A Little Sunday Tom Friedman — More From Our Recent Interview

Foreign affairs journalist Thomas Friedman is on a four-month hiatus from his New York Times column. If you're a fan, and you're missing his voice this Sunday, we're posting a little more of his recent interview with Tom Ashbrook (listen to the full interview).

Friedman is very worried about America's place in the world right now, and he says we need a "strategic consensus about how we go into the future in a better way."

Here’s an edited transcript of his thoughts on infrastructure, exceptionalism, and the state of the American dream.

TOM ASHBROOK: You’ve been a big voice out there for a long time and my sense this fall was, Tom, that you’re sort of ringing the warning bell just about as loudly as you can. You seem really ramped up. What’s got you at such a high volume?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Well, you know Tom, maybe I start by saying that people often ask me, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” and I say, “Well actually, I kind of just believe in three things and you can tell me where that situates me.” The first thing I believe in, something I actually heard from Warren Buffett, which is that 95% of what I’ve gotten in life is due to the fact I was born in this country at this time with these opportunities and these institutions. And therefore it seems to me the first obligation of our generation is to pass on this country, with these institutions and these opportunities, to our kids. It’s making the American dream possible for the next generation, which is to say that they will have a chance to live a better life than we do.

The second thing I believe is that 95% of what I enjoy in life, 95% comes from clean air, clean water, a great environment rich in flora and fauna and biodiversity, and our second obligation seems to me to pass on this planet to our kids the way we found it if not better.

And the last thing I believe, Tom, is that a lot of bad things happen in the world without the United States of America, but not a lot of good things at scale. Not a lot of victories in World War II over fascism, or victories in the Cold War over Communism, or Marshall Plans, or AIDS relief for Africa. Not a lot of good things happen without a strong America. And therefore, if America goes weak, if we can’t project our power and our vision and our values the way we could in the past your kids won’t just grow up in a different America - they will grow up in a different world. And therefore, people come up and say, “Hey, you’re the foreign affairs columnist, why are you writing about America?” I say, “Because it’s the biggest foreign policy issue in the world.” The strength and vitality of our country today I think is the most important domestic policy issue for the reasons I just said and also the most important foreign policy issue.

TOM ASHBROOK: This phrase, “going weak,” “America going weak,” is showing up more and more in your columns lately. You’ve been writing about the issues you just laid out for years, Tom…A lot of Americans will relate to it — it’s not as if you’re alone — but for you, with your perspective, what’s got this renewed urgency, this kind of “oh my God” urgency in your view?

TOM FRIEDMAN: It’s not just any one single thing, Tom. It’s an accumulation of things. It’s…you know, just the latest thing, and this is partly a small example so don’t think I exaggerate it too much, but it’s typical: I was in China in September and attended a conference in Tianjin, which is a big, sprawling, Detroit-like city three hours from Beijing. First of all, you get there by leaving Beijing South train station, which is this ultramodern flying saucer of a building with 3,200 solar panels on the roof. You get on a bullet train that takes you about half the distance between New York and Washington, D.C. in twenty-nine minutes. You arrive to another beautiful train station. You then go to the Tianjin-Beijing Conference Center, a building so vast and beautifully appointed that if it were in Washington, D.C. it would be a tourist site. Tourists would actually get off that bus and take pictures of it along with the Washington Monument. And then you read, as I did, a little history of the building. It says that this building…construction began in May of 2009 and it was completed in September…sorry, construction began in September 2009 and it was completed in May 2010. And I was walking around my hotel room thinking “Let’s see…May, June, July, oh…that’s eight and a half months.” So then I get home to Washington. I live in Bethesda and I take the subway to work a lot and I enjoy taking the subway, and we have a subway stop, a Washington Metro subway stop where they have been repairing - they finished it now, blessedly - they have been repairing the escalator there for six months. There are two escalators and when one is being repaired the other’s frozen so people have to use it to go up and down and it creates a huge logjam of people at rush hour trying to get on and off the train. And so I just was doing the math in my head: “Let’s see, China can build a whole convention center in eight and a half months and we can’t repair an escalator with twenty-one steps in six months.” You know, everyone, anyone who flies from Shanghai to LAX Los Angeles airport or JFK knows you’re really flying from The Jetsons to The Flintstones.

TOM ASHBROOK: With the United States, L.A., as The Flintstones.

