Thank You for Being Late (part 3)

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A “moral fork in the road”

Another thing I liked about Friedman’s book was his willingness to talk about morality. Many liberals seem to shy away from the subject, perhaps because they don’t want to be confused with moral traditionalists. Personally, I think that liberals are in a good position to seize the moral high ground on many issues. After all, they are committed to such worthy values as social justice, equal opportunity, freedom of expression, scientific inquiry, nonviolent conflict resolution, and oh yes, democracy.

Friedman says that in the age of accelerations he describes, “leadership is going to require the ability to come to grips with values and ethics.” In particular, new technologies have empowered people to contribute more than ever to the solution of social problems, but also to disrupt social order on a more destructive scale. “As a species, we have never stood at this moral fork in the road–where one of us could kill all of us and all of us could fix everything if we really decided to do so.”

Friedman describes cyberspace as a lawless, amoral sphere badly in need of normative guidance. We are turning over too many decisions to impersonal algorithms that lack any moral compass. We thought that we could just connect everybody through social media and good things would happen. Now we realize that communities of users need some way of establishing moral norms, so that technically-empowered bad actors don’t destroy cyberspace for everyone.

Character and community

Friedman agrees with David Brooks that “most of the time character is not an individual accomplishment. It emerges through joined hearts and souls, and in groups.”

But what groups? The federal government is too big, too bureaucratic, and too slow to respond to emerging needs. On the other hand, families are too small and fragile to provide their members with the necessary supports. (He doesn’t elaborate on the second point, which would get into the debate over whether it “takes a village” or just a family to develop a good citizen.) Friedman looks to the local level beyond the family, asserting that “the healthy city, town or community is going to be the most important governing building block in the twenty-first century.” He quotes Gidi Grinstein as saying that such a model community would be “focused on supporting the employability, productivity, inclusion, and quality of life of its members.”

Here Friedman draws on his own experience of St. Louis Park, the suburb of Minneapolis where he grew up. There in the 1950s, American Jews escaped their urban ghetto and coexisted primarily with “a bunch of progressive Scandinavians.” Social harmony was helped along by what the White House Council of Advisers called the “Age of Shared Growth” (1948-1973) characterized by high productivity, economic expansion and broad distribution of the benefits. The result was an “imbedded habit of inclusion,” a tradition carried on today in efforts to assimilate today’s minorities. Friedman says that the jury is still out on whether the community can truly overcome today’s social divisions, but at least it is trying.

I think his point is well taken that pluralism and inclusion are keys to moral as well as economic progress.

How optimistic?

The subtitle of the book is “An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” To a degree, I share the author’s optimism. New technologies eliminate some jobs, but they can also increase productivity, lower costs for consumers, and create new jobs in expanding industries for those who acquire the appropriate skills. Globalization can expand the pool of human knowledge and generate more solutions to human problems. Even climate change has an upside, in that it should lead us to develop clean energy industries on a grand scale.

At times, however, I thought that Friedman underestimated the obstacles to be overcome, especially because of today’s economic inequality. I agree that technological change and rising productivity could be helpful in raising wages, as they were in the “Age of Shared Growth.” But even then, workers didn’t get their share of the benefits without a power struggle between business and labor, one in which government also weighed in. I agree that globalization expands the pool of human knowledge, but it can also result in a race to the bottom, where countries compete by cutting wages and skimping on environmental protection.

Friedman’s book helps convince me that massive investments in human capital are needed to qualify people for the jobs and lifestyles of the future. But his eighteen specific recommendations seem to fall a bit short, especially in the area of education. He wants to make postsecondary education tax deductible, but the people who find college least affordable are in such low tax brackets that the deduction has little value for them. He wants to eliminate corporate taxes, which would produce a windfall primarily for the richest tenth of the population who own over 80% of the stock.

The general premise of the book remains sound, however. It is that we shouldn’t panic or withdraw from the emerging world, but embrace the future with serious reflection and a positive attitude.

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