11.26.2009

Times Two
















Two New York Times columnists I try to follow are David Brooks and Tom Friedman. In fact, this year I was able to enjoy two books by each, all of which I recommend: Brooks' "Bobos in Paradise" and "On Paradise Drive," and Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" and "The World is Flat." While I might not agree with everything they say, I appreciate that they're thinking about the things I'm thinking about, and bring perspectives far wiser and layered than mine.

This week, Brooks nails an issue I had been discussing with a co-worker over lunch, which is the value judgments inherent in our current health care reform debate: "The Values Question ." The $64 trillion question, for which there is no right answer but plenty of thought-provoking discussion, is what we want our security/vitality balance to be. Or, as I put it to my co-worker in noting that Social Security was created at a time when life expectancies were only a few years past 65, "If we want to have our lives be a third childhood, a third working, and a third retired, we need to be willing to pay a whole lot more in taxes." In fact, this is how much of Europe works, which is great if you like having six weeks of vacation but not so great if you think about all of the innovations that spill out of American brains, labs, and offices.

Friedman notes that what will determine whether the 21st century belongs to America or China is innovation and governance: "Advice from Grandma." I agree with the sentiment but not with his conclusion: that America has China beat on innovation, but its governance has become so flawed that its lead may be in jeopardy. Friedman laments that the way we've organized politics keeps us from doing the right thing; those authoritarian leaders in China, in contrast, can just decide what's right and make it happen. I think it was Churchill who said democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others, and I subscribe to that. For it is our decentralized approach to power that frees us to be the best both in innovation and governance: creativity is stifled when people are impaired in responding freely to opportunities, and governance is compromised when power is overly centralized. I admit we have to run faster to keep up with China, but we should be leery and not jealous of its ability to make big decisions in a centralized way.

But that's just my two cents. Keep those columns coming, Messieurs Brooks and Friedman. At a time of great shouting from the media, this reader appreciates the calm and measured words you two produce.

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