it be added) don’t like school, don’t work hard and don’t do well. In a 2008 survey of public high school teachers, 21 percent judged student absenteeism a serious problem; 29 percent cited ‘student apathy.’ ”
Never mind that the percentages cited do not exactly suggest absenteeism and apathy to be epidemic: Samuelson acknowledges (while underplaying) that the chief cause of stagnant test scores is a wider pool of graduates:
The reality is that, as high schools have become more inclusive (in 1950, 40 percent of 17-year-olds had dropped out compared with about 25 percent today) and adolescent culture has strengthened, the authority of teachers and schools has eroded.
Samuelson's stats don't fully capture the extent to which full access to a high school education was broadened in the postwar era.  According to Stephen J. Rose's Rebound, in 1960 (the baseline for Samuelson's snapshot of U.S. high school students' educational achievement over time), only half of workers had a high school diploma, almost 30% had some college, and 10% had a college degree. Today, Rose writes, "these numbers are completely reversed": only 10% lack a high school diploma, 60%  have some postsecondary education, and 30% have at least a 4-year college degree.

That expanding inclusiveness has constituted a major educational challenge, which the nation has not met particularly effectively.  Perhaps, too, technology has created powerful distractions and shortened attention spans -- though it has doubtless also generated countervailing new mental strengths. But there is no clear evidence that the factor Friedman puts forth as the sine qua non of improved school performance -- longer school days and school years -- would in itself significantly improve performance.  And there is growing evidence that the approach that Samuelson pooh-poohs and Friedman ignores -- identifying, training and rewarding teachers of proven effectiveness, and weeding out those proven ineffective who do not respond to training -- is key to effective reform.

Having eschewed serious engagement with the country's educational challenges in favor of cheap moralizing at the expense of today's students and their parents, Friedman expands the attack to encompass a more familiar target -- the boomers:
We had a values breakdown — a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism. Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.
Ask yourself: What made our Greatest Generation great? First, the problems they faced were huge, merciless and inescapable: the Depression, Nazism and Soviet Communism. Second, the Greatest Generation’s leaders were never afraid to ask Americans to sacrifice. Third, that generation was ready to sacrifice, and pull together, for the good of the country. And fourth, because they were ready to do hard things, they earned global leadership the only way you can, by saying: “Follow me.”

Contrast that with the Baby Boomer Generation. Our big problems are unfolding incrementally — the decline in U.S. education, competitiveness and infrastructure, as well as oil addiction and climate change. Our generation’s leaders never dare utter the word “sacrifice.” All solutions must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard. For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream — a home — without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years. Our leadership message to the world (except for our brave soldiers): “After you.”
Generational contrasts are the refuge for those who prefer moralizing to analysis.  You cannot generalize about the moral composition of hundreds of millions of people born between arbitrarily selected dates.  When I read boomer-bashings, I always mentally reply: if those of the WWII generation were such paragons, why did the raise a generation of feckless self-indulgent screwups? Is prosperity itself inherently corrupting? If so, we'd better stop trying to grow our economy.  Further, one instance of the get-rich-quick mania that Friedman excoriates -- the dotcom boom -- was the flip side of an aspect of our economy he suggests we're losing -- rapid technological development. The tension between productive economic development and unchecked greed is hardly a recent phenomenon in American history. Another alleged moral failing of U.S. leadership --taxcut goodies leading to budget problems -- - was promulgated in the first instance by WWII-gen President Ronald Reagan -- while quintessential boomer Bill Clinton paid in political blood for rebalancing our tax and budget priorities. 

Never mind, too, that Roosevelt was quite afraid to "ask Americans to sacrifice" -- rightly so, since it should take a cataclysm to induce a leader to voluntarily engage his country in a war generating millions of casualties -- and so spent two years creeping toward engagement with the Germans and Japanese, until Pearl Harbor forced his hand.

Incredibly, too, Friedman recycles the declinists' lament of the 1980s -- that the U.S., unlike the juggernaut Japanese,  had no policy to determine whether the country makes computer chips or potato chips. The substitution of poker chips is supposed to be a clever update.  But Friedman might have noted that the prophecies of national decline that generated the metaphor faded like morning dew in the nineties. That may have led to thoughtful consideration, per James Fallows, whether our current doldrums are cyclical or secular.

