Tom Friedman swings for the fences in conceptualizing current dynamics of our world

Tom Friedman thinks big and conceptualizes ambitiously and grandly, in his column, even more so in his books, and he has developed into a very smooth public speaker.

Columnist/author Thomas Friedman was actually quoting a friend of his when he shared (with a Minneapolis audience Monday) this Zenlike observation on modern times:

“Never think in the box. Never think out of the box. Today you must think without a box.”

That’s one example of grand, mind-blowing and maybe pretty cool stuff that gushes out of local-boy-made-good Thomas Friedman of the New York Times and St. Louis Park native, when he gives a public talk as he did to the Economic Club of Minnesota at the Minneapolis Convention Center as he passed through town on his way home from China.

Friedman thinks big and conceptualizes ambitiously and grandly, in his column, even more so in his books, and he has developed into a very smooth public speaker. His critics sometimes accuse him of terminal glibness and perhaps a touch of grandiosity. While I get what they mean, I don’t blame the guy for wrestling with and, one might say, globalizing about the biggest trends in the world.

In fact, in the first minutes of his remarks yesterday he said: “What I want to talk about this morning is basically how I think about the world.”

He had a few slides, gave a lengthy overview of his recent insights, and then took questions for (in total) an hour. I’d say he told us less about “how” he thinks and more about his latest big thoughts and conclusions. He swings for the fences. But since this isn’t baseball and there are no real umpires, it’s up to each of the spectators to decide whether he whiffed or hit one out of the park.

“The key thesis of [his latest best-selling book] ‘Thank You for Being Late,’’ he said,  is that “the world is not just changing, it’s actually being reshaped, and it’s being reshaped by three nonlinear accelerations all going on at the same time.” I can see why some people get grandiosity from that. But, for the moment at least, I just want to see if I can figure out what he thinks he’s figured out and see if it helps me understand the world and the times we inhabit.

I wouldn’t want to try to summarize the three nonlinear accelerations. Smarter people than I will have to figure out whether they are really occurring and whether they are the keys to understanding our current century and challenges and opportunities and dangers.

If you had the full transcript of his remarks (and especially if you read “Thank You for Being Late”), you might develop an opinion of the keyness of the accelerations. But I don’t mean to imply that Friedman is fraudulent – not at all. Somehow he has acquired a gig that enables him to ask these questions aloud, work up a list of possible answers, then move on to other similar questions. He works hard and he shows his work.

Just now, Friedman said, he’s been trying to figure out “why every political party in the world is blowing up.” Did you notice, he asks, that President Emmanuel Macron, who just finished a White House visit, was the candidate of a party that never existed before but which just beat all of the longstanding French parties?

In America, he said (as far as I can tell Friedman has not written a column along these lines), we have one party that thinks it isn’t falling apart because it is currently governing, but which is, nonetheless and unbeknownst to itself, falling apart; and another party that knows it’s falling apart because it just lost the election. (That one I could follow, and I liked it and agreed with it. The U.S. two-party system is in crisis. I’ve argued that it’s really a four- or five-party system jammed into a two-party straitjacket.)

But his own party, Friedman says in a segue to another topic, is “Mother Nature’s Party,” and we are off to a discussion of global warming and its threat to life on earth. His next topic is the ability of computers to revolutionize the human condition by their ability to (all of these words were in one sentence) “optimize,” “socialize,” “analyze,” “customize,” prophesize,” and (this one is a double) “digitize/automatize.”

Friedman was dazzling, but if you had asked me what his argument was, I would have had trouble framing a summary. What I should have done after his talk (instead of racing to beat the crowd out of the room and start typing) was stop a few members of the audience and ask them what they heard, or thought they heard.

Still, I am worried I’ve come across snotty toward Friedman, so I’ll just mention that he’s won three Pulitzer Prizes and speaks (to my knowledge) three languages, but he may have learned more since the long-ago time when we were briefly acquainted as I profiled him for the Strib.

