Thomas Friedman Says In Order To Meet The Challenges Of The Future, The US Needs Better Citizens

Thomas Friedman fears that our democracy is so broken it will not be able to meet the big challenges of the future.  In “Advice From Grandma,” he cites six stubborn realities that are paralyzing America:

  1. Money in politics has become so pervasive that lawmakers have to spend most of their time raising it, selling their souls to those who have it or defending themselves from the smallest interest groups with deep pockets that can trump the national interest.
  2. The gerrymandering of political districts means politicians of each party can now choose their own voters and never have to appeal to the center.
  3. The cable TV culture encourages shouting and segregating people into their own political echo chambers.
  4. A permanent presidential campaign leaves little time for governing.
  5. The Internet, which, at its best, provides a check on elites and establishments and opens the way for new voices and, which, at its worst provides a home for every extreme view and spawns digital lynch mobs from across the political spectrum that attack anyone who departs from their specific orthodoxy.
  6. A U.S. business community that has become so globalized that it only comes to Washington to lobby for its own narrow interests; it rarely speaks out anymore in defense of national issues like health care, education and open markets.

Friedman wonders if the “failed state” of California is a prelude to the coming failed state status of America.  Friedman says the hope that leaders such as Schwarzenegger and Obama might make a difference is turning to disappointment.

Friedman writes, “The standard answer is that we need better leaders. The real answer is that we need better citizens. We need citizens who will convey to their leaders that they are ready to sacrifice, even pay, yes, higher taxes, and will not punish politicians who ask them to do the hard things. Otherwise, folks, we’re in trouble. A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power.”

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18 Responses to Thomas Friedman Says In Order To Meet The Challenges Of The Future, The US Needs Better Citizens

  1. Robert Vigh says:

    Who is Thomas Friedman? Because he is a goober. His answer is to enslave yourself more to a dis-functional government. So, lets see…..the government who grew to large, spends without abandon, is inefficient and cannot tackle difficult difficult topics should be empowered more? The guy is a hypocrite unto himself.

    Furthermore, the working class is sacrificing every single day in the form of taxes. The money is squandered and wasted. He is right about one thing, we need better citizens, but they need to stand up and tell the government “You can have no more, you are cut off”.

    Yuck, goobers like this make me feel ill.

  2. Stan Hirtle says:

    This is an excellent article by Friedman. Today’s DDN editorial page also had a good point counterpoint between David Brooks on the right and Krugman on the left about the performance of Geithner and the Obama Treasury Department.

    I don’t get Vigh at all. Friedman talks about what is wrong with government. Vigh says ” he is a goober. His answer is to enslave yourself more to a dis-functional government.” I’m not sure I know what a “goober” is supposed to be, nothing good to be sure, but the term does not convey much else. Then he says Friedman wants you to enslave yourself to the dysfinctional government Friedman describes.

    Friedman’s point is essentially that we get the kind of government we deserve, either because of our low involvement level or by tolerating the money driven, district manipulating system we have without rising up. Vigh doesn’t like taxes, but otherwise doesn’t make much sense.

  3. Robert Vigh says:

    Let me clarify. I am not sure why his call to rise up would be to rise and say “tax us more!”. Basically he says government is a giant mess and we should fix that by giving more of our freedom to the government.

    He is pointing out that it is broken and the fix is to make it bigger with more power. This sounds like a contradiction. Make sense now?

  4. Stan Hirtle says:

    I’m not sure that is accurate. I take him as saying people need to stand up for functional, not disfunctional government, not be enslaved by it, particularly when it can not deal with problems for the reasons he describes, and probably some other ones as well. Taxes, or their reduction is not a be all- end all of government as much as whether it is meeting society’s needs or simply responding to the self interest of the narrowest, richest or angriest.

  5. I agree 100%.

    Gerrymandering has been devastating for some of our rural districts. We have politicians that only have to quote catchphrases and do nothing else.

    Cable news has dumbed down all discussion and has increased the divide.

    We all need to be smarter.

  6. Jesse says:

    Functional government? What is that? Ah…jumbo shrimp… never mind. What is that called…oxy…oxy…oxy…ah yes, moronic. Oxymoronic….that is it.

    Lets see what Thomas Jefferson writes to William Plumber about the structure and function of our government, “”Here… will be preserved a model of government, securing to man his rights and the fruits of his labor, by an organization constantly subject to his own will.”

    What is society? How do we define it’s needs? What if the needs of society conflict with the rights of one person?

    The only legitimate purpose of government is to ensure that the rights of men are protected. Man’s “needs” cannot be met if he is not free. By the logic that it is possible to meet the “needs” of men via force, then slavery was okay. It was the same logic used then. Africans couldn’t take care of themselves and needed the strong hand of a master.

