Sunday, November 28, 2010

Flat-out Sucking

While the heyday of making fun of Tom "Suck on this" Friedman has come and gone, the good friend of deeply insightful cabbies around the world still holds forth undaunted from his perch at Speakers Corner on the New York Times Op-Ed page.  In this week's effort, he flogs the dead horse of flatness once again in a column that could really do without it.  He also works in a lament to lost high-wage industrial jobs, and spices it up with a reference to kids texting.  But the main tactic of the column is to stir parental fears using some almost nativist rhetoric.  The yellow menace is coming for your kids' jobs!  The HindoChiComs are going to drink their milkshakes!  Run for your lives PTA board!

Please.  Stoking fears about how Our Children Are Falling Behind dates back at least to the 60s, when we the Soviets were going to bury us, and also had another heyday in the 80s, when the Japanese were going to buy us.  In neither case was it true.  On the other hand, it is true that the students in a lot of countries are catching up to American children.  That shouldn't be a cause for alarm.  The U.S. became a mature industrial society long before most other countries, and as other countries become wealthier, it's entirely natural for their children to become better educated.  This isn't to say that the U.S. education system doesn't have problems, but many other issues are more important right now.

The column is annoying for a number of reasons beyond tired cliches and fear-mongering.  Friedman blithely calls for more resources from the "U.S.G."  Of course, one of the reasons we can't easily allocate more resources is that we wasted hundreds o f billions on a unnecessary war that he backed to the hilt.  He also fails to mention precisely where the expanded resources for eduction should come from.  Should taxes be raised?  Spending cut in other areas?  It's terribly easy to say the government should Do Something Now, but in the current politi-cultural climate Americans aren't even willing to pay for the government services they already receive.   So it's very unlikely that the federal government will provide more.  Friedman also calls for more resources from parents, which is easy for a very wealthy writer that doesn't have fixed hours or a 40 minute commute to say.  Most of the country doesn't live in an upper class suburb, and Friedman doesn't seem to be able to imagine what the lives of the poor are like in America.

Friedman asserts that a "triple whammy" of globalization, job outsourcing, and falling education outcomes "is one of the main reasons that middle-class wages have been stagnating."  Those issues have something to do with it, though they actually affect the blue-collar middle-class much more than the white-collar middle-class.  But another, arguably more important reason median wages have been basically flat for a couple of decades is that most of the economic gains are going to the top 10%, and especially the top 1%.  Friedman makes no mention of this trend, which is odd because reports about it are regularly in the news.  Here's one article on the topic from some organization that calls itself the NY Times.  And another.  The normally execrable Slate produced an excellent series on inequality back in September.  A little searching would certainly locate dozens more.

There's more to dislike about the column, but it's somewhat pointless to carry on because there doesn't seem to be any kind of accountability for pundits once they reach a certain level.  The NY Times isn't going to fire him, and Friedman is either unaware of his colossal lameness or immune to criticism.  The best thing for everyone to do is to make sure your friends and family don't read him.

Update 2010/12/13: It seems the great unwashed masses have a better grasp of the problems with the schools system than an overpaid pundit.  Surprise - not.

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