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Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/01/2018 - 09:02 am.


    Friedman is the absolute worst. Just a terrible, terrible thinker and writer.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/01/2018 - 09:52 am.

    The problem is that Friedman is truly an “elite” with his future set and well protected and it shows in his product.

    Sure, you can “dance in a hurricane”, but you’re more likely to do so when your life is well protected and insured. That’s why he has the big-name sponsors that he does.

    For those working the gig economy, or trying have a place to live in an age of REITs, pension-meltdowns and market shenanigans, or to farm in a time of climate change, look to Puerto Rico.

    Didn’t see many people dancing there during or after the hurricane.

    People survive–mostly. But with losses and diminishments.

    He mistakes an ever-upward trajectory as being all-encompassing effect, not seeing the ever-large trail of debris of those who are not dancing.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 05/01/2018 - 04:43 pm.

      Multi-tasking (doesn’t work, I just noticed again)

      I read your comment while “listening” to the last part of the second of two reports All Things Considered was running on the mess in Puerto Rico (which, they say, came out of the Puerto Rico piece Frontline will be showing tonight).

      Yesterday’s segment covered the all too familiar story of the big league scam Wall Street bankers and bond salespeople ran on the barrel full of gullible Puerto Rican Big Fish who were only too eager to borrow borrow borrow the hundreds of millions and billions dangled in front of them and how, just before the inevitable crash, the financial services industry (see: Tim Pawlenty’s clients) did it’s last round of selling that enabled them to get their money out and leave everyday Puerto Ricans holding the bag (see: “Austerity Now!” riots scheduled for later today and this week).

      That all happened before the hurricane, of course.

      The segment I was half-listening to when I came across your comment was a litany of the monumental hurricane recovery “brother-in-law” contracts and end-to-end FEMA screwups on delivery of the most basic necessities (tarps, generators, water, you name it), never mind their missing or lacking or incompetent help with getting the power back on (not yet).

      So that particular group of “hurricane dancers” isn’t doing much better than they were a month or two after being flattened and, of course, this year’s hurricane season starts sometime within the next 20 to 30 minutes.

      But, thanks to the “Great Vampire Squid” (see: Matt Taibbi) doing its usual “blood funnel” thing before the hurricane; and all those unqualified (but related) contractors and FEMA doing next to nothing, Puerto Rico doesn’t have enough money to recover from the last storm or get ready for the next, but oh well: “They’re not really a state and they’re a lot closer to all those illegal aliens / terrorists flooding over our borders than they are bona fide good ‘ol boys, so the hell with ’em.”

      “In the Blue House of Broken Hearts

      “There’s a place for you by the door.

      “Though the juke box plays those old songs

      “Nobody feels like dancin’ no more.”

      Regarding Tom Freidman, what Pat Terry said.

      He lost all credibility with me the night I heard him tell somebody (Charlie Rose?) that after having initial reservations, he had come around to believing that the invasion of Iraq (that had recently taken place) would prove to be a good thing.

      Haven’t paid much attention to him since.

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 05/01/2018 - 11:58 am.

    Although, from the perspective of certain other parts of the world, the hurricane is a reason to dance…

    The average annual salary in China increased from 29,229 CNY/year in 2008 to 65,569 in 2016.– a doubling of income in 8 years.

    Perhaps, “The World is Flat” is a true reflection the fundamental unsustainability of the US economy near the top of the heap.

    If I were to posit a Friedman-style theory of the future–

    –the lower half of the countries by PPP would still be devastated by the hurricane because they have too little infrastructure and capital access to engage wholesale with the modern economic trends

    –the quarter of the countries above the half-way mark will be dancing in the hurricane because they have the infrastructure and capital access to engage with the economic present.

    –the upper quarter would have difficulty in maintaining their elite status because of the greater technology transfer that is possible, and they are the highest cost and least-productive economies, so the hurricane is generally not good news.

