What ails America: Tom Friedman's diagnosis of a superpower in crisis

Editor's Note: Firstpost editors Sandip Roy and Lakshmi Chaudhry report on the ultimate celebrity conference. A five star line up of authors, intellectuals, biz tycoons, actors, politicians and more have gathered at the Grand Hyatt in Goa as part of Thinkfest. Co-organised by Tehelka and Newsweek, this haute version of TED brings together an eclectic and intriguing range of A-list names, from Nobel peace prize winning Leymah Gbowee to Omar Abdullah to author Siddharth Muherjee to Arvind Kejriwal. Here are their reports on some of the most interesting conversations.

The Emergency Room: Where do Capitalism and Democracy go from here

Thomas Friedman has won the Pulitzer thrice. Once for his coverage of the war in Lebanon 1988. Once for reporting in Israel and most recently for his commentary illuminating the worldwide impact of terrorism. Friedman is best-known for are his best-selling books on geopolitics. His 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his 2005 book The World is Flat, his 2008 book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why we need a Green Revolution—and How it can renew America are widely read for his influential views on foreign policy and the do-gooding power of globalisation.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta is the President of the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was previously Visiting Professor of Government at Harvard University; and Associate Professor of Government and of Social Studies at Harvard University. He was also Member-Convenor of the Prime Minister of India's National Knowledge Commission. He serves on the Editorial Board of journals including the American Political Science Review, Journal of Democracy and India and Global Affairs.

What do you get when you put globalisation's biggest cheerleader on the same stage as India's most articulate left-leaning intellectual? A surprising absence of disagreement — primarily they spoke in parallel rather than with one another.

Friedman's formula for reviving US fortunes requires returning to basic principles: Education; infrastructure; open immigration; best rules; and government-funded research. Then there was Friedman's diagnosis of where the United States went wrong: "One, we misread our environment. We thought the end of Cold War was a victory." It was a political victory – but not an economic triumph because "it unleashed two billion people like us. Just when we ought to have been lacing up our shoes we decided to put our feet up."

America's second mistake: losing an entire decade "chasing the losers like Al Qaeda and Taliban instead of the winners like India and China."

What ails America: Tom Friedmans diagnosis of a superpower in crisis

Thomas Friedman has won the Pulitzer thrice. Once for his coverage of the war in Lebanon 1988. Once for reporting in Israel and most recently for his commentary illuminating the worldwide impact of terrorism. Friedman is best-known for are his best-selling books on geopolitics. Reuters.

The result, according to Friedman, is a 15 percent high school dropout rate. A nation too busy trying to keep the Mexicans out to invest in its infrastructure: "If you fly from Hong Kong to US, it's like flying from the Jetsons to the Simpsons." And as for government funding? "That chart looks like an EKG headed for a heart attack."

Bhanu Mehta's assessment of India's woes focused on the breakdown of the "new social contract" that was made 20 yrs ago when India embraced liberalisation: "Let private capital create high growth, which will lead to high government revenues — without raising the taxes." And those revenues in turn will be deployed for the good of all Indians. The problem then is that contract has not been fulfilled, especially in the area of education, but also — more critically — in the area of public health.

But how does one recipe for economic success relate to a critique of how that success is shared? Sadly, we didn't get any answers from either panelist. What could have been a powerful debate mostly fizzled out. What we got instead was an assortment of interesting insights from both men, which didn't however add up to a broader view.

Both pointed to the moral challenges created by greater democracy. Friedman pointed to the Internet, arguing that precisely because they are no filters, no authority, no barriers, "old-fashioned stuff" like values, ethics and role models become important. "You cannot download this stuff, you have to upload it."

Bhanu Mehta spoke of the identity crisis created when societies become more open and egalitarian: "We all say, money is much more important now — it has led to greed. But there is an interesting compulsion about money. Traditional hierarchies have broken down. So what is an objective measure of self-worth and achievement now?"

That's why money becomes seductive, because it is precisely unambiguous and objective. "All the things that make equality exciting also create these pathologies," he said, "What we need to create are alternative measures of self-worth."

In the end, the moral of democracy remains the same: we get the government that we deserve. That change doesn't come from simply changing the regime or even the form of government. It happens when we come to together to change ourselves.

Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.

Updated Date: Nov 08, 2011 09:00:52 IST

Also See