Obama's Thomas L. Friedman Moment


So, I'm 40 hours late to the subject, but the "Emailed" tab in that "Most Popular Stories" box over to the right reminds me of a bit of awfulness I wanted to point out after the president's Afghanistan-drawdown speech Wednesday night:

Above all, we are a nation whose strength abroad has been anchored in opportunity for our citizens here at home. Over the last decade, we have spent a trillion dollars on war, at a time of rising debt and hard economic times. Now, we must invest in America's greatest resource –- our people. We must unleash innovation that creates new jobs and industries, while living within our means. We must rebuild our infrastructure and find new and clean sources of energy. And most of all, after a decade of passionate debate, we must recapture the common purpose that we shared at the beginning of this time of war. For our nation draws strength from our differences, and when our union is strong no hill is too steep, no horizon is beyond our reach.

America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.

Emphasis mine.

Like all vacuous Thomas L. Friedman metaphors, "nation building at home" dissolves long before contact with reality. After all, the president is not advocating "the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy." Whatever policy emanates from this soundbite will likely not be "characterised by massive investment, military occupation, transitional government, and the use of propaganda to communicate governmental policy." At least we hope.

The phrase is even more inapt than inaccurate–we do not need, and in any case cannot afford, the federal government going on a militarized spending binge to magically rebuild our civil and public institutions.

As I pointed out in a post from last November 28, lousy New York Times sloganeer Thomas L. Friedman had invoked domestic "nation-building" 34 times across 14 columns since June 2008,

Approximately zero of which grapple with the great unmentionable buzz-harsher of National Greatness dreamers and infrastructure-cancellation lamenters everywhere: Just about everything government provides has gotten too damned expensive, because government is a definitionally corruptible monopoly, and as a result there is precious little money left over to pay for whatever shiny new government-monopoly gewgaw you brainfarted this morning on the links.

Over at the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto notes that Friedman has only used the phrase once since then, and concludes:

How can anyone take seriously Barack Obama's status as the World's Greatest Orator when he uses Friedmanisms that have become so Friedmanistic that even Friedman avoids them?

If the rebuild-our-infrastructure vow sounds familiar, that's because Barack Obama has been demanding we do precisely that since campaigning for president, being elected president, pushing through a $787 billion stimulus package in early 2009, announcing a $50 billion infrastructure-building plan in September 2010, making his 2011 State of the Union address, and on and on. Why, it's almost as if his repeated promises to stimulate the economy by rebuilding infrastructure results in precisely neither of those things happening!

There are plenty of tangible ideas about how to better build, maintain, and improve the country's decaying infrastructure; see Puerto Rico Governor Luis Fortuño for multiple examples. But if history is any guide, preference for vacuous political sloganeering is inversely proportional to the willingness to figure out the nuts and bolts of getting difficult things done.

For a classic example of that pathology in action, look no further than Thomas L. Friedman's column from earlier this week:

The truth is, we need to do four things at once if we have any hope of maintaining American greatness: We need more stimulus to keep the economy from slipping back into recession. But we need to combine that stimulus with a credible, legislated, long-term plan for cutting spending and getting the deficit under control — e.g., the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction plan. And we need to raise new revenues in order to reinvest in the sources of our strength: education, infrastructure and government-funded research to push out the boundaries of knowledge.

That's right. We need to do four things at once: spend, cut, tax and invest.

Look for this dazzling proposal in an Obama speech near you.