Famed NY Times columnist Tom Friedman is pretty widely mocked
for his ridiculous platitudes
that are designed to sound smart (or, more directly, to make readers think
that Tom Friedman is smarter than you). But, outside of corporate boardrooms and elite politicians, it seems plenty of people recognize that Friedman's musings don't make much sense. There's even a Thomas Friedman OpEd Generator
that does a pretty good job, showing how formulaic his articles are.
The key element in a Tom Friedman piece is to take some basic, simplified conventional wisdom, and try to gussy it up so that it sounds really profound. Often, this means ignoring all of the nuances and complexity behind the simple idea. A decade ago, he turned this into a whole book, The World is Flat
, about globalization and how it was changing the world. He wasn't wrong
, but his insights weren't particularly insightful or useful. Furthermore, he's so wedded to his thesis, that he still fails to realize that he was focused on a very exaggerated view of things, without understanding all of the related forces and consequences of what he was selling.
Given the premise of that book (and he's apparently working on a followup), it's little surprise that he's now stepped up to defend the TPP in his NY Times column space
. Of course, he's going to do that, because he has a kneejerk reaction to defend "free trade deals" based on his book -- and he doesn't even seem to recognize that the TPP isn't really about free trade
, other than at the margins. At least his colleague, Paul Krugman, seemed to immediately recognize that the TPP couldn't possibly
help much on trade (because most trade barriers are already gone), and after talking to lots of folks realized that the TPP was likely dangerous
Friedman, on the other hand, insists it's necessary, because without it... ISIS wins. Or something like that. Honestly, it's hard to parse out what he's actually saying because the broad meaningless platitudes just take over:
Because these deals are not just about who sets the rules. They’re about whether we’ll have a rule-based world at all. We’re at a very plastic moment in global affairs — much like after World War II. China is trying to unilaterally rewrite the rules. Russia is trying to unilaterally break the rules and parts of both the Arab world and Africa have lost all their rules and are disintegrating into states of nature. The globe is increasingly dividing between the World of Order and the World of Disorder.
When you look at it from Europe — I’ve been in Germany and Britain the past week — you see a situation developing to the south of here that is terrifying. It is not only a refugee crisis. It’s a civilizational meltdown: Libya, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — the core of the Arab world — have all collapsed into tribal and sectarian civil wars, amplified by water crises and other environmental stresses.
From there, he wanders through random musings about the collapse of civilization in the Middle East that has absolutely nothing whatsoever
to do with a trade agreement concerning countries in the Pacific Rim. Then he magically brings it back around to the TPP by arguing "something something
New World Order
World of Order."
What does all this have to do with trade deals? With rising disorder in the Middle East and Africa — and with China and Russia trying to tug the world their way — there has never been a more important time for the coalition of free-market democracies and democratizing states that are the core of the World of Order to come together and establish the best rules for global integration for the 21st century, including appropriate trade, labor and environmental standards. These agreements would both strengthen and more closely integrate the market-based, rule-of-law-based democratic and democratizing nations that form the backbone of the World of Order.
What's amusing is that just paragraphs above, Friedman talks about the importance of "bottom-up communities" -- and yet here he seems to be saying that the big countries have to do the exact opposite and create top down order. And what kind of "order" is this? As far as I now, Tom Friedman doesn't have access to the text of the TPP because President Obama refuses
to make it public.
So, as far as I can summarize, Friedman's argument is that "The Middle East is turning to anarchy, so the rest of the world needs to create strict authoritarian rules." Why? Because if we don't, China will. Because....
As Obama told his liberal critics Friday: If we abandon this effort to expand trade on our terms, “China, the 800-pound gorilla in Asia will create its own set of rules,” signing bilateral trade agreements one by one across Asia “that advantage Chinese companies and Chinese workers and ... reduce our access ... in the fastest-growing, most dynamic economic part of the world.” But if we get the Pacific trade deal done, “China is going to have to adapt to this set of trade rules that we’ve established.” If we fail to do that, he added, 20 years from now we’ll “look back and regret it.”
So, wait, now it won't be ISIS and anarchy we need to be afraid of, but China and its own rules
? This entire piece makes no sense at all.
Meanwhile, actual experts in trade, like Simon Lester at Cato (who obviously is also a big supporter of free trade, but actually understands these issues), note that the whole "if we don't make the rules, China will" argument makes no sense
in the real world.
And here we see yet another reason why the negotiators have made sure to keep the TPP a secret. This way, people who only vaguely think they know what "trade agreements" are about can project whatever they want on to them. And thus, magically, a "trade agreement" concerning countries in the Pacific Rim that the public can't see magically saves the world from an ISIS takeover and
Chinese-made rules that aren't likely to actually show up.