    But this is all in a world that is not irretrievably changing in its climate and where jobs are entirely replaceable by AI.

    My guess–ultimately tough times for all lie ahead.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/01/2018 - 12:14 pm.

    Are you kidding?

    I don’t have a box? THAT’S mind blowing? Friedman is one of the most overrated intellects on the planet, and these routine celebrations of his mediocre insights are kind of tedious. One would have thought that after his flat earth nonsense he would have lost a little luster but apparently not. Friedman is just another neoliberal apologist/champion. I don’t remember the last time I saw him draw on anything but the most superficial (and frequently unreliable) observations for inspiration.

    You can give him credit for “thinking” globally if you want, but you can’t give him credit for doing it well.

    I understand the impulse to celebrate a local guy who made it big, but we need raise the bar intellectually as citizens and responsible adults in America. Facile intellectual “models” organized around decades old pseudo-intellectual corporate jargon about “boxes” just don’t get us there. Ponder me this: How does Friedman know he’s not in a box? Maybe his box is so big he can’t see the walls of it? Or maybe it’s an invisible box like the one they had on Star Trek that one time? Is this a SNL “Deep Thoughts” skit? The man should be embarrassed to say stuff like this out loud and expect to be taken seriously.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 05/01/2018 - 04:14 pm.


      I’m told (because I have it) that privilege is invisible to those who have it. Maybe that’s why Friedman cannot see his box.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 05/01/2018 - 12:21 pm.

    Not a fan

    Maybe it’s because I’m not a Minnesota native, and it’s probably presumptuous on my part (my own Pulitzer Prize total: zero), but I’m not a Friedman fan. He strikes me as Eric has characterized his critic’s arguments: too glib, too optimistic, too far removed from the lives that most of us are leading. That was my verdict upon reading “The Earth Is Flat” some years ago, and I’ve so far not seen fit to go back and read any of the other work he’s published since then. Essentially, I agree with Neal Rovick.

  6. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 05/01/2018 - 04:31 pm.

    Tom Friedman was

    one of the top public intellectuals of the 20th century.
    This century, not so much.
    I much prefer another short mustachioed Jewish NYTimes commentator (his own characterization, BTW).

    • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/02/2018 - 08:18 am.

      Maybe I’m being too harsh but…

      I’ve never impressed by Friedman. I wouldn’t say he was a top intellectual in the previous century, I would say he was intellectual comfort food for neoliberal elites of that era who wanted to pretend they were being intellectuals, which explains his popularity… and his Pulitzer prizes. It’s important to remember what a Pulitzer actually is… it’s NOT an award for intellectual achievement.

      Friedman never produced much in the way of original thought, his stock and trade is packaging up neoliberal conventional wisdom AS original and challenging insight. This kind of writing is often popular because it confirms pre-existing assumptions under the guise of “discovery” and intellectual challenge, like this nonsense with the boxes. Affirmation is usually a crowd pleaser, specially when you package it so that your audience can experience it as clever and original insight. The trick is to create the illusion of intellectual challenge and originality without really challenging the audience too much.

  7. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/02/2018 - 12:45 pm.

    Hey Tom

    Are we still 6 months away from peace in Iraq? I lost track somewhere along the line so I am not sure if we ever hit your mythical deadline.

  8. Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/02/2018 - 02:27 pm.


    Reading the comments here – which more or less flesh out the basis for my original brief comment – I am reminded and once again angered by Friedman’s Iraq war boosterism.

    This guy was as wrong as you can possibly be, about something that plagues the world today and will continue to do so for decades. For this, Friedman should have been thoroughly discredited. Instead, people like Eric Black are still taking this clown seriously.

  9. Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/02/2018 - 07:04 pm.

    No one mentioned suck on this?

    After watching these three minutes of Tom Friedman no sane person would listen to one damn thing he ever says ever again. Skip to thee 2:46 mark if you can’t stand watching the rest.

