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Friedman dialogues on politics

By Nicole Zhao     11/15/12 6:00pm

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman spoke at Rice on Nov. 12 about the recent presidential election; the elimination of the high-wage, middle-skilled job due to globalization and the information technology revolution; and topics concerning foreign policy and international relations. 

For the Baker Institute Student Forum event, Friedman participated in a dialogue with Baker Institute Founding Director Edward Djerejian, followed by a question-and-answer session.

In light of the recent presidential election, Djerejian first asked Friedman whether he believes bipartisanship will be possible as the nation moves toward tackling critical national and international issues. 

Friedman said he believes the Republican Party's loss will force it to transition from the far right to the center right, much as the Democratic Party shifted toward the center after it lost four out of five presidential elections during the 1970s and '80s. 

"On all these key issues, [such as immigration, climate change and tax increases,] the Republican Party was no longer a conservative party; it was a radical party," Friedman, who identifies as a conservative Democrat, said. "Now, we see the full absorption of that reality. It's incredibly healthy. Democrats have gone through it. Republicans are going through it."

Friedman said he believes President Barack Obama was re-elected because Americans believe he is genuinely trying to solve the nation's issues. In contrast, Friedman cited Sen. Mitch McConnell's statement four years ago that the GOP's top political priority was to deny Obama a second term.

Regarding today's rapidly changing job market, Friedman said the merger of globalization and the IT revolution has made the world hyperconnected. This crucial inflection point has been overshadowed by the post-9/11 period and the subprime mortgage crisis, the set of events which led to the late-2000s financial crisis, he said.

Friedman said he argues in his 2004 book The World is Flat that globalization and the IT revolution merged in a way that flattened the world so humans can compete, connect and collaborate. He said that at the time the book was released, Facebook did not yet exist.

"So when I was running around the world saying, 'The world is flat! We're all connected,' Facebook didn't exist, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky, 4G was a parking place, LinkedIn was a prison, applications were what you sent to college and, for most people, Skype was a typo," Friedman said. 

Friedman said this phenomenon of hyperconnectivity has led to what he believes is the most important socioeconomic fact of this time: "Average" is officially over.

"If the whole world were a single math class at Rice University, the whole global curve just rose," Friedman said. 

Consequently, according to Friedman, there will be no such thing as the high-wage, middle-skilled job in five years; there will only be high-wage, high-skilled jobs. He said the biggest difference between himself and his two daughters, currently in their mid- to late 20s, is that while he had to find a job after college, they will have to invent one.

"The new literacy is no longer reading, writing and arithmetic," Friedman said. "It's the ability to learn, relearn, engineer and re-engineer what you know. The world is only interested in what you can do with what you know, relative to someone else anywhere on the planet."

Djerejian then asked for Friedman's prognosis on China's leadership as the country undergoes a major economic shift. 

Friedman said political reform needs to occur in China because due to the one-child policy, China will have to accumulate enough wealth to be able to shoulder the expenses of its aging population. In order to do this, Friedman said China will have to switch from a low-wage manufacturing economy to a higher-wage, knowledge-based service economy, and the only way for China to accomplish this switch is to stop censoring Google to allow for innovation. According to Friedman, as services increasingly become commodities, the value of a unique, imaginative idea exponentially increases.

Friedman said he understands American policymakers, in deciding how to respond to the situation in Syria, may be tantalized by the notion of flipping Syria from being a Shiite-led minority regime to a Sunni-led, pro-Western regime but that this notion is fool's gold. 

"The reason nobody is going into Syria is because everyone saw what happened in Iraq," Friedman said. "You want a different Syria? Iraq just showed you what it takes. It takes a mediator who comes in and has to mediate a whole revolution and the balance of power and falls on the grenade."

Friedman said there are two options for the international response to Syria: allowing the situation to play out and explode or negotiating a solution with Russia involving a sharing of power.

After the floor was opened for questions from the audience, Wiess College senior Anthony Lauriello said the Arab Spring brought the promise of more democracies to the Middle East but the resulting democracies may be run by Islamist majorities that stamp out the rights of minorities. He asked whether Friedman believes these things are compatible.

Friedman said people want to use freedom to pursue one of three different agendas: the Islamist agenda and the Shariah or the Islamic law, the ascendancy of a particular pride or clan, or - what Friedman believes to be the majority school of thought - the freedom to live as a citizen. 

Friedman said the Arab Spring began in pursuit of the latter agenda but other parties have taken over the movement. Friedman said he will look to Egypt as a crucial test because, unlike in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Islamic political power in Egypt does not depend on oil, and consequently, the government cannot use oil to bribe or buy off its population.

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