Thomas Friedman Goes to the Wall

High priest of globalization lashes out against the enemies of progress

'New York Times' columnist Thomas L. Friedman has expressed fears that Hillary Clinton is leaning too far toward socialism. Credit: Suhaimi Abdullah/Getty

Thomas Friedman, master of metaphor, has a new set of fixations: walls, webs and the tacking of that presidentially-contending center-left sailboat, Hillary Clinton.

In a pair of recent articles, "Web People Versus Wall People" and "How Clinton Could Knock Trump Out," the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times expresses deep concern that Clinton’s primary-season "lean" toward the politics of Bernie Sanders isn't fake enough.

It's been a whole week since the convention, and Hillary still hasn't yet gone back to being the unabashed friend to big banks and staunch advocate for free trade and deregulation she just spent all of last year pretending she was not. This has Friedman freaked out.

He fears she is leaning in the direction of socialism, "the greatest system ever invented for making people equally poor," as opposed to staying true to the capitalist ethos of her husband, which would "grow our pie bigger and faster":

I get that she had to lean toward Sanders and his voters to win the nomination; their concerns with fairness and inequality are honorable. But those concerns can be addressed only with economic growth...

Friedman is conceding that inequality and unfairness are legitimate concerns. He's just saying that now that the people most concerned about these issues have been beaten at the polls, we can safely go back to ignoring them and letting the beneficiaries of inequality worry about how and when to fix it.

This "let's grow our pie bigger and faster" column (does this make more or less sense than George Bush's famous "we should make the pie higher" idea?) comes on the heels of last week's "Webs and Walls" column on the same theme.

This remarkable article divided the world into two groups of people. Roughly speaking, Friedman is talking about people who embrace globalization ("Web people") versus people who reject it ("Wall people").

This is already a confusing metaphor because the campaigns of the two candidates Friedman identifies as riling up the "Wall" people, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, were heavily reliant on Internet media, i.e. the Web.

Meanwhile, Friedman’s definition of "web people" describes individuals who:

Instinctively understand that Democrats and Republicans both built their platforms largely in response to the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal and the Cold War, but that today, a 21st-century party needs to build its platform in response to the accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change, which are the forces transforming the workplace, geopolitics and the very planet.

That seems like a very specific and weird belief system, probably unique to writers for the New York Times named Thomas Friedman. Also, Friedman never explains what any of this has to do with "webs" – is it an Internet thing? Do they have webbed hands?

But whatever, we get it, sort of. "Web people" embrace the future and "open systems," i.e. free trade, bringing us closer to the heart of what Friedman is talking about.

Friedman is right that this election, like the Brexit vote, has really been a referendum on globalization. What's infuriating is the cartoonish way he defines the critics of globalization.

"Wall people" in his mind are either xenophobic Trumpites who don't want a flood of dirty, rapey immigrants entering their towns, or they're Sanders socialists who don't want to compete with foreign workers and insist on government handouts.

With regard to the latter, what troubles Friedman the most is the way Hillary is cozying up to her critics on the left:

She is opposing things she helped to negotiate, like the Pacific trade deal, and offering more benefits from government but refraining from telling people the hardest truth: that to be in the middle class, just working hard and playing by the rules doesn't cut it anymore. To have a lifelong job, you need to be a lifelong learner, constantly raising your game.

Yes, to get by these days, working hard isn't enough to keep a job. You need to be "constantly raising your game." Either that, or you need to marry a shopping mall heiress and write books fawning over Fortune 500 companies.

Friedman's glib definition of globalization goes virtually unchallenged in the pundit-o-sphere, which by and large agrees with him that critics of globalism are either racists or afraid of capitalism.

But this issue is infinitely more complicated than that.

We never really had a referendum on globalization in America. It just sort of happened. People had jobs one day, then the next morning they were fired, replaced by 14-year-olds in Indonesia or sweatshop laborers in Bangladesh, working in unsafe hell-holes without overtime or health care, beaten when they don’t make quotas.

