If I ever write about From Beirut to Jerusalem, I will probably have some very nice things to say about Thomas L. Friedman. But nuggets like this are why I always regret reading his column.
The best way to counter the Tea Party movement, which is all about stopping things, is with an Innovation Movement, which is all about starting things. Without inventing more new products and services that make people more productive, healthier or entertained — that we can sell around the world — we’ll never be able to afford the health care our people need, let alone pay off our debts.
Obama should bring together the country’s leading innovators and ask them: “What legislation, what tax incentives, do we need right now to replicate you all a million times over” — and make that his No. 1 priority. Inspiring, reviving and empowering Start-up America is his moon shot.
Friedman’s ultimate point is that the second year of the Obama administration must focus on this effort. In another inimitable Friedman-ism, “You want more good jobs, spawn more Steve Jobs.” What he is proposing is that the United States essentially find an economic Northwest Passage that will do an end run around all the nasty, contentious problems that have bogged down the country this year. If we just invent enough new iPods and microprocessors, other problems will be solved as a matter of course.
He has it exactly backwards. Innovation isn’t the silver bullet that can kill the problems afflicting the country right now, but those problems can definitely help choke innovation. If we want to promote the kind of risk-taking and creativity that will revitalize the economy and produce the kind of good jobs that we’ve been shedding with de-industrialization, I think we must address healthcare and a lot of other difficult issues that don’t fire the imagination like an “Innovation Movement”.
I once worked at a company that offered decent health coverage and a lousy wage in exchange for some truly awful work. More than half my fellow employees hated working there and did as little as they could get away with, but everyone stayed because they were terrified of leaving the company and losing their coverage. The company had a demoralized, indifferent workforce that was staying for the benefits that imposed a major burden on the company and made them as cautious about hiring as a man picking his away through a minefield. A lot of us were smart, capable people, and the company wasn’t really that terrible. But we were stuck in a bad marriage, and health care was the shotgun that got us to the altar.
When I didn’t have insurance, I suffered a minor injury and had to pay $1000 for a one-hour emergency room visit. My partner and I had to cut out all our luxuries and shave our expenses down to the bone in order to cover the unforeseen expense. Mind you, if I’d had insurance I’d have had to pay almost nothing but the insurance company would have had to pay almost twice as much. I believe the economists call this an inefficiency.
Graduating with tens of thousands of dollars of college debt (and far more if you go to a professional grad school) is probably not going to make anyone a bold innovator either. When I graduated from college, my summa cum laude Classics and Government degree and I took a job at a liquor store because I needed to keep a roof over my head and start paying off my student loans. That was probably not the best use of my skills, and someone else probably could have used the job, but I didn’t have a choice but to take it. I still spend several hundred a month on undergraduate debt. Not exactly an obligation that makes you free to follow your Muse.
And I had it easy. I had it good.
Friedman also suggests some science and entrepreneurship initiative in low-income school districts, which is the kind of idea that can only sound good to someone who knows nothing about the reality of a low-income school district. Since No Child Left Behind, the average teacher in a poor school district has about as much independence as a private in the North Korean army. Classroom creativity and innovative education initiatives are difficult to slip into a busy schedule of teaching and grading 150 students every day and attending cover-your-ass meetings ginned up by administrators to ensure that any blame for low-performance falls on teachers.
I might also point out that having incomprehensible amounts of wealth destroyed by poorly-regulated financial markets, and resultant credit shortages, is not going to make a thousand flowers bloom. But I’ll stick to the things I know about, which would be excellent advice for Friedman.