    Now Thomas Friedman wants me to “sacrifice” my decision making to someone else, for my own good and the good of society, because they know better than me what I need. If I don’t “sacrifice” then I am a bad citizen. If I don’t “sacrifice” then I am somehow hurting someone else. If I don’t “sacrifice” I should be reprimanded. If I still refuse to”sacrifice” I am an enemy of your State. The individual be damned, as long as the “society” is happy and functioning. I can define individual and I know what I, as an individual, want. I don’t understand society and why what it seems to want is my destruction. So no, never, will I sacrifice myself for that thing. I will sooner be an enemy of the entire society than an enemy to myself.

    Happy Thanksgiving.

  7. Mike Bock says:


    Friedman is asking whether or not our democracy can find a way to produce effective responses to the greatest challenges endangering our future. Friedman doesn’t quite spell it out, but, evidently, he feels that unless Americans start paying higher taxes, as a country we will go bankrupt. We will become a failed state. The consequence of America becoming a failed state would be devastating to individual American citizens and would cause a destructive upheaval throughout the entire world.

    Your view, of what Friedman is proposing, seems unfair. You write, “The individual be damned, as long as the ‘society’ is happy and functioning,” implying that Friedman is unreasonably emphasizing the well being of society above the well being of the individual. But, suppose Friedman is right, and suppose America goes belly up. Then, the individual really would be damned. You cannot have individual freedom, individual liberty, outside of a just society, and the chance that an America that goes belly up could protect individual liberties is unlikely.

    The only way to secure the well being of the individual is to secure the well being of the society in which the individual is a citizen. I think Friedman’s conclusion that we need higher taxes sounds reasonable.

  8. Robert Vigh says:

    Friedman is a goober, Jesse is right, Mike is wrong. Government wants to avoid failing, try spending less money, not milking the citizens for more.

    Mike, you also think it is reasonable that the majority force the minority to pay more taxes.

  9. Jesse says:

    “Any man who would sacrifice his freedom for security, deserves neither and will lose both.” Ben Franklin

    The US will end as a failed state unless entiltment programs end. Reality exists and a is always a. No amount of petulent breath-holding can change the facts. If you demand that I am nothing but a slave, then society will crumble around you. If I am a slave, I have no reason to stop it. You ask for the opinion of those who could make it work. When we say, “leave us alone and get out of our way!” you shreik that we are not being fair. Reality exists. Want America to succeed? Stop promising to take from those who can and do and giving to those who can’t or won’t.

  10. Mike Bock says:

    Robert and Jesse,

    I can’t tell if you agree or disagree with my conclusion, which I believe is the bedrock reality that needs to be the foundation of discussions about “liberty and justice.” I believe, as I said above, “The only way to secure the well being of the individual is to secure the well being of the society in which the individual is a citizen.”

    I believe that an individual can enjoy individual “liberty and justice,” only within a well ordered, secure, law centered society where “liberty and justice” is protected and where “liberty and justice” is advanced and protected by the structures and laws of that society.

    I know there are people who take such an extreme libertarian view that they advocate anarchy — but, anarchy would be an awful outcome for the average person — and an awful outcome for the wealthy and privileged as well.

    Any political philosophy must be judged on whether or not it deals with the question of societal stability. Every valid vision of how to organize a society involves a strategy for distributing wealth. To suggest we can have a society where it’s every person for him or herself — Dickinsonian capitalism — is to suggest the impossible. So yes, “Reality exists,” what is essential is that our democracy become strong enough to effectively deal with reality to move us as a nation ever closer to our ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” A strong democracy needs strong citizens. Friedman’s call for better citizens is right.

  11. Jesse says:


    Every valid vision of how to organize a society involves a strategy for distributing wealth? Which means that Capitalism isn’t a valid vision for the organization of any society? Some kind of governmental distribution of wealth, not earning it, is the only valid method of gaining said wealth?

    The only method of creating wealth is to produce a product or service that provides value for another person. You have two options, provide a service or product that people choose to buy or to use force to take from people. If the only valid systems involve distribution and not creation, it is easy to see how we will soon be a failed state.

    I think I am done…it has been fun.

  12. Mike Bock says:

    Jesse, thanks for your thoughts.

    I said that every valid vision of how to organize a society involves a strategy for distributing wealth. I didn’t say it should be a “governmental distribution of wealth.” I do believe in capitalism and I do believe in the free market and I do believe we need a system where individuals who create wealth, create improvements and innovations can be rewarded by the market and can become rich. But, the only context where this can happen is within the context of a stable society. And yes, I think in a more fair society, the wealthy would contribute more in taxes — to add to the stability of our society, help the least among us — than what they presently do.

    Your point of view — advocating maximum freedom for the individual — cannot have credibility unless you show how its implementation can be done in such a way as to assure societal stability. In the long run, there can be no meaningful freedom for the individual without societal stability. And societal stability doesn’t just happen on its own. It doesn’t happen through unbridled capitalism. A stable democratic society requires an alert and active citizenry. Friedman is right, we need better citizens. Better citizens would lead to less corruption, less influence by special interests, a government “of the people, for the people.”

