Home > Uncategorized > Tom Friedman Overlooks a Fundamental Question: Do We Have Enough?

Tom Friedman Overlooks a Fundamental Question: Do We Have Enough?

July 25, 2019

Earlier this week Tom Friedman wrote a column on the 2020 campaign that suggested we should no longer think inside the box or outside the box: we should think without a box at all. Here’s the way he frames this issue:

For decades our politics — and that of many industrial democracies — were defined by the same basic grid of left-right binary choices: You were either with capital or labor; for big-government solutions or small-government solutions; open to trade and immigration or more closed to them; prioritizing “green” over growth and embracing new social norms, like gay marriage, or opposing them.

If you were in one party or the other, you did — or were expected to — check all of its boxes.

The accelerations we’re now going through in climate change, technology and globalization have made that checklist approach to governing obsolete. This era calls for a different approach — one best articulated by Linton Wells, the defense analyst and expert on resilience. Wells argues that to find the solutions to today’s wicked problems you should “never think in the box and never think out of the box. You have to think without a box.”

Later in the column he ties education into this “without a box” paradigm:

If we just let raw capitalism reign — when machines and those who own them can replace so many more humans and globalization can enable companies to be winners-take-all across the globe — “we’ll continue getting extreme income inequalities, rapid environmental degradation and giant global monopolies,” notes Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future.

But the answer, Gorbis says, is not socialism and abandoning markets, but a vibrant state that can use taxes and regulations to reshape markets in ways that redivide the pie, grow the pie and create more “public wealth” — mass transit, schools, parks, scholarships, libraries and basic scientific research — so that more individuals, start-ups and communities have more tools to adapt and thrive.

The right question on education is not whether college should be “free.” It’s what should be taught there and who should teach it. Some Democratic candidates seem to care only about the word “free.” But maybe we should be radically incentivizing companies to go back into the education business, since no one knows better the skills their workers need than they do.That’s thinking completely without a box.

When I read that, I wanted to scream at Thomas Friedman! Businesses might be the ones who knows what skills their workers need, but businesses abandoned in-house training because their incentives are to increase the bottom line and having employees who offer training is far more expensive than outsourcing the training to a private firm or— better yet— expecting taxpayers to fund it through schools.

But after reading the column, I felt that Mr. Friedman overlooked the reality we face as a culture and a country: the Biggest Box we find ourselves in is the one that assumes that economic growth is a given, that we all need more and more stuff, and that we all need to work endless hours in order to get that stuff. My sense is that if you asked voters if they would be willing to have more free time in exchange for less stuff we might be surprised. But we aren’t asking that question… and we should.

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