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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press Does Thomas Friedman Have to Talk to "Senior Economic Policy Makers" to Get So Many Things Wrong?

Does Thomas Friedman Have to Talk to "Senior Economic Policy Makers" to Get So Many Things Wrong?

Wednesday, 18 August 2010 04:04

Thomas Friedman begins his piece today by telling readers that: "over the past few weeks I’ve had a chance to speak with senior economic policy makers in America and Germany." This might lead readers to believe that he is about to share some great insights that would only be possible for someone with special access to these senior economic policy makers.

Readers with this expectation will be seriously disappointed. There is nothing here that is more insightful than what can be found on the Washington Post's editorial pages on an average workday. Friedman rehashes the usual cliches, with the usual lack of thought. In doing so, he gets both the story of the recent past and the present seriously wrong.

Starting with the past, he badly misrepresents the prior business cycle:

"we’ve just ended more than a decade of debt-fueled growth during which we borrowed money from China to give ourselves a tax cut and more entitlements but did nothing to curtail spending or make long-term investments in new growth engines."

The main problem facing the U.S. economy of the last decade was a lack of demand. This was in large part due to the fact that China lent to us. China's lending was its policy of propping up the value of the dollar in order to maintain its export market in the United States. (At the start of the decade, the Clinton administration had also tried to promote an over-valued dollar.) The over-valued U.S. dollar made imports from China and other countries very cheap in the United States and made our exports expensive in other countries. This led to a large and growing trade deficit over most of the business cycle. The trade deficit replaced domestic demand, preventing the economy from approaching normal levels of employment (even with the boost from the housing bubble) until just before the crash.

There is no reason whatsoever to believe that China's decision to prop up the dollar was in any way affected by the Bush tax cuts. In other words, neither the Bush tax cuts nor the growth in entitlements had anything to do with our borrowing from China. The issue was China's decision to lend and thereby prop up the dollar. Given the weakness of demand through most of the decade, these expenses could have been easily filled by domestic production without borrowing from abroad.

Friedman does no better when he shifts the discussion from the past to the present. He refers to businesses' reluctance to hire as the result of "unusual uncertainty," a phrase attributed to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke. Of course there is no reluctance to hire, there is simply a lack of demand for labor. A reluctance to hire would be reflected in an increasing number of hours per worker, as employers sought to meet their demand for labor by working the existing workforce more hours.

This is not happening. There is a modest uptick in hours from the low point of the downturn, but the increase in hours per worker is certainly no more rapid than in other recessions and the average workweek is still far shorter in just about every sector than it was before the downturn.

Later he tells readers:

"America’s solvency inflection point is coinciding with a technological one. Thanks to Internet diffusion, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and the shift from laptops and desktops to hand-held iPads and iPhones, technology is destroying older, less skilled jobs that paid a decent wage at a faster pace than ever while spinning off more new skilled jobs that pay a decent wage but require more education than ever."

This is a great story -- social networking is soaring, IPads are everywhere -- does Friedman have any evidence whatsoever that this development has increased the demand for educated workers and reduced the demand for less educated workers? If so, this would be the place in his column to present the evidence. Otherwise, readers might think that the 4.7 percent unemployment rate for college grads (nearly triple the pre-recession level), coupled with a decline in their real wages over the decade, implies a reduced demand for the labor of highly educated workers as well as less educated workers.

Friedman's proposed fix also seems a bit wide of the mark. He insists:

"There is only one way to deal with this challenge: more innovation to stimulate new industries and jobs that can pay workers $40 an hour, coupled with a huge initiative to train more Americans to win these jobs over their global competitors. There is no other way."

We better hope there is another way. A wage of $40 an hour would put a worker well over the 90th percentile on the wage distribution. Even if we double the number of jobs in this pay range -- an incredible accomplishment -- what happens to the other 80 percent of the workforce?

Friedman then warns us of the challenge from Europe by getting Germany's past and present wrong:

"Keeping up with Germany won’t be easy. A decade ago Germany was the 'sick man of Europe.' No more. The Germans pulled together. Labor gave up wage hikes and allowed businesses to improve competitiveness and worker flexibility, while the government subsidized firms to keep skilled workers on the job in the downturn."

Germany clearly has done some changes that benefited its economy, like work sharing, and some that haven't, but its past as the "sick man of Europe" is an invention of Friedman or his highly placed sources. Germany always ran a trade surplus. That is the most basic measure of a country's competitiveness: foreigners are buying its goods. Germany's unemployment rate in 2000 averaged 7.5 percent, not hugely different than its current 7.0 percent rate.

The story here is that Friedman seems to have completely missed the basics of the current economic crisis in spite of his weeks of conversing with senior economic policy makers. The current crisis is due to a lack of demand pure and simple. If we generate demand either through more expansionary Fed monetary policy, greater fiscal stimulus, or increased exports due to a falling dollar, there is no reason to believe that the economy will not return to high levels of employment. Certainly Friedman has presented no evidence that increased demand will not generate increased employment as it always has.

The longer term debt problem is overwhelmingly a health care story. Apparently Mr. Friedman's sources don't have access to documents like the Medicare trustees report, which imply that U.S. health care costs will be controlled and there will be no serious long-term deficit problem. This may prove wrong, but it seems that it would have at least been worth noting in his column. Of course, if we have not fixed our health care system, we can always achieve huge saving by relying on the more efficient health care systems in other countries.

If Friedman's intention was to scare us, he succeeded. After all, if senior economic policy makers in the U.S. and Germany are as badly misinformed as Friedman implies, then we can expect some very bad times ahead.





Comments (13)Add Comment
Flat Earth Friedman
written by izzatzo, August 18, 2010 7:41
Friedman is still stuck in a flat earth message that global competition is the bellweather standard around which all economic matters of significance revolve. But his understanding is so thoroughly fixated from a supply perspective, at the expense of understanding aggregate demand, much less supply itself, it warps everything he says into a one way bias that confuses a fawning fascination of technological gadgetry with factors such as total output and the ability to produce and consume that output.

Friedman doesn't even see the glaring contradiction in his praise for Germany's competitive ability to maintain high exports, compared to the high exports maintained by China to the US. When success fits his flat earth model, he touts it as global competition at work, so when it fails, he comes up with its seeming opposing analog - debt fueled gluttonous over-consumption posed as displacing essential supply factors that otherwise, could have competed their way out of the deep recession.

For someone so eager to present the big picture, one would think Flat-Earth Friedman could at least grasp that if a trade surplus in Germany means less of its own output is being consumed by Germans, displaced by consumption from abroad, the same thing happened with China in regard to the US, the resulting trade deficit contributing heavily to less domestic demand from the US for US output.

Maybe a lesson in supply and demand would help. Let the ratio of any two international currency rates represent a price at which goods are exchanged between the respective countries. There, that should do it. Now Mr Friedman can make the connection between how new technology replaces old technology when relative widget prices changes, compared to how China's aggregate demand replaced aggregate demand in the US by influencing those relative widget prices. See, it's just a matter of understanding the Flat Earthers.
rational benchmarking
written by frankenduf, August 18, 2010 9:20
pretty disingenuous to benchmark with a European country by highlighting that they crack down on labor and subsidize firms- noncontroversial fact is that they have strong unions, a strong social safety net, universal health care, and are open to alternative fuel use- where, o where did the propaganda line about 1000s of green jobs go?- i admit to buying the mythical sounding notion that now is the time to pump money into the alternative fuel industry, which will stimulate our economy and pay dividends as the world economy will be forced to shift in fuel use- this seems to me the rational and optimistic line of future development, along with Dean's correct harping on single payer and reigning in the drug patent system to save a medicare bust
A Panel of Experts
written by cemmcs, August 18, 2010 11:50
Over the last few minutes I've had the chance to speak with a panel of experts who told me to tell Mr. Friedman to "suck on this". I have no idea what that means but they assure me that he will.
written by Peter K., August 18, 2010 12:44
At least Friedman is calling for more fiscal stimulus. I'll admit he does it in a painfully contorted way as if he's uncomfortable doing so.

"America will probably need some added stimulus to kick start employment, but any stimulus right now must be in growth-enabling investments that will yield more than their costs, or they just increase debt."
damn you cemmcs
written by scott, August 18, 2010 2:54
I wanted to tell the ever wrong Friedman to "Suck on This" Why oh why does this pandering whore get respect--oh yeah, the media is the brothel where the whores do their work
Lack of Demand Representing Something Else?
written by djt, August 18, 2010 5:07
Yes, it is simple lack of demand that is the problem. But why is there lack of demand? Because the ease and low cost of transport allows labor arbitrage by American companies who shifted production of goods to places where labor is cheaper, where the labor is cheap to buy the goods.

So the simple cause is labor arbitrage. Whirlpool is not getting undercut on price by Mexican appliance companies; Whirlpool is using cheap transport and NAFTA rules to place the equipment previously in American factories in Mexico, using Mexican labor to undercut American labor. It's not using Mexican equipment, engineers, or ingenuity; it's simply the assembly labor.

US labor needs to be cheaper, or there must be tariffs, or we live with huge numbers of unemployed. Right now, I pay for the imported appliance four times: for the appliance; for the unemployment benefits of the laid-off worker; for social disfunction from long term unemployment; and through higher costs for me to pay for the services the unemployed no longer contribute to. Wouldn't it be better to pay once for the appliance made here?

I agree
written by LJM, August 18, 2010 6:18
I tried to post something after reading his column, but the comments were closed. He implies SS is paid out of the general fund and the baby boomers are going to send us off the cliff. He needs to talk to his colleague about this, that guy people confuse him for in airports, doctor of economics from M.I.T, teaches at Princeton....that guy.
written by diesel, August 18, 2010 8:53
Great last paragraph, Dean.
written by LeftCoastReports, August 18, 2010 11:30
Demand is critical, Dean, but increasing domestic demand won't effectively boost the US economy if it's satisfied with more imported goods.
The Conundrum of Demand
written by bobbyp, August 19, 2010 12:28
djt: Lack of demand? Yup. But don't forget our subsidies for agricultural products that undercut "inefficient" Mexican corn prices and pushes the peasants off the land into the US (and I can hardly blame them--faced with starvation or sneaking across a border, which would you choose?).

As for cheap imports, they make us richer. China has a big demand for our treasuries. We get real stuff. Yes, yes, I know. "Real cheap" stuff. Nonetheless....now if we had jobs that paid better, we'd really appreciate those prices. But the economic and political elites stomp worker rights and pay. The real crime is the immoral distribution of wealth and income in this country, not the fact that the Chinese political elites are willing to accept financial instruments backed by fiat currency in exchange for their workers having plentiful, but low paying, work.
written by purple, August 19, 2010 10:58
Thank you for reading Friedman so we don't have to...
Arguing with Friedman is a waste of time and intellectual energy
written by Francois, August 21, 2010 12:20
Best to put both to better uses. Don't even bother with the blowhard.
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Fuck! ChenJiang finally unbearable.

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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.