Balkinization  

Sunday, June 29, 2008

So will Tom Friedman ever connect the dots?

Sandy Levinson

[In his New York Times column, Tom Friedman writes as follows:

My fellow Americans: We are a country in debt and in decline — not terminal, not irreversible, but in decline. Our political system seems incapable of producing long-range answers to big problems or big opportunities. We are the ones who need a better-functioning democracy — more than the Iraqis and Afghans. We are the ones in need of nation-building. It is our political system that is not working. ....

“America and its political leaders, after two decades of failing to come together to solve big problems, seem to have lost faith in their ability to do so,” Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib noted last week. “A political system that expects failure doesn’t try very hard to produce anything else.”

We used to try harder and do better. After Sputnik, we came together as a nation and responded with a technology, infrastructure and education surge, notes Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Goldman Sachs International.. . . “But today,” added Hormats, “the political system seems incapable of producing a critical mass to support any kind of serious long-term reform.”

I won't bother going through my now standard-form argument, but how much longer will the punditry bewail the failures of our political system without paying even the slightest attention to the features of our Constitution that contribute to them?



Comments:

outlawing pundits would be a fine place to begin .. to paraphrase a famous line of Sir Winston Churchill ..never have so few been wrong about so much ...so often for so long ...
 

Little Tommy Friedman proclaimed with his recent book "The World is Flat." Maybe his next book is: "America is Flat-Broke!" Every once in a while when I read a column of his, to amuse myself I circle in ink his use of the first person, singular and plural. All his dots (circles) connect to himself. For the past several months since resuming his columns, I note his separating himself from George W"s Administration (finally, after 7 years) to protect his role as a pundit and bundling columns into books. In time perhaps dictionaries will use his name and picture to define the six month period always on the horizon that we must await, e.g. in Iraq.
 

Second to jkat -- the Constitution is hardly to blame for the punditocracy.

How much longer until we pay the slightest attention to the features of late capitalism that contribute to this miserable lot?
 

Sandy, we had the same constitution when we went to the moon. Do you fish the morning paper out of the bushes, and mutter, "Damn Constitution!"?
 

Sandy, how about a link to your standard critique (for the uninitiated.)

Capitalism is such a radioactive word. It pushes peoples buttons in weird and unpredictable ways, inevitably making an intelligent discussion difficult. For my money (!) the problem is in the basic dynamics of wealth. Wealth tends to accrue to itself... the rich tend to aggregate political power unless checked by democratic institutions.

Right now we have a profit-driven news media which--in the aggregate--serves the interests of "capital" for lack of a better word. It is virtually impossible to have a rational discussion in this country about the distribution of wealth because the wealthy own the "means of discussion."
 

“America and its political leaders, after two decades of failing to come together to solve big problems, seem to have lost faith in their ability to do so,” Wall Street Journal columnist Gerald Seib noted last week. “A political system that expects failure doesn’t try very hard to produce anything else.”

Snady, this whine has nothing to do with the Constitution. Liberals have been complaining that government is not solving "big problems" since the electorate went center-right under Reagan.

Given that the nominally Dem Congress has a center-right majority of Blue Dogs and GOP which reflects the still center-right electorate, the liberals will continue to complain and pine for the 60s and 70s - even if we suddenly changed the Constitution to adopt your preferences.
 

I'm right there with you on the need for some changes. But the only change which comes to mind upon seeing (NB: NOT reading) a column by Thomas Friedman is a codicil to the First Amendment forever banning him from expressing a thought in public. If there's a stupider person in America, the NYT has yet to find him/her.
 

"Snady, [sic] this whine has nothing to do with the Constitution."

And Lisa'a bro's eternal constitutional w(h)ine does not age very well and may be a reminder of his salad days whether or not re-corked.
 

Professor Levinson- may I make a small rhetorical suggestion? Your repeated use of the phrase "connect the dots" in connection with this discussion seems odd. The implication is that the connection between the problem (whatever the problem of the day might be) and need to amend the Constitution in some (usually unspecified) way is so obvious that it is equivalent to the difficulty of completing the child's game of the same name. Given that practically no one else seems to find the connection as obvious as you do, this seems a tad presumptious.

Having said that, I can think of several constitutional amendments that would help solve the problems Friedman identifies. These include a line item veto, a balanced budget and term limits. I am guessing that these are not the constitutional amendments you have in mind, though.
 

Sadly, I now remember a fact I had repressed -- that the NYT actually gives column space to Ben Stein.

I take it all back Tommy. All is forgiven. You're neither as stupid nor as offensive as Ben Stein.
 

Two quick responses:

I probably wouldn't support the balanced budget or line item veto amendments (for quite different reasons), though Larry Sabato, who also both criticizes the Constitution and calls for a new convention, would. I would be truly delighted if any serious figure put some amendments on the table so that we could argue about them. That would be therapeutic (and not only for me) in the specific sense that it might encourage people to address the adequacy of the Constitution. Most states in the Union have line item vetoes, and I could easily be led to support such an amendment in return for support for some other change I'd like (such as the ability to vote no confidence in an incompetent president). Let the conversation begin.