Friedman's false equivalence between the political parties is also maddening. To the extent that U.S. domestic policy can be said to have failed morally over past 30 years -- acceding to an accelerating income inequality driven mainly by technology and globalization -- the pattern has been simple: Republicans cut taxes irresponsibly, and Democrats struggle to right the balance without getting killed at the polls for raising taxes.  In 1994, Bill Clinton lost control of Congress for the duration of his presidency because his 1993 budget bill raised taxes enough to put the deficit on course to extinction. In 2008 Obama, seeking to avoid the same fate -- and not wanting to put a fresh hit on the middle class as the economy cratered-- proposed rolling back the unsustainable Bush tax cuts only for the top 2%. That, along with healthcare inflation, which the Democrats did take on head-on, does perpetuate a long-term structural deficit.  But Democrats, faced with a responsible opposition party, could strike a responsible deficit-reduction deal in ten minutes.**  The immoral something-for-nothing offering is purely Republican -- and was just as extreme when the GIs were streaming home from Europe.  Fortunately, Eisenhower kept the brakes on Republican taxcut dogma -- it took a war hero to do it.  Also on the false equivalence front: Friedman shoves stimulus onto the seesaw with tax cuts, not noting that tax cuts are an (often inefficient) form of stimulus, nor the near-consensus among economists that stimulus in the face of this massive recession is essential.

Finally, Friedman takes at face value Newsweek's recourse to one of the most proven tricks for selling magazines -- generating rankings -- so that he can retail as fact the magazine's sage conclusion that the U.S. is the 11th best country in the world. Doubtless he also chooses his residence based on magazine rankings of the most livable cities, and his children's colleges based on U.S. News' alchemical formula for assessing institutions of higher learning.

There are some realities buried in Friedman's fable.  U.S. schools often do not demand enough of students. Our junk culture does entice too much of our children's attention. Over the past two decades, finance has sucked up a disproportionate share of corporate profits and talent. The nation does have difficulty facing up to the reality that it is undertaxed.  The political culture is toxic, and the Constitution fosters political paralysis.

But collective moral failings, failures of political will, are always with us.  Periodically, problems become acute enough that structural and ideological impediments to effective action are overcome for a season. Difficult as it may be to believe at what I hope is Obama's darkest hour, we may be in such a season (2009-16) now.  The country did react to a season of extraordinary, precedent-shattering misrule (2001-9) by throwing the bums out. Healthcare reform, financial regulation, some of the long-term commitments in the stimulus, and the move toward serious educational standards in Race to the Top are important swings of the battleship. With a little bit of economic luck, there may be many more.

Let's just not visit the sins of myopic columnists upon our schoolchildren.

* Apologies to Jonathan Chait - and Linus Van Pelt.

UPDATE: Thanks to Hal Espen for seconding the motion to have done with generational generalization. Back in 2000, Espen wrote a definitive history of boomer-bashing, tracing its origins from Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch and unmasking it as a product of anxiety and expression of aggression (as well as a marketing ploy):
But there is something hateful and destructive in all this tinny generational rhetoric teeming throughout the zeitgeist, and its negative force is undiminished by the attacks and indictments heaped upon this or that aspect of one "generation" or another. This, of course, is how repression works: as an idea or thought that thrives by being denied.

What is being repressed is the honest recognition that contemporary generational thinking is largely junk and that it crowds out real questions and goals, discourages unsentimental political heroism and insults human dignity. Also repressed is the dark truth about the deadly significance of belonging to a generation. Like death itself, being trapped with our contemporaries in the web of time is an existential catastrophe, a source of profound anxiety and a predicament that incites ferocious symbolic struggles. The empty talk about generations obscures the reality that none of us occupies a privileged position from which to observe the bloody pageant of generational succession. Every human being has parents and most of us have children, and all of us are enmeshed, slanted, blinded and prejudiced by our own particular family romance. We are still waiting for a genius who can follow in Freud's footsteps and open the door on the secrets of generational aggression, socialization and neurosis.
UPDATE 2: Jonathan Bernstein adds his pet peeve - Friedman's mawkish calls for the wrong kind of sacrifice.

** UPDATE 3 (9/14): Jonathan Chait captures the Democrats' dilemma well today: "Unilateral fiscal responsibility is extremely difficult. If the opposition is committed to attacking any measure you propose to reduce the deficit, as the Republicans are, you have to pick your targets carefully. Otherwise you'll just lose and allow the opposition to impose even less responsible fiscal policy. Given the political constraints, the Democrats are making impressive progress on reducing the long-term deficit. But those constraints make sufficient progress impossible."

UPDATE 4 (9/17): more thoughts on boomer-bashing as The moral equalivalent of warmongering.

1 comment:

  1. is a good post rebutting Thomas Friedman's attacks.