Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Flabby Body, Flabby Brain?

Today, Thomas Friedman laments that America is on the decline.
I have been thinking about [the virtues evidenced by Lance Armstrong and his Tour de France team] lately because their abilities to meld strength and strategy - to thoughtfully plan ahead and to sacrifice today for a big gain tomorrow - seem to be such fading virtues in American life.

Sadly, those are the virtues we now associate with China, Chinese athletes and Chinese leaders.
Okay... so the virtues which caused American athlete Lance Armstrong to win the Tour de France are the virtues Mr. Friedman associates with China's Tour de France team? Um... I can't seem to find it. Or perhaps he means their programs to identify potential athletes at a tender age, remove them to boarding schools where their skills can be nurtured, and have many of them participate at the highest levels in international competition. Granted, that's not the way we do things here, but that's also not likely to change.

But what in the world does he mean with his apparent hero worship of "Chinese leaders"? Is Mr. Friedman aware that China is a totalitarian, communist nation? Please, even if you are enamored with what can be done with that type of power and control, don't wish that leadership upon me.
Talk to U.S. business executives and they'll often comment on how many of China's leaders are engineers, people who can talk to you about numbers, long-term problem-solving and the national interest - not a bunch of lawyers looking for a sound bite to get through the evening news.
Isn't this the same thing we heard about Japan's industrial leaders back in the 1980's? My, how things change.
We are now playing defense. A top C.E.O. wants to be paid not based on his performance, but based on the average of his four main rivals! That is like Lance Armstrong's saying he will race only if he is guaranteed to come in first or second, no matter what his cycling times are on each leg.
Mr. Friedman seems to believe that it is news that American CEO's obtain contracts which require them to be paid more than the industry average. But benchmarking is old news and, while it certainly has played a major role in the exhorbitant compensation packages paid to many CEO's, should be recognized as such. I am not arguing that bloated executive salaries help companies - it often seems more like legalized looting of stockholders' investment. I will certainly concede that such compensation packages are much less likely under a communist government. But it is far from a new phenomenon.
I recently spent time in Ireland, which has quietly become the second-richest country in the E.U. ...
How are we defining "richest" - because by GDP, Ireland is about 16th on the list, behind such nations as Denmark, Portugal, and Greece - and way behind Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the U.K. Of course, Friedman is speaking of "per capita GDP", where Ireland recently became second only to Luxembourg among EU states. I'll give Ireland credit for its accomplishments - we could do much of the same here, for faltering and impoverished regions of the country, if we chose. It took a great deal of investment and effort, and a great deal of E.U. grant money, to pull Ireland up by its bootstraps. But we have different spending priorities.
Wouldn't you think that if you were president, after you had read the umpteenth story about premier U.S. companies, such as Intel and Apple, building their newest factories, and even research facilities, in China, India or Ireland, that you would summon the country's top business leaders to Washington ask them just one question: "What do we have to do so you will keep your best jobs here? Make me a list and I will not rest until I get it enacted."
We have a trade policy which favors large, multinational corporations. It would take a rather dramatic transformation of that policy before the Bush Administration asked corporations to look beyond their bottom line, and advanced policies to keep jobs and factories here.
Instead [of forming policy to significantly reduce our dependence on oil] we are about to pass an energy bill that, while it does contain some good provisions, will make no real dent in our gasoline consumption, largely because no one wants to demand that Detroit build cars that get much better mileage. We are just feeding Detroit the rope to hang itself.
Ah yes - the allegorical "Detroit", where cars are made, as opposed to the real one where they used to be made. Ford, GM, Daimler-Chrysler... aren't they all now Delaware corporations? But I thought the comparison was to China, which itself is increasingly dependent upon oil. Or perhaps to Ireland, which as of 2002 was the 7th most oil-dependent economy in the world, and third-most-dependent in the E.U. Perhaps we should segregate economic issues from the largely theoretical notion that if we were less dependent upon oil, terrorists would be less of a threat.
And if you were president, would you really say to the nation, in the face of the chaos in Iraq, "If our commanders on the ground say we need more troops, I will send them," but they have not asked.
No, I wouldn't. But if I were a columnist for the New York Times, even when addressing such a duplicitous comment, I wouldn't pretend that the President could wave a magic wand and conjure troops from thin air.
Oh, well, maybe we have the leaders we deserve. Maybe we just want to admire Lance Armstrong, but not be Lance Armstrong. Too much work. Maybe that's the wristband we should be wearing: Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.
I realize that Mr. Friedman is speaking metaphorically - I don't expect that he will be donning spandex and mounting a racing bike any time soon. But what does he expect? Apparently, he only just woke up to the problem of runaway executive pay, and hasn't even noticed that "Detroit" has become a mere metaphor for the auto industry. It would be great if the rest of the nation were two steps ahead of him, and energized to press our leadership to revitalize depressed areas of this nation. Sure, we should reconsider tax policies which result in the starvation of our public universities, and deterioration of our nation's infrastructure. But how do we get there from here? It's much easier to identify a problem than it is to solve one.

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