Streetwise Professor

July 14, 2010

Tom Friedman’s Brain: Still on Vacation

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:25 pm

It’s no secret that I despise Tom Friedman.  So perhaps it will surprise you to learn that I actually agree with something he wrote.  Discussing the Russian spy flap after returning from vacation (H/T S/O via R–never thought I’d write that), he says:

Everything the Russians should want from us — the true source of our strength — doesn’t require a sleeper cell to penetrate. All it requires is a tourist guide to Washington, D.C., which you can buy for under $10. Most of it’s in the National Archives: the Bill of Rights, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And the rest is in our culture and can be found everywhere from Silicon Valley to Route 128 near Boston. It is a commitment to individual freedom, free markets, rule of law, great research universities and a culture that celebrates immigrants and innovators. [Emphasis added.]

Now if the Russians start to find all that and take it home, then we’d have to start taking them more seriously as competitors. But there is little indication of that. Indeed, as Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, noted in a recent essay, President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia just announced plans to build an “Innovation City” in Skolkovo, outside Moscow. This “technopolis” is planned as a free-enterprise zone to attract the world’s best talent.

There is just one problem, notes Aron: “Importing ideas and technology from the West has been a key element in Russia’s ‘modernizations’ since at least Peter the Great in the early 18th century. … But Russia has tightly controlled what it imported: Machines and engineers, yes. A spirit of free inquiry, a commitment to innovation free from bureaucratic ‘guidance’ and, most important, encouragement of brave, even brash, entrepreneurs who can be confident they will own the results of their work — most certainly no. Peter and his successors sought to produce fruit without cultivating the roots. … Only a man or woman free from fear and overseers can build a Silicon Valley. And such men and women are harder and harder to come by in Russia today. … Disgusted and scared by the lawlessness and rampant corruption. … Russian entrepreneurs are investing very little in their country beyond their immediate production needs.”


Now that I’ve given Friedman an attaboy, I will proceed to take many times that number away.

For Friedman’s main objective in this column is not to point out Russia’s structural economic problems.  Instead, it is to take a left-handed slap at the US.  (Of course, since Friedman has two left hands, what other kind of slap could there be?)

In his telling, Russia vs. US is a battle of washed up has beens: it is like “one of those senior tennis tournaments — John McEnroe against Jimmy Connors, long after their primes — or maybe a rematch between Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston in their 60s. You almost want to avert your eyes.”

No, Friedman would be proud if we were being spied on by Finnish schoolteachers, Singaporean bureaucrats, Hong Kong securities regulators, or South Korean bandwidth investors (what is it with liberals and their bandwidth fetish?), because they’re all the best in the world and the US is a lackluster failure in these areas.

Earth to Friedman: lack of Finns is not the problem in US schools.  That is attributable directly to a group of individuals whom, I am sure, are among his biggest boosters.  And Hong Kong securities regulators?  Is he serious?  (Cf., Rusal, IPO of.)

But the fact that the US isn’t best in everything is neither here nor there.  (The Finns suck at basketball.  So?)

No, what is amazing is Friedman’s colossal inconsistency.  He nearly wets himself  when he writes about China.  He aches with envy at the Chinese ability to dispense with niceties like due process, property rights, division of powers, etc., so that they can act as enlightened despots, bringing a Green prosperity using Red methods.

But here Friedman says that what makes the US thrive is: “a commitment to individual freedom, free markets, rule of law, great research universities and a culture that celebrates immigrants and innovators.”  None of which are present in China, and the lack of some of which on other occasions Friedman has identified as the reasons why China will be the dominant power in the coming century.

Well, which is it?

But wait, it gets better!  The Chinese spy on us like crazy.  So, by the Friedman You Judge Somebody On the Basis of Who Spies on Them Theory, we must be really great!  After all, if the Wave of the Future spies on us, we must be soooo special, right?

Make up your mind, son.

Consistency, it appears, is not the strong suit of New York Times columnists: another of my bêtes noir, Krugman, gets a glorious smacking for his head-spinning flip-flops here.

So why does anyone take these people seriously?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Any take on teh GS settlement? Will this let them move on? Or will it merely open the floodgates for hundreds of civil litigations?

    Comment by Surya — July 16, 2010 @ 8:17 am

  2. Hi gentlemen,

    Those interested in the phenomenon of mathematical retardation among russophobes, would greatly enjoy the latest insult to mathematics and logic written by our beloved La Russophobe:

    I have just posted my comment there, explaining her cluelessness with respect to math, but I am sure she will soon delete it, like she deletes all other effective critical comments. So, here is a copy of my response:

    La Russophobe wrote: ““According to figures from the Russian Poultry Union, poultry meat production rose 16 percent in the first half of the year to 1.33 million tons.

    OK, 1.33 million tons per 6 months means 2.66 million tons per year.

    At 16% every six months, it would take three years for Rusisa’s meat production to merely double.

    Those readers, who have managed to get through the 6th grade of school, would be familiar with the concept of compounding, and would realize that if the growth is 16% every 6 months, then in 2.5 years the volume would grow by a factor of (1.16)^5 = 2.1, thus more than doubling in 2.5 years. In 5 years, this will be more than quadruple, in 7.5 years – 8-fold, in 10 years = 16 fold.

    Thus if the 16% growth every 6 months continues, in ten years, Russian poultry output will be 2.66 million * 16 = 42.5 million tons. That’s an enormous amount. Surely, Russia will be able to export 600 thousand tons (that is, 0.6 million tons) of poultry out of this 42.5 million.

    A sixty-fold increase in ten? Hardly likely.

    If the total output increases 16-fold, then the export portion can easily increase hundreds-fold. But one needs at least 6 years of elementary school to understand that, LR.

    Comment by Ostap Bender — July 18, 2010 @ 12:37 am

  3. Yes Ostap,they will also like the fact that the Russian government does not believe that domestic production can fulfil domestic demand.

    Russian poultry producers can celebrate their victory in this battle, but the war is not over. The fact that no official statement has been made on a poultry import ban or radical cuts in import quotas shows that the Russian authorities are not confident that domestic producers can meet market demand.

    Comment by Andrew — July 23, 2010 @ 6:36 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress