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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press What's the "We" Jazz, Thomas Friedman?

What's the "We" Jazz, Thomas Friedman?

Saturday, 08 May 2010 20:59

You get paid a really big premium for ignorance at the NYT, just ask Thomas Friedman who undoubtedly gets paid more than 99 percent of his generation. Thomas Friedman likes to tout the fact that there are still good paying jobs for people without skills in every column he writes.

He's in top form today, getting just almost everything wrong about the current economic situation as he tells readers: "My generation, 'The Baby Boomers,' turned out to be what the writer Kurt Andersen called 'The Grasshopper Generation.' We’ve eaten through all that abundance like hungry locusts."

Of course those who know anything about the economy know that the vast majority of baby boomers have not fared especially well. In the years before the baby boomers entered the workforce wages for most workers rose consistently between 1-2 percent a year, after adjusting for inflation. However wages began to stagnate in the mid-70s, when the oldest baby boomers were in their mid-twenties and the youngest were not yet teenagers. Baby boomers entered this labor market and most saw very little gain in living standards relative to what their parents had. Many had to go heavily into debt to buy and hold a home, to send their kids through college or to cover the cost of a serious illness.

There were gains in living standards during the last three decades, but they overwhelmingly went to the people at the top. This included the Wall Street crew, corporate executives, highly educated professionals, like doctors and lawyers, and elite columnists like Mr. Friedman. This was not an accident. These people designed economic policies that were intended to redistribute income upward. The government became openly hostile to unions. It pushed trade policies that made our factory workers compete with low-paid workers in Mexico and China while leaving our doctors and lawyers largely protected from the same sort of competition. The government also deregulated sectors like airlines, telecommunications, and trucking that offered good paying jobs for millions of workers without college degrees. The result of these and other deliberate policies was to ensure that most of the gains from productive growth went to those at the top rather than the vast majority of baby boomers.

Now the baby boom cohort is retiring. The vast majority have next to nothing to support themselves other than their Social Security. The vast majority of baby boomers do not have the defined benefit pensions that their parents did. They never had much money in 401(k) accounts and they lost much of what they did have in the stock crashes of 2000-2002 and 2008. More importantly, they lost most of their home equity, the major source of wealth for most families, with the collapse of the housing bubble.

We can blame the average auto worker, shoe salesperson and school teacher for not being smarter about the macroeconomy than Robert Rubin, Alan Greenspan, and other managers of economic policy, but the fact is that they made the mistake of listening to these people. They thought that stock prices and house prices would just keep rising forever. Sure, this was stupid, but Rubin, Greenspan and the rest were supposed to be really smart people, and it was their job to know the economy. Too bad Thomas Friedman was never smart enough to notice either the stock bubble or the housing bubble and to warn his readers.

Instead, Thomas Friedman wants to lecture us all about how we have been living too lavishly. We have to give up our Social Security and Medicare and accept lower living standards. This would be laughable except for the immense political power and the hundreds of billions of dollars that stand behind Friedman's agenda.

At the moment, the concern about deficits is painfully absurd. If only Friedman could learn the most elementary economics he would know that the economy's problem right now is too little spending, not too much. He probably hasn't noticed, but the unemployment rate is almost 10.0 percent. If we got frugal now, then the unemployment rate would go still higher -- of course that probably would not matter where Mr. Friedman lives.

Over the long-term we do face a problem with our broken health care system. This is the cause of our projected long-term budget problems. Of course fixing our health care system would hurt the health insurance industry, the pharmaceutical companies and highly paid medical specialists, so that is not on Mr. Friedman's agenda. Instead, he wants to tell school teachers and auto workers (both current and retired) that they have to tighten their belts. And, he gets paid big bucks for this.


Comments (28)Add Comment
written by diesel, May 08, 2010 11:09
Thanks Dean, for speaking the plain truth.
written by T. Rex Bean, May 09, 2010 4:48
I second that.
written by izzatzo, May 09, 2010 7:19
Boom baby boom, in the promised land,
A sow and reap Friedman, a self made man,
A Blankfein or Rubin doing God's Great Work,
Making jobs for others, the suckers and jerks.

They could have been a Brokaw from the Greatest Generation,
But the boomers lost their compass of moral compensation,
They wanted too much from too little work,
Consuming like locusts having savings for desert.

Tom Friedman here on economic history,
Here to lay out the great mystery,
Of the Baby Boom Bust with a Conkrite twist,
That's the way it was, and that's the way it is.
Drop of Wisdom in Sea of Idiocy
written by nassim, May 09, 2010 9:15
If you call selfish gluttons who cheat humanity idiots, which is true in evolutionary sense, then you drop of wisdom in this sea of idiocy is all that keeps us from dying of thirst for truth.
Beautifully succinct, your column tells the story in a drop compare to the sea of ink Friedman types, in which wisdom has dropped to its lowest level. You drop of wisdom is thus infinite in proportion to theirs.
I am truly grateful to be able to have such great insight available in my generation.
written by alex, May 09, 2010 9:37
Dean completely misunderstands Friedman. He seems to think that because Friedman's writings appear in a newspaper that they're supposed to be some sort of commentary on factual news. But Friedman is, and clearly intends to be, a storyteller. Frequently his stories are morality tales, but any relation to facts or persons living or dead are purely coincidental.
written by AndyfromTucson, May 09, 2010 9:41
Thank you for neatly summarizing the trends of the last 20-30 years that have been bothering me for years, but which, for some reason, hardly ever get mentioned in the media.

Regarding the current deficit hysteria and demands to cut spending, I see this as a blatant effort to advance the interests of the affluent at the expense of the less affluent. The Great Recession has been relatively mild for the affluent classes, with unemployment for college educated folks really not much worse than normal, and most of the hardship concentrated in the less-affluent classes. The high unemployment rate for the less-affluent is expected to persist for years and the only way the hardship this causes can be ameliorated is through big deficit spending. So what do we hear from the college educated media and pundit circuit? Deficit spending is going to ruin us because it could (gasp) lead to higher taxes on the affluent! We must cut entitlements which disproportionately go to the less-affluent before it's too late! Meanwhile nobody in the pundit-o-sphere seems to see years of high unemployment for the working class as anything to be concerned about. They are in a panic about a hypothetical risk to the affluent of paying higher taxes (or inflation from printing too much money) sometime in the future while being completely nonchalant about a severe problem happening right now to the less affluent.

I am personally college educated and affluent, but I think it is shamefully tacky and rude for the affluent to so blatantly try to manipulate public policy to pump up their affluence even more at the expense of those who already have little. It's undignified.
written by AndyfromTucson, May 09, 2010 10:07
To follow up on my earlier comment, I was wrong: unemployment has gotten worse for the bachelors+ crowd. It went from around 2% in 2007 to around 5% now. However, in the same period the rate for less than high school went from 7.2% to 15.6%; i.e. the affluent are now suffering an unemployment rate that is still less than that suffered by the uneducated even in the best of times.

High school degree = around 4% to 10.something %
What really happened in the 70's?
written by skeptonomist, May 09, 2010 10:14
Once again, real wages did not begin to "stagnate" in the mid-70's; the growth that Dean refers to turned around in the late 60's and real wages crashed through the 70's:


These data are essentially for factory workers, but wages in other sectors followed the same pattern, if less extreme.

Those who want to change the lack of wage growth and the increasing inequality since the late 60's need to get the facts right first - only then can the causes be understood. What Dean says about the capture of government and the economy by big-money interests and financiers is only too true, and can account for lack of growth of wages since 1980 or so, but something happened between the late 60's and 1980 which he does not mention.
written by Eleanor, May 09, 2010 10:28
Thanks for writing this. I have been made very angry by the "blame the Boomers" meme. They did what they were supposed to do: worked hard, bought houses, spent money at malls, believed in what they were told, and now they are being blamed. If they had been living in apartments and saving money all those years, the American economy would have crashed sooner than it did. Their "greed" was the consumerism that supported the economy.
Mindlessly repeating tired clichés
written by Scott ffolliott, May 09, 2010 10:56
“It is a tragedy and an outrage that the eoplep deciding economic policy are mindlessly repeating tired clichés rather than seriously trying to design policies that address the crisis in front of our faces.” Dean Baker
As a boomer....
written by Mark C, May 09, 2010 11:34
or at least born in the final year of it (1964) Dean pretty much detailed our reality. He could add some nuance by noting we also paid out more in higher rates of regressive taxes (sales taxes for example) than the preceding generation. Like Eleanor also said, we played by the rules...went to school, worked hard and were faced with a miniscule raises. I'm currently doing okay (might even be overcompensated), but it took re-inventing myself at least five times to get there. What is so darn frustrating is the point Dean makes at the end, that what masquerades as economic analysis in the press and in Washington is really a joke for anyone with even a Macro Theory I course in their background would understand.
written by davinci, May 09, 2010 12:28
Let us not forget that Friedman is a propagandist for Globalism and champions the outsourcing of US jobs to other countries. Friedman is a spoiled brat and never learned about the suffering of others who were never as lucky as he!
written by Wes, May 09, 2010 3:30
Thank you Mr. Baker for saying this so well-- and it CANNOT be said enough. The game is now fully rigged.

The reality is that neither major political Party will admit this narrative is the plain truth because all sides have profited off the counter-narrative we hear about daily. We live in a country full of government backed rent-seeking monopolies that now provide us with the majority of our basic services from phones to insurance-- and they offer world-class shitty deals on all of the above- picking pockets rather than innovating or competing.

We're now up against the wall-- either we accept a Mexican-style standard of living for about 80-90% of our population-- and all the wonderful things that come with that-- or we get real about the costs of running a true civil society that does not merely consider its citizens as marks in a series of Ponzi schemes mostly designed to transfer wealth as far up the food chain as possible.

I am college educated and own a business. My life has been a pure blessing compared to the average working person in this country-- and it has nothing to do with hard work per se-- it was simply location, luck, some self-confidence, and the fact that I was given a decent start/education as a kid.

The USA by deed obviously doesn't give two craps about its kids, its working class, or its elderly-- Mr. Baker's socio-economic facts bear that out. It is undeniable by any metric you want to pick at.

Running a decent society costs money and by every measure the USA does not invest in its own people, it just scams them. Well now the scam has bottomed out-- so there's really only two directions left to go-- become Northern Mexico with respect to our infrastructure, jobs, services, and environment-- or get real and start taxing the fu&king people that have gotten a free ride for more than a generation.

Again, thank you for stating the truth so well.
written by diesel, May 09, 2010 4:06
At the risk of being accused of reductionism, it may prove useful to subject Friedman to psychological investigation. Starting with the outermost layer and proceeding inward, we note first of all that he idealizes his parents world and discredits his own generation's. He burnishes his parent's "Greatest generation" lovingly, extolling it as one that embodied virtue, while ours is contemptibly corrupt and shall be punished accordingly. Here he shows that as a child he was subjected to an upbringing that gave little or no credit to his feelings and self expression. His "care givers" insisted on his adopting their views and withheld love if he didn't. They had already charted the course of his life and imposed their will on him irrespective of his needs and wishes. He eventually caved in to their emotional blackmail and adopted their plan as his own. He has forgotten that at one point in his childhood, he resisted and resented their arbitrary discipline. At the moment of forgetting, he cut himself off from his own inner resources. All that was left was identifying with his conquerors--the obviously "Greatest" because otherwise he would have to admit to himself that he bowed down to something less than praiseworthy. And now we, his intransigent cohorts are to be smitten for our stiff-neckedness. That'll teach us! While he, the good, compliant child shall inwardly (or outwardly if today's column is any indication) rejoice.

In short, Friedman can't help himself. There's no point in trying to reason with him by citing facts or statistics. He is driven by an inner emotional logic--fear of losing his parents approval-- that is far stronger than rationality.
written by richard, May 09, 2010 5:56
Dean Baker, I enjoy your "Beat the Press" blog, and have read a few of your books, what is your opinion of Herman Daly's Steady State economics? Do you agree that we perhaps need to change how we look at growth?
written by polyblog, May 09, 2010 6:39
Isn't Friedman married to a fabulously wealthy women/family and is living in the lap of luxury? I read that somewhere. I believe the heiress' name is Ann Bucksbaum:

written by PeonInChief, May 09, 2010 8:21
This is the kind of tripe that makes me want to refuse to go shopping ever again, particularly at a General Growth mall.
written by PeonInChief, May 09, 2010 8:28
One other thing. Most households only held on because they worked far more hours. Women went into the workforce to maintain household incomes, so much that household income remained constant, while wages collapsed. In 1973 a household could make the median income with 42 work hours per week at the average weekly wage. By 1995 making the median income required 82 work hours.
Boomers weren't innocent dupes
written by annon, May 10, 2010 12:17
I am sorry to disagree with this post though I am a fan of the blog. The baby boomers have not been a generous, hard working generation. In fact they have been the me generation since the beginning. They wanted to believe in the stories told by the ayn rand crew. They bought into the politics of fear and the southern strategy, and their actions enabled people like Friedman to spin the tails they spin. Evidence means little to the baby boom generation.

The idea that they were simple suckers who have been taken in is quite frankly bull s**t. They loved the stories. They empowered the people who created the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.

They empowered them by voting the people in power. They empowered them by vilifying the concept of taxes because they personally didn't want to pay them. They empowered them by borrowing to invidiously consume thus allowing the system to prosper while the wealth transfer occurred. (oh and yes if the boomers had not borrowed there wouldn't have been the 'growth' of the last 30 years but guess what? That means the problems would have had to been addressed 25 years ago. So yes their borrowing empowered them.) They empowered them to continue using oil by worshiping their SUV's. They empowered them by wanting the 4000 sq foot houses. They empowered them. They simply empowered them because they believed that individualism without self-sacrifice is 'where its at man'.

The boomers have been a self indulgent, narcissistic, materialistic generation who have deluded themselves into believing that they had no obligation to society or future generations. To blame the leaders without blaming the generation that empowered them is a serious misrepresentation of the truth.

The idea that many boomers worked hard is beyond question but so did slaves. The ideology and Zeitgeist of the boomer generation empowered the people who created the system we now suffer under. That it is now coming back to bite them is no surprise. As the generation that had to follow the boomers we were stolen from at every step of our lives. They stole our opportunity for good educations. They stole our opportunities for decent jobs. I have met few baby boomers who ever think of others before themselves, and that includes both rich and poor. They are the ME generation.

But guess what? Even when they are told the truth and the facts they still are more interested in "protecting their guns and making sure 'dem 'dere gays don't ruin Merica."

Should we protect Social Security and the other social programs put in place by the Boomer's parents? HELL YES! But guess who will most likely be the ones to destroy them? The boomers themselves. They are like lemmings.

And like lemmings I don't feel too much sympathy anymore. Instead I feel pity, humor, and frankly a lot of contempt.

The baby boomers started a selfish drug induced party in the 60's where there were a few that wanted to make a better world. However most simply loved the great drugs.

In the 70's the ones who were dreamers were out of the picture and the orgy and drugs continued.

In the 80's they took on the motto of greed is good, and in the 90's they continued on that path. Throughout it all they wanted nobody to "tread on me". "Don't kill my buzz man." "Don't trust anyone over 30."

The results were that they empowered the people, the thieves, to stay in power. They destroyed the social safety nets. They did it all in an attempt to create a hedonistic individualistic society all about "me".

So now that all those "me"'s need to rely on others in society what will be the outcome? I don't know but whatever it is the boomer generation were not simple victims. Democracy means that in the end the people decide.

In the end the boomers decided.
written by Dedalus, May 10, 2010 12:51
You're being churlish.

written by annon, May 10, 2010 2:05

Interesting choice of words. I am sure you mean I am being childish or surly but I think a secondary definition of the word is more interesting.

"Of or pertaining to a serf, peasant, or rustic; Rude, surly, ungracious; Stingy or grudging; Difficult to till, lacking pliancy; unmanageable"

On this definition I would agree very much. I am merely a serf, or peasant. I am also Rude, surly, ungracious and grudging. I try to be lacking in pliancy and unmanageable.

I consider all of these traits as having great value. The humility of knowing that you are not the lord of the manner. The rudeness to say that BS is BS and the backbone to not be pliant and manageable to the individuals that 'know better' when those people are wrong.

Perhaps if the boomers valued these traits more then the world would be a different place.

Boomers are big on praising themselves and are great at blaming others for the mistakes. However until the boomers stand up and say our 30 year quest to pursue the "me" paradigm has been selfish and wrong how will the direction of our political conversation change? The compromising 'feel good' language of Friedman and the enabling language of the post here saying that the generation were simply dupes are both hiding a simple fact.

The boomers chose to go where we are and they continue to choose the ME over community.

but like a good serf perhaps I should go back to lurking. after all if even a little of what I am saying is right then boomers should feel ashamed of the world they have helped to create.

However words like churlish are a great way to dismiss someone since you don't want to question that maybe the boomers as a generation do have to take the blame.
You need to take into account "expenses as wages."
written by Aditya Savara, May 10, 2010 6:13
You say there is too little spending, not too much. I do not agree with you -- the problem is not too little spending, the problem is non-wage spending. Supposing a rich person buys an expensive car -- how much of that goes to wage earners, and how much of that ends up in another rich person's bank account? That kind of spending does not create jobs. So rather than more or less spending, the more important issue is appropriately directed spending.
written by diesel, May 10, 2010 11:01

The entity you call the "boomers" does not exist. When Dean uses the term, he is refering to a population bulge, a demographic. When you use it, you are referring to a state of mind or set of beliefs which you (inappropriately) attribute to an entire group as though it were one identity. You have missed the very point of Dean's column.

Right, except about the doctors
written by Hippocrates, May 10, 2010 12:54
This article is generally accurate, except that doctors' income in most specialties has actually fallen in real terms since 1985. Ask your doctor -- he'll be happy to talk your ear off about it.
written by omnivore, May 10, 2010 1:47
You are so right, Dean. Thanks to sheer demographic pressure, the '70s recession and oil crisisthat they did nothing to create (blame the so-called Greatest Generation) and sheer numeric competition (also blame the GG), the 76 million Boomers--and yes they are a recognized demographic cohort--have been struggling all their lives. Many now find themselves caring for elderly parents and adult kids who can't get jobs in this economy, on top of all their other troubles.

It's no secret that middle-manager Boomers took a disproportionate hit during the latest recession, and are now of an age where getting a commensurate position--or any at all--is unlikely, given age discrimination. Entitlement programs are going to be stretched because of this, but for many Boomers, it wasn't their own reckless spending that got them into this jam.
Thank you Dean Baker.
written by Lucy L. Honeychurch, May 10, 2010 9:23
...for continuing to tell the truth in this 'through the looking glass' world.
Baby Boomers' Social Security contributions
written by awmarch, May 11, 2010 7:01
Don't forget that since 1986 working people (mostly baby boomers) have been paying EXTRA Social Security taxes beyond what was needed to maintain the system. They were pre-paying for their own retirement while simultaneously funding their parents' golden years. The Social Security trust fund was used to mask the budget deficits produced largely by tax cuts generally favoring the well-to-do. And now the "fiscally responsible" position is to renege on the promise of Social Security.
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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.