TOM FRIEDMAN: As The Flintstones. And you just look around and more and more you realize, whether you’re talking about infrastructure…we have about, according to the American Society of Engineers, about a 2.2 trillion dollar deficit in infrastructure…unmet infrastructure needs in this country. You look at education, you look at immigration, and you start to see that all the sources of our success, the foundations of our exceptionalism, are being eroded. And it seems to me that if you don’t start to focus on that now in a serious way, that we will…we are not too big to fail. We are not destined…there’s this whole debate, Sarah Palin criticizing Obama because he doesn’t say we’re exceptional enough. It’s so bizarre. Exceptionalism isn’t an…we’ve started to treat exceptionalism as an entitlement, like it’s something like Medicare, prescription drugs, another thing you get without having to work for it. Well, it’s not. The sources of our exceptionalism are very clear. The kinds of things we did to get here are very clear, and I look around more and more and I don’t see that happening.

TOM ASHBROOK: One of the things about you and your style is you are not afraid to make big observations and draw big conclusions.

TOM FRIEDMAN: And draw big criticism.

TOM ASHBROOK: And big criticism, O.K. But your warnings have been so urgent lately that I have this feeling one day I’m going to open up the New York Times, read Tom Friedman, and it’s going to say, “You know what folks, it’s over. I warned you for a year, I warned you for two years, I warned you for three years. It’s over. I’ve done the math, and the U.S. cannot get back in that top seat.” I mean, how close are we to some tipping point here?

TOM FRIEDMAN: Well, there’s never — when talking about a country of course — a specific tipping point. It’s not like a company that can go bankrupt. But Tom, what’s underlying my view is that, there’s kind of a sense out there…”we’re in a two year slump, we’re in a two-year recession, underemployment went from five percent to ten percent roughly, or five to nine and a half, five and a half to nine and a half, as a result of the subprime crisis, so we just need to stimulate our way out of this crisis and we’ll get back to five and a half percent.” That is not my view. I believe we’re in a twenty year slump. I believe this began at the end of the Cold War, where we’ve been under-investing in our future. It particularly began after 2001 and the last decade, which I think has been really a lost decade in many ways for America. It’s not like one day we’ll say “Game over, turn out the lights.” It’s that one day we will discover that the degree of sacrifice we will have to make as a society, the kinds of things we’ll have to give up by way of entitlements in order to get back on that track of sustained growth so we can pass that American dream onto another generation will be so large that they’re almost politically impossible.

To me there’s a real parallel with the climate system. Dana Meadows, a great environmentalist who passed away in 2001, taught at Dartmouth, and she had a saying: “We have exactly enough time starting now.” That’s what I feel about America – we have exactly enough time starting now. But there is a point where you build up so much Co2 in the atmosphere basically where the level of sacrifice that’s required to avoid a major disruption becomes so great it almost becomes politically impossible, and that is what I do worry about.

TOM ASHBROOK: America has its fans. It has its critics at home and abroad. But the one thing historically that people often said about the United States was it was very clear-eyed, maybe to a fault. Very pragmatic, almost, maybe to a fault. Why not now? Where’s that clear-eyed pragmatism in the face of all these challenges you’re laying out?

TOM FRIEDMAN: We’ve fallen into a kind of politics that I would call “Dumb as we want to be - dumb as we want to be, we’ll get to it when we get to it, we’re America, we’re exceptional.” And that’s really infected us in the last decade. Two things that have just gotten out of control. Partisanship, Tom, is part of democracy, it’s part of any healthy democracy. Interest groups and even money in politics, they’re part of any democracy. But there’s such a thing as too much. And I believe we’ve entered the land of too much, where partisanship has lapsed into tribalism and interest groups and money in politics have really lapsed into one dollar, one vote. And…the net effect of it is it’s created a complete paralysis when it comes to generating the kind of collective action you need to solve the big problems that we’ve got as a country.

So we’re coming out of a [time] now where a lot of people are praising Obama and the Republicans. They’ve come together and reached a bipartisan tax cut package. Well, yeah, we can do that…We’ve all agreed to borrow three quarters of a billion dollars from China to pay off every end of the political spectrum from multimillionaires to the working poor. That’s not what I’m really talking about. I’m not talking about just sort of mashing together what Republicans and Democrats believe. What I’m talking about is... a strategic consensus about how we go into the future in a better way. You know, Don Baer said it … in Politico. He said, “We don’t just need a new middle ground, we need to get to a higher ground.”

This program aired on January 9, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.


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