    You’ve not indicated whether or not you agree with this principle, “The only way to secure the well being of the individual — the liberty of the individual — is to secure the well being of the society in which the individual is a citizen.”

    I think we are all prone to wishful thinking, but as you said, “reality exists.”

  13. Stan Hirtle says:

    It seems like there is a disconnect between abstractions like freedom, the extent to which wealth is “earned” by making the world a better place, as opposed to gaming or manipulating the system, exploiting others through lying, cheating and stealing and things of that sort. In fact most wealth and the ability to produce it depends on how society is organized, how much you start with and where you are plugged in. We also have questions of how much we are a community, how interdependent people are on each other, which tends to be underestimated by libertarians. You also have variations on “your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” which tends to raise very complex problems in practice. “Rights” and “entitlements” are also abstractions but in practice what matters is often whose particular rights and entitlements, as opposed to rights and entitlements in general. Generally I like mine and don’t care as much for yours. Most people, even when they do the most harm, don’t see themselves as evildoers. And no one really wants to live in a dog eat dog society.

  14. Eric says:

    Friedman: we need better citizens. … A great power that can only produce suboptimal responses to its biggest challenges will, in time, fade from being a great power.

    Madison: [Americans] rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government

    Hirtle: We also have questions of how much we are a community, how interdependent people are on each other, which tends to be underestimated by libertarians.

    So what education do libertarians need so they can contribute constructively to a discussion of the citizenship skills necessary for informed citizenship?

    I was happy to see Friedman echo Madison. Others latched onto “taxes” as if Friedman were suggesting higher taxes were the only optimal solution to any problem.

  15. Mike Bock says:

    Eric, I am interested in knowing more about the new social studies curriculum that is to be developed by the state of Ohio. But preparing students for citizenship must be a central aim of the whole educational experience, not simply the curricular goals of a few classes. How public education should be organized as a system that seeks to accomplish this aim is the more comprehensive question that needs to be discussed.

    I recently read this by H. L. Menken:

    “That erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”

  16. Stan Hirtle says:

    Friedman, like the Cincinnati Bengals, can follow a quality performance with a one not so great.
    He wrote in today’s DDN
    “The Narrative [circulating in the Islamic world] posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down. . . .Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving. . . Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers, you’d never know it from listening to their world. . . Have no doubt: we punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11, partly to send a message of deterrence, but primarily to destroy two tyrannical regimes — the Taliban and the Baathists — and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics. In the process, we did some stupid and bad things. But for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.”
    Mideast war does not bring out Friedman’s strongest thinking, but a million acts of kindness for each Abu Ghiraib is hard to take seriously given at least 100,000 civilian deaths estimated in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the hundreds of billions of dollars in armaments blown up there in 8 years of war. Does anyone really think that two decades of American foreign policy has been dedicated to saving Muslims from themselves, each other and natural disasters? Some of this has happened, and I have no idea why some think that the Koran allows blowing up mosques and markets full of innocent people. But isn’t at least most of the foreign policy of the US dedicated to self interest, or oil, or global capitalism, or retaliating against attacks? And we didn’t send the boy scouts to Iraq to help old ladies across the street. We sent soldiers with guns and bombs and tanks and drones, and when that happens people get killed. In an occupation, Abu Ghraibs happen, and the many of the occupied are generally not happy. It is important that US power be used consistent with US ideals, but it is also important not to overly fantasize about the extent to which this is happening. And if we want people to come to terms with modernity, or adopt something resembling Western democracy, or read the Koran seriously, it’s probably not going to happen down the barrel of a US gun. They are going to have to do it themselves.

  17. truddick says:

    The big-L Libertarian perspective is that we are better off if we limit government to only criminal law enforcement, military defense, and those minimal administrative functions that would be necessary to manage them.

    Unfortunately the facts do not support their hypotheses. If we eliminate public health, we are not better off, we are subject to epidemics and even plagues. If we eliminate public transportation, then the wealthy could buy up all of the property surrounding a city and thus de facto enslave all of its residents. If we eliminate public education, then we return to the days of widespread illiteracy.

    As the USA has moved more and more toward Libertarianism since the Reagan years–e.g., less regulation, lower taxes–we’ve teetered back and forth from a modestly healthy economy to recession to, recently, the brink of ruin. The only time we’ve had a sustained robust economy and the beginnings of a balanced federal budget was during the Clinton years–the least Libertarian president we’ve had in 40 years gave us the greatest prosperity.

    It’s fascinating that the people who dismiss evolution as “just a theory” are very often the very ones who embrace the political hypothesis of Libertarianism. Evidence, it seems, means nothing to either viewpoint.

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