"Luckiest Guy on the Lower East Side" - Magnetic Fields
As you know, Thomas Friedman irritates me more than just about any human being alive. Oh not because he writes the stupidest or most dishonest stuff that is featured in the Times -- Douthat, Brooks, and Dowd all top him in that category. It's because he writes the stupidest shit that more moderate people mistake for wisdom. And really, the man is a monumental dumbass, a clueless enabler of our rapacious corporate culture and the inside the Beltway ideology that sustains it.
Last week, Friedman issued another magnum opus extolling the virtues of individual choice that technology and the free market are providing to us, which he titled "It's a 401(k) World" as if that were a good thing. In it, Friedman suggests that the economy of the day requires us all to pass a bar exam of sorts and that if we do, presumably pennies will rain from heaven into our 401(k)s.
Now just so any Randist types reading this don't get any false ideas, I've passed two bar exams (2 for 2 and retired undefeated) and have a pretty healthy balance in my own 401(k) -- I have not been buried by Friedman's economy, for which I feel rather fortunate. But I don't mistake this for virtue on my part. I see a lot of luck, the good fortune to have had enough disposable income to fund a retirement in the most horrible of investment eras, and enough professional knowledge because of what I do for a living to have avoided horrible mistakes after initially being crushed in the 2008 onslaught. (I have 100% of my retirement money in stocks, as I have had through my entire career -- I lost 41% in 2008 alone and probably from the height of the market in 2007 through its low point on March 9, 2009, I was down about 60%. Fortunately I hung in there and recouped my losses -- but if the market hadn't bounced back I would have been screwed as so many people were.)
Friedman glibly assumes that we are in some golden age of opportunity:
What’s exciting is that this platform empowers individuals to access learning, retrain, engage in commerce, seek or advertise a job, invent, invest and crowd source — all online. But this huge expansion in an individual’s ability to do all these things comes with one big difference: more now rests on you.
If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone.
Seriously -- "the boundaries are all gone." Try telling that to twenty-somethings all throughout the developed world as they struggle to find work. Try telling it to the 600 or so poor souls crushed to death in Bangla Desh as a result of their societal wager in favor of wealth versus worker safety -- talk about the world being flat.* Basically the world that so excites the husband of the billionaire heiress -- Tommy is much more a traditionalist than you might imagine -- is one in which there is zero job security, zero retirement security, and a smaller social safety net as a result of grand bargains that Friedman and his ilk long to see struck. What does this world offer to the vast majority of people -- not just the average person, but pretty much anyone who has to work for a living? Here is how Friedman describes it (seemingly with approval):
Last week, The Economist quoted one labor expert, Peter Cappelli of the Wharton business school, as saying that companies now regard filling a job as being “like buying a spare part: you expect it to fit.”
People, by and large, do not want to have a life filled with economic adventure, much less being treated as spare parts. Most people crave some sort of stability and security in their work lives, the oppornity to have a career, to settle down somewhere, to not be an eternal and ever-disposable free agent. The economy is not some capricious creature of nature, but rather a man-made construct that should, ideally, serve to make our lives better. The notion that we should embrace a world in which all of us are going to have to continuously reinvent ourselves and claw our way from job to job as careers disappear and free agency becomes the norm is a nightmare.
As someone who has spent the last 28 years working with defined benefit pension plans, I can assure you that whatever their flaws, they have proven vastly superior to the 401(k) in terms of fulfilling their intended purposes, i.e. the retirement security of millions of workers, while 401(k) plans have by and large been an abject failure. It is a mark of just how out of touch he is that Friedman views the 401(k) as any kind of societal model. (And the idea that it is a great thing for the average person to be the investment manager for his or her own retirement is just nuts.)
The "flat, hyperconnected" world that Friedman imagines as some sort of golden age of opportunity is far more likely to prove to be a Hobbesian nightmare. My suggestion to all of you is do as Tom did -- marry rich. It beats the hell out of enhancing your brand every day.