Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lessons from this week's Friedman column

When Thomas Friedman needs "reminding of the real foundations of the American Dream," he turns to -- surprise! -- fellow seven-plus-figure entrepreneurs with ponderous extended metaphors:
Our economy is like a car, added Sridhar, and the financial institutions are the transmission system that keeps the wheels turning and the car moving forward. Real production of goods that create absolute value and jobs, though, are the engine.

“I cannot help but ponder about how quickly we are ready to act on fixing the transmission, by pumping in almost one trillion dollars in a fortnight,” said Sridhar. “On the other hand, the engine, which is slowly dying, is not even getting an oil change or a tuneup with the same urgency, let alone a trillion dollars to get ourselves a new engine. Just imagine what a trillion-dollar investment would return to the economy, including the ‘transmission,’ if we committed at that level to green jobs and technologies.”

So just in case you were worried, there is a vast reserve army of Friedmans which the punditry can draw upon to depress intelligence levels.

But that's not really what this post is about. Rather, I was struck by this passage:
“Infants and the elderly who are disabled obsess about survival,” said Sridhar. “As a nation, if we just focus on survival, the demise of our leadership is imminent. We are thrivers. Thrivers are constantly looking for new opportunities to seize and lead and be No. 1.” That is what America is about.
I personally always derive satisfaction from seeing the helpless and disabled used as a foil for the dynamism of capitalism. But there's a more general point here as well. While the first thing I was reminded of here was Aristotle's comment in the Politics that states exist, not for the sake of mere life, but for living well , I realized that that was merely a superficial similarity. In fact, there were few Greeks who would have spoken in Sridhar's terms. It may be an irreconcilable difference between the ancient and modern worlds that the ancients could not extricate themselves from the web of communal and familial obligations (to their children, to their elders) which shaped and largely directed their way of life. Sure, "thriving" was a goal to be pursued beyond mere "surviving," as Aristotle saw, but there was a set of pretty clearly defined and delimited qualities that entailed thriving: self-sufficiency, territorial autonomy, the ability to participate in politics, freedom (inasmuch as this was possible) from menial labor.

This relatively conservative outlook, and the social structure that enabled it (i.e. slavery, even/especially in the case of democracy), ensured that there would be no constant drive to "succeed and lead and be No.1" in "new" ways, particularly in the realm of "economics" (if we can speak of such a thing). We owe our modern existence in large part -- I'm not discounting technology -- to the Sridharian attitude of willful disregard for the ties that bind. In the face of tradition, the entrepreneur must set at nought all its counsel, and would none of its reproof.


Blogger Scantron said...

One thing I forget to mention about the difference between Aristotle and the Friedman column is that it matters a great deal what you think "thriving" consists in. When Aristotle contrasted mere living and living well, he included in the former all types of money-making. "Living well" comprises those virtues which are impossible without wealth but which are not for the sake of wealth. Aristotle had a landed aristocrat's disdain for parvenus and nouveaux riches. That is obviously not Friedman's concern.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Robot said...

Having listened to more Thomas Friedman than I would like in the past couple of weeks--a product of his new book--I can safely say that there are few American thinkers as dangerous as this man. Where Socrates made the weaker argument overcome the stronger, he simply makes the stronger look weaker. In ancient Athens I'd like to think they treated both of these approaches similarly.

Your post brings up an irony about life under capitalism: that despite the dynamism (solid into air, blah blah blah), the family itself has actually remained remarkable stable. While there have been significant changes (the separation of home life and work life, the role of mothers in the household and workplace, and the role of children as economic and sentimental units), the conjugal family remains here to stay. Listening to the Sridharians of today and yesterday, I have no doubt that many 19th and early 20th century onlookers (Lippmann, as you know Scantron, being one of them) would have been surprised to see the family remain so solid an institution.

9:18 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Didn't realize we were due for another geographic redescription courtesy of Friedman. Next in the series: "How Many Green-Technology-Enhanced Worlds Can Fit on the Head of a Pin."

I think there's a difference between the sexual family and the social family. On the monogamy side of things, yes, there is much that Aristotle could recognize in Ozzie and Harriet. But in the ancient world and in some parts of the world today there are the factors of kinship networks, extended households under a paterfamilias, and succession as a factor in the social and political order. Also, the greater articulation of the economic sphere and the ideal of meritocracy combine to make nepotism strike us as unethical, whereas generational continuity in a trade or guild were par for the course in ancient Greece. Most of this stuff had to give way somehow for their to be development (or the development made them fade away, what have you).

Isn't Nicias in Thucydides bk 6 a pretty good example of someone making the stronger argument the weaker?

10:11 PM  

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