2) I think that Mark Field is being ungenerous to both Tom Friedman and, even more, Ben Stein. I think Stein is one of the most interesting columnists in the Times, a truly independent thinker. Friedman gets in thrall to certain ideas (but, then, so do I), and that makes him less interesting at times. But his writings on Israel are consistently thoughtful and illuminating, as are his attacks on the Bush Administration for its utter lack of seriousness with regard to an energy policy that would address our waste of oil (by, e.g., protecting the American auto industry against more fuel-efficient standards that foreign manufacturers easily meet.

Finally, I am being presumptuous in suggesting that the dots are there to be connected if only people would have the wit to look for themselves and stop being blinded by our national veneration of the Constitution. But what's the alternative? To endorse a conventional wisdom that is indifferent to the dysfunctionality of the Constitution itself?
 

Friedman forfeited any claim to serious commentary with this infamous appearance.

As for Stein, he's a standing joke among economists on all sides.
 

Mark,
May I suggest as a Third Stooge Billy Kristol (the unfunny one)?
 

Hmm. I think my link doesn't work, so here it is again:

Thomas Friedman.

As long as I had to mention Ben Stein, let's not forget Expelled.

And yeah, Bill Kristol is a hack. But I think it's all a game to him; he doesn't even believe himself.
 

I think Mr. Field is being rather unfair to both Friedman and Stein. Friedman is middlebrow commentator: he is to political analysis what Will Durant was to history or what Time-Life books are to any number fo fields. Obviously it would be nice if people studied the work of real historians or real political analysts, but, given that the real choice is probably between reading Friedman or reading about Paris Hilton, it surely benefits our democracy that people read Friedman.

Meanwhile, saying that Stein isn't respected among economists is a little like saying that "L.A. Law" isn't taken seriously by practicing lawyers, either for its picture of law firm life or its explication of legal issues. Ben Stein is an entertainer (writer, speaker, etc.) with some economics training in his background. (Incidentally, the creator "L.A. Law" went to B.U. Law with my wife: when you're married to Michelle Pfeiffer, you don't care if Mark Field takes you seriously.)
 

"such as the ability to vote no confidence in an incompetent president"

Alas, you can't give Congress that ability. All you can give them is the ability to vote no confidence in a President they don't like. You may hope they'll only not like incompetent Presidents, but it's still not the same thing.

There is a problem with the amendment process: Congress doesn't need amendments to get what it wants, and the states have no practical way to get the amendments THEY want out of Congress.

So I'd propose just one amendment, which would probably have to be gotten via constitutional convention: An amendment to enable the states to ratify amendments without involving Congress at all, by stating that any amendment, however originated, which is ratified with identical language by the requisite number of states, shall become effective without any action by Congress.
 

Gee Sean...i didn't realize that either Steven Bochco or Terry Louise Fisher was married to Michelle Pfeifer. (David Kelley did write for LA Law, but wasn't "the creator"
 

Wikipedia

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Stein#Career_in_the_media

provides an extensive bio of Ben Stein, including as a speechwriter for Nixon, he's also an attorney and who can forget his memorable role as a teacher in Ferris Bueller's Day Off! He can't be too stupid, because he is a strong believer in Intelligent Design.
 

As long as we're doing amusing links, here's another regarding Friedman.
 

The Friedman measure may join the lexicon in the manner of the SMOOT that measured a bridge between Boston and Cambridge over the Charles River by using the body of MIT student Smoot some years ago. Let's see, how many Friedmans will it take if the US stays in Iraq 100 years (per John McCain)?
 

Ben Stein is an entertainer (writer, speaker, etc.) with some economics training in his background.

I think this is true, and in more ways than you perhaps intended. I'd extend it to say that nearly all the pundits in our national media today are entertainers rather than analysts (I'd except some of the economists from this). Their job is to make outrageous comments and sell papers, not to give serious commentary.

That is, after all, why we're here or at Volokh or at Greg Mankiw's or Brad DeLong's blogs. The posters here give us expert analysis. Whether we agree or not, we trust them to give us their real opinion rather than to repeat Beltway "wisdom", peddle snark or generate controversy for its own sake.

Brad DeLong runs a death watch for the national media. The failure of that media to provide what so many find on these blogs goes a long way towards explaining why.
 

here is the appearance Mark Field is referring to.

It's both disgusting and pathetic as is this post itself. The issue isn't shallowness it's arrogance and self-absorption, in the face of venality and corruption.

No constitution is ideal. Nothing is ideal in this world.
A constitution is a template upon which to build argument, and arguments are rationalizations, which history and sensibility -as culture-pulls this way and that. Addington's obscenities aren't illogical extensions of constitutional theory, they're just moving the discussion away from the parameters one would expect in a republic. Is the answer to change the constitution or the people?
The argument in this post comes from the utopianism of modern architecture: "New building will build a new society"
It didn't work. Revolutions don't work.
 

barry, you may be right, but your knowing who Michelle Pfeiffer's husband is suggests that you have been spending your time reading something other than the Journal of Mideast Studies or the Harvard Law Review.

Agreeing with Mark Field (I think), I suspect that the job of opinion columnist is going to be radically transformed (some would be say eliminated): there will be a lot more modestly-educated people pontificating on the web, along with more opportunity for experts like Balkin and Volokh to reach a somewhat broader audience than was formerly the case, but none of them will be paid like the Thomas Friedmans of the world have been in the past half-century.
 

Agreeing with Mark Field (I think)

Yep.
 

Count me as one more reader who finds it anything but self-evident that the main problem we face is our constitution. So, help me connect the dots (or link me to where you've already done so)...

Pending that, I think, frankly, we have a far greater problem with individuals in the executive branch who have spent the last several years systematically subverting, ignoring, and misrepresenting the constitution.

Back to Friedman for a moment. He writes (or, more precisely quotes) others as saying that it's been decades since we've come together to solve big problems. But when we did so -- when we won World War II, passed the Marshall Plan, established broad middle-class prosperity, made the progress in civil rights we have made -- we did it with virtually the same constitution we have now.

There are many causes for what's happened to our country, but I'll be darned if I can see the text of the constitution as being more than tertiary among them, at most.
 

Does the generalization that "revolutions don't work" extend to the American Revolution? (Was it not a "real revolution" or did it not work?)

As to connecting the dots, I would advise Bill to read some of my previous posts, where I make the arguments at perhaps tedious length, or simply buy the pb. edition of Our Undemocratic Constitution, where I make the arguments at even greater length.

Yes, we've managed to do some admirable things with (or in spite of) the Constitution we have, but I also believe it's demonstrably true that the Constitution we have has been a hindrance to doing some of the things we should have done in the past or should be doing now.

If we could stop insulting Tom Friedman for a moment, do his critics believe that he is actually wrong in the paragraphs that I quoted? (After all, stopped clocks can be right twice a day.) If he's in fact on to something, malevolent dolt that some of you believe he is, then what's the solution? Prayer? Electing better leaders? ....
 

To understand Tom Friedman, one needs more exposure than the few paragraphs quoted above. He has been placed on a pedestal including with his appearances on Charlie Rose. Just like the stopped clock, yelling "The Sky Is Falling" can sometimes be correct. But consider his version of anecdotal globalization over the years that he has based his books upon. He is so positive about whatever he happens to say. He has been critical of George W only fairly recently. Finally he is shifting gears as he tries to guess whether George W's successor will be McCain or Obama. I can just picture his moistened finger in the air. Go back to the beginning of George W's administration and the energy strategy meetings that continue to remain secret. Friedman makes everything personal. I have my doubts about a person who has no doubts - and I have my doubts about Tom.
 

"revolutions don't work"
I tend to separate insurgencies and wars of independence from revolutions as such.

The French Revolution "worked" in that it marked the rise of the bourgeoisie, but that was not the intention at the time. The Russian and Chinese revolutions did not "succeed" any more or less than the French. I'm an evolutionist. Why kill a an old but still living constitution to replace it with a child?

Revolution originates in failure and death. As it stands the defense of constitutional processes stands a better chance of preserving at least some of our liberties then starting from scratch. I worry about Pandora's boxes.
I would however be a little more forceful than some of the posters here. I sometimes think that our lawyers, our newsmen, soldiers and professors (all our professionals in fact) forget that their first obligations are as citizens. Technical facility and moral passivity are all too common.
 

If we could stop insulting Tom Friedman for a moment, do his critics believe that he is actually wrong in the paragraphs that I quoted?

Well, now you made me go read the damn thing. My views:

1. Friedman wants desperately to distract everyone's attention from Iraq because he was so hopelessly and stupidly culpable. Thus his denial that Iraq will be an important issue this Fall.

2. It's pretty hard to ignore the tie between the War and higher oil prices. Among other things, Iraq's oil production since we invaded has never reached the level produced under Saddam Hussein. That's a lot of supply, which would have lowered the price.

3. It's pretty hard to separate the $3 trillion dollar War from either the current debt problems or the available remedies for it. Bush's tax cuts and spending for the war have constrained our options for dealing with the crisis caused by Greenspan (and Bush too).

4. Friedman's characterization of the economy as a "credit crisis" is contested. Many economists believe it's an asset crisis. That is, the problem is not the limited availability of money, it's that "assets" are fictitious. The solutions to these problems are not the same; in fact, they're in many ways opposite.

5. Saying that consumer spending has remained steady ignores the source of that spending. If it comes from taking on greater debt burden (which it has), that's not cause for optimism as Friedman implies.

6. We were not successful in the past because we "tried harder". We were successful because people fought the good fight against those whose policies would destroy our nation for their own selfish interests (and yes, I'm looking directly at all the conservatives out there). Friedman seems to be implicitly calling for more bipartisanship, when what we need is less. Less listening to the people who got us into this mess and more listening to those who've opposed them.

what's the solution?

As I've made clear in the past, I support a number of your suggested reforms. They'd go a long way to solving many of our problems because they'd marginalize the elements in our society which gave us George W. Bush. Friedman is too much a part of the Washington establishment to accept that.
 

There is no amendment that can a priori protect the constitution from when organized parties collude to violate the law and use the coercive power of the state to stifle oversight.
 

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