Why the Pie?

All decent human beings will enjoy seeing Thomas Friedman get pied, because all decent human beings possess an instinctual understanding that he’s a blithering idiot:

But why, precisely, is Friedman a blithering idiot? In Bad Samaritans, Ha-Joon Chang describes one underappreciated but hilarious example:

Toyota started out as a manufacturer of textile machinery (Toyoda Automatic Loom) and moved into car production in 1933. The Japanese government kicked out General Motors and Ford in 1939 and bailed out Toyota with money from the central bank (Bank of Japan) in 1949. Today, Japanese cars are considered as ‘natural’ as Scottish salmon or French wine, but fewer than 50 years ago, most people, including many Japanese, thought the Japanese car industry simply should not exist.

Half a century after the Toyopet debacle, Toyota’s luxury brand Lexus has become something of an icon for globalization, thanks to the American journalist Thomas Friedman’s book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree. The book owes its title to an epiphany that Friedman had on the Shinkansen bullet train during his trip to Japan in 1992. He had paid a visit to a Lexus factory, which mightily impressed him. On his train back from the car factory in Toyota City to Tokyo, he came across yet another newspaper article about the troubles in the Middle East where he had been a long-time correspondent. Then it hit him. He realized that that ‘half the world seemed to be … intent on building a better Lexus, dedicated to modernizing, streamlining, and privatizing their economies in order to thrive in the system of globalization. And half of the world – sometimes half the same country, sometimes half the same person – was still caught up in the fight over who owns which olive tree’.

According to Friedman, unless they fit themselves into a particular set of economic policies that he calls the Golden Straitjacket, countries in the olive-tree world will not be able to join the Lexus world. In describing the Golden Straitjacket, he pretty much sums up today’s neo-liberal economic orthodoxy: in order to fit into it, a country needs to privatize state-owned enterprises, maintain low inflation, reduce the size of government bureaucracy, balance the budget (if not running a surplus), liberalize trade, deregulate foreign investment, deregulate capital markets, make the currency convertible, reduce corruption and privatize pensions. According to him, this is the only path to success in the new global economy. His Straitjacket is the only gear suitable for the harsh but exhilarating game of globalization. Friedman is categorical: ‘Unfortunately, this Golden Straitjacket is pretty much “one-size fits all” … It is not always pretty or gentle or comfortable. But it’s here and it’s the only model on the rack this historical season.’

However, the fact is that, had the Japanese government followed the free-trade economists back in the early 1960s, there would have been no Lexus. Toyota today would, at best, be a junior partner to some western car manufacturer, or worse, have been wiped out. The same would have been true for the entire Japanese economy. Had the country donned Friedman’s Golden Straitjacket early on, Japan would have remained the third-rate industrial power that it was in the 1960s, with its income level on a par with Chile, Argentina and South Africa – it was then a country whose prime minister was insultingly dismissed as ‘a transistor-radio salesman’ by the French president, Charles De Gaulle. In other words, had they followed Friedman’s advice, the Japanese would now not be exporting the Lexus but still be fighting over who owns which mulberry tree.

BUT: In Friedman’s defense, he’s doing the best he can, given that a strange furry parasite has attached itself to his upper lip and sucked his brains out through his nose.

Tom T. adds: As someone who gives the occasional public talk, I’m not a big fan of the pie-in-the-face school of ideological disagreement, myself. But in Thomas Friedman’s case, I’m almost willing to make an exception.