What exactly does "raising your game" mean in the context of that sort of competition?

Globalization in the snap of a finger essentially erased nearly two centuries of America's bloody labor history. It's as if the Thibodeaux Massacre, the hangings of the Molly McGuires, the Pullman Strike, the L.A. Times bombing, the Flint sit-in and thousands of other strikes and confrontations never took place.

"Friedman's glib definition of globalization goes virtually unchallenged in the pundit-o-sphere, which by and large agrees with him that critics of globalism are either racists or afraid of capitalism."

In the new paradigm, all of those agonizing controversies and wars of political attrition, which collectively produced a vast set of rules and standards for dealing with workers, were simply wiped away.

Manufacturers just went abroad, to dictatorships and communist oligarchies, to make their products, forcing American workers to compete not just against foreign workers, but against their own history and legal systems.

People forget that when it comes to labor relations, America had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, in the direction of the civilized world. Attempts to ban child labor in this country failed repeatedly, and we didn't actually pass a federal child labor law that stuck until 1938. Airlines in America were still firing flight attendants for getting married through the mid-eighties.

Now all that work spent to get even past those most basic problems is at risk. In the global economy, employers can look at their business models as one giant arbitrage.

You do your banking in the laissez-faire havens of the Caribbean, build factories in slave-labor capitals like China or Indonesia, buy swaps in less-regulated financial atmospheres in London, sell your products in America and Europe, etc.

You also arrange your corporate structures so that you pay the smallest amount of tax possible, often by threatening to move until you receive subsidies and exemptions. This leads to bizarre situations like Boeing making $26 billion in U.S. profits over a five-year period and receiving a U.S. federal tax refund of $401 million over the same time.

This whole situation has raised profound questions that nobody has ever bothered to try to answer for ordinary voters, as in: What are nation-states for, in a global economy?

What's the point of all of our labor laws, or voting-rights laws, the first amendment and a host of other American legal traditions if large pluralities of American manufacturers do their business in countries like China, where human rights abuses are rampant, political freedom is nonexistent and speech is tightly controlled?

Friedman's description of "Wall People" is probably somewhat true when it comes to Trump voters, many of whom do just want to be physically walled off from a confusing, racially diverse world.

But to dismiss the rest of globalization's critics as communists who hate freedom and just want to curl up in the lap of government and hide from change is absurd and insulting.

Most educated people accept and embrace the idea of an increasingly integrated world. The problem is how to go forward into the future in a way that's fair and doesn't increase oppression, pollution, child labor, even slavery and indenture, to say nothing of the disenfranchisement of the ex-middle class in places like America.

These are very difficult questions. They're ones that probably won't have positive solutions without the determined leadership of the world's bigger democratic powers, like the U.S. and the E.U.

The problem is that the major parties in the United States in particular seem almost totally disinterested in addressing the inequities of globalism. That’s because conventional wisdom is still stuck in the Friedman stage of telling people that if they’re troubled by the global economy, they’re just afraid of the future.

Because the Murphy's Law tendency of American politics demands that we draw every conceivable wrong lesson from an event before accidentally stumbling in the direction of progress, the twin revolts in the 2016 presidential race will surely be misinterpreted for a good long while by the Friedmans of the world.

They won't see the anti-establishment backlash as a reason to re-examine the impact of globalism on ordinary people. Instead, as Friedman puts it, they'll see an opportunity to build a single ruling coalition of "center-left Web People" (what a creepy image!) who will dominate the next generation of American politics:

My hope is that, for the good of the country, Republican Web People will, over time, join the Democratic Party and tilt it into a compassionate, center-left Web party for the 21st Century. That would be a party that is sensitive to the needs of working people ... but committed to capitalism, free markets and open trade as the vital engines of growth for a modern society.

Yes, let's be sensitive to the needs of working people, unless they have complaints about globalism, in which case we'll put our webbed hands over our ears and ignore them. Are you loving this political season yet?