Following World War II, the U.S. economy has evolved through three distinct eras, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Tom Friedman. From 1945 to the early 1970s, he says, “high-wage, low-skilled” jobs were plentiful for Americans with high school educations as government and private investment in the country boomed. Starting in the 1970s, that investment began to decline, but the economy generally hummed along as more people bought homes, credit card use became commonplace, and more women entered the workforce to provide a second income to families.
In 2008, Friedman points out, everything changed abruptly: home values plummeted, personal debt became crippling for many, and most importantly, the emergence of new players in the global economy such as China and accelerating technological change permanently eliminated many of the high-paying, limited-skill jobs that once were the bedrock of the American middle class.
The country is still reeling from the schism of roughly ten years ago, Friedman says, and troubling social, economic, and political divisions that had been growing in intensity became manifest when anti-establishment candidate Donald Trump was elected president last fall. Arguing against the current trends of isolation and retrenchment, Friedman believes that the most pressing concern in American society today is remolding our political and social systems to fully engage, rather than retreat from, the rapid technological change that is transforming human existence.
The New York Times columnist recently visited Louisville to discuss his 2016 book “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations” as part of the University of Louisville’s Kentucky Author Forum series. He was interviewed by U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-3rd District), and the program was filmed by KET for Great Conversations.
“My book is built around the theory that the world is not just changing, it is being reshaped,” Friedman says. “And there’s a big difference. When the world gets reshaped, everything needs to be reshaped – education, the workplace, politics. Basically, I argue that it is being reshaped by these three giant forces – what I call the market, Mother Nature, and Moore’s Law.”
Moore’s Law was first posited by Gordon Moore, chairman of Intel, in a 1965 magazine article. He estimated that the power and speed of microchips would double roughly every 24 months. Friedman says that over the next 52 years, Moore’s Law has been upheld – and now, the exponential advances are occurring at a dizzying pace, to the point where many in Silicon Valley believe that a major autonomous motor vehicle revolution is only a few years away.
In his book, Friedman spotlights 2007 as a pivotal year in technology, when the principles behind Moore’s Law could be seen in a variety of product launches and business start-ups that permanently changed daily life for humans everywhere. That year,
- Apple unveiled the iPhone
- Facebook opened up to the general public
- Twitter went global
- Google launched its Android operating system and bought YouTube
- IBM introduced its Watson computer
- solar energy use and natural gas production in the U.S. became more commonplace
- several other important signposts in the tech and energy sectors occurred.
“My view is that 2007 was … the single greatest technological inflection point since Gutenberg,” Friedman says. “And we completely missed it because of 2008.”
Talking with Mother Nature
According to Friedman, the global recession in 2008 staggered national governments so severely that they were unable to formulate the significant reforms needed to make their countries adapt to the ongoing “climate changes” transforming society.
Friedman identifies three of these epochal changes, 1. actual climate change affecting the planet; 2. a transformation of the global economic order; and 3. the innovations in technology. In order to help businesses and individuals meet these challenges, he argues, we must develop policies based on the qualities of resilience and propulsion. And the best role model to emulate in order to instill resilience and propulsion in American life, Friedman says, is “Mother Nature,” or Earth itself.
Freidman relates a key passage from “Thank You for Being Late,” where he “interviews” Mother Nature to learn more about how she has managed to flourish despite millennia of random and colossal changes. Earth’s natural order possesses important characteristics that are essential to survival, Friedman says. First, nature is “incredibly adaptive,” he says, “in a brutal way, through natural selection. Only the adaptive survive.”
Second, Friedman says is that nature is pluralistic. Biological diversity is essential to the survival of the planet, and the most diverse ecosystems on Earth are the most resilient.
Third, nature is “incredibly entrepreneurial,” Friedman says, creating plants or animals to fulfill specific niches in the ecosystem.
Nature’s fourth characteristic is sustainability, exemplified by the ongoing cycle of seed-plant-food-waste that propels life.
Fifth, nature is “hybrid and heterodox,” with species interacting in novel and beneficial ways that may deviate from prior norms and thus create new life forms.
The final characteristic of ‘Mother Nature,’ Friedman says, is a “belief in the laws of bankruptcy.” If a species or ecosystem ceases to exist, its energy is transferred into further evolution and progress. “My point is that I think in this age of acceleration – where we have a huge adaptation challenge – the party, the community, the country that most mirrors Mother Nature’s strategies for building resilience and propulsion when the climate changes is the one that will thrive.”
‘Applied Hope’ for the Future and the Importance of Trust
Friedman’s own political orientation, exemplified by his Mother Nature Party, is informed by these six values and the goals of resilience and propulsion. He believes that the current political system in the U.S. is designed to engage with an economic and social order that is near extinction. For example, Friedman points out that an ideal government policy platform for the 21st-century economy would combine both conservative and progressive policies. This hybrid approach would call for vigorous support of entrepreneurial capitalism through the elimination of corporate taxes as well as single-payer health insurance to bolster the social safety net.
During his current book tour, Friedman says that he has found that “people are starved for navigation. They know that the ground is shifting under their feet, they know the ground is shifting under their kids’ feet. And at the national level, they’re just not getting it. And they are so anxious because of that, and also so aroused.”
Friedman relates a favorite quote from one of his former professors: “Trust is the only legal performance-enhancing drug.” To Friedman, once trust is established in a relationship – in business, government, or personal life – then incredible progress can be made. Trust does not exist on a national level right now, Friedman says, but he is encouraged by what he’s seen in some state and local governments and within community organizations.
These bright spots in current civic life recall Friedman’s own upbringing in St. Louis Park, Minn., a suburb west of Minneapolis. As recounted in “Thank You For Being Late,” Friedman’s family moved to St. Louis Park from a ghetto in north Minneapolis during the 1950s along with many other Jewish families, and integrated with the suburb’s existing population, which was largely comprised of Protestants of Scandinavian descent. St. Louis Park, a fertile incubator of creative and political talent, produced the filmmaking Coen brothers, comedy writer and current U.S. Sen. Al Franken, political scientist Norm Ornstein, and several others. Friedman says that St. Louis Park prospered during the 1950s and 1960s, and still does today, despite religious and ethnic differences, because of a community-wide ethos of trust, responsibility, and collaboration.
“Right now, the federal government is just too paralyzed for this age of acceleration,” Friedman says, “and the single family at the other extreme is way too weak, especially because we have way too many single-parent families. So, I’m arguing in my book – and that’s why my community is in there – that the healthy community is the right governing unit for the 21st century.”
As Friedman sees it, people will only become committed to political and social change when they feel that they have a true voice in the process. “When ownership is present, good things happen,” he says. A disconnect currently exists between Americans and the national government, but elsewhere, local governments, communities, schools, and businesses are enacting the sort of programs and policies that Friedman believes will become publicly supported and self-sustaining as the accelerations of our technological age continue.
More than anything, Friedman declares that our concept of education will have to be rebuilt, and extended throughout a person’s lifespan, in order to handle the challenges of a 21st-century economy. He discusses a program currently being developed by AT & T, which offers to subsidize specialized courses for current employees to ensure they are qualified for the company’s jobs of the future, as an example of what will be required from other institutions.
Friedman concedes that there is a lot of troubling news in America, and that the political divisions shown in last year’s Presidential election are deep, but while writing “Thank You for Being Late,” he says he found a lot of positive signs. Ultimately, Friedman believes in what one of his friends calls an “applied hope” in our ability to work together and take the reins of this disorienting, but exciting, modern world.
“What encourages me as I go around the country, there are a lot of problems that need solving, but, my God, there are a lot of people who want to get caught trying,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are applying hope.”