  10. Submitted by John Appelen on 05/02/2018 - 10:19 pm.

    Love Friedman

    I will need to get his new book, Thomas has an excellent way of making complex topics simple. It is interesting that this crowd dislikes him so much, I mean he just promoted Universal Healthcare… I thought the usual suspects would be ecstatic.

    He sure was correct with his first 2 books.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/03/2018 - 10:40 am.

      That’s the problem

      Everyone wants simple answers to complex problems. But those simple answers are frequently wrong, which is certainly true in Friedman’s case.

      Do yourself a favor and skip this one.

      • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/03/2018 - 02:17 pm.


        Do you disagree that resiliant competitive creative countries will win in the modern connected high tech world?

        And that fixed slow corrupt countries will suffer?

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 05/03/2018 - 04:00 pm.

          Sure, as a general rule

          But there are so many other variables that a simplistic explanation like that is meaningless.

          • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/04/2018 - 08:42 am.

            Many people here deny even the simple logical concepts. They want a stable static world full of some one else providing for them in a chaotic competitive global economy. Somehow all Americans need to be convinced that they need to take responsibility for their own continuous improve and resiliency if they want to thrive in the future.

            And I recommend everyone listening to Tom’s thoughts with an open mind. He talks to a lot of people from different places.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/04/2018 - 09:11 am.

            What Pat said…

            The nature of national “success” is really no different today than it has ever been. That’s why Friedman’s “discovery” of globalism was so facile. We’ve had a global economy on earth for at least 500 years. The technology changes the mechanisms of trade, but not the nature of trade itself. We can note that Friedman’s celebration of globalism did not contain a chapter about the looming global financial collapse for instance.

            The mere definition of national “success” defies simplicity. The Netherlands always gets my vote for best over-all country to live in, but no one would describe that country as a great “winner” of some kind in terms of GDP or economic domination. I find that those who talk the most about innovation and resilience are frequently least resilient and least innovative folks in the room, so translating those qualities into national attributes is always a dodgy proposition.

            • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/04/2018 - 12:48 pm.


              Instantaneous global communication, people like me travelling around the world for 4 hour meetings, huge and cheap shipping, etc… Really, you think no change?

  11. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/03/2018 - 11:03 am.

    Stepping back from Friedman for a minute…

    It interesting to contrast the reactions here in the comments with the prior adulation Friedman is accustomed to receiving. I think what we’re seeing here is an expression of the widening divide between liberalism and neoliberism, and I think what we’re seeing here an expression of a drift away from neoliberalism, which to my mind is a good thing, and is long overdue.

    I think what we’re seeing here a reflection of struggle for the soul of the Democratic Party that we keep reading about elsewhere. It’s the difference between neoliberal’s who supported the Iraq War and liberals who did not among other things.

    Friedman’s attempt to “explain” why political parties are exploding cannot be coherent unless he recognizes the nature of his own elite status, and that of the elite he has been servicing for decades. Basically he would have to recognize the error of his own mentality, and talk about how and why he’s been wrong about so many things. I don’t see THAT happening in any authentic way. I imagine this reaction is somewhat jarring for Friedman et al, who having enjoyed elite status and privilege as self proclaimed guardians of “reality” now find themselves discredited and struggling for relevance.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/05/2018 - 08:24 am.


      I have to wonder if you are just jealous? Thomas has led a very full life and has had a very stable gig with one of our nation’s most influential papers for a long time. He has met with many people all over the world.
      Denying his knowledge and conclusions just because you disagree with him seems dangerous.

      After spending a fair amount of time over seas, I am thinking he knows what he is talking about. And that it is that the stuffy folks in academia who are far off base.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/07/2018 - 09:40 am.


        My jealousy not withstanding, Friedman has been demonstrably wrong on several occasions; some of those like the Iraq war have been discussed here.

  12. Submitted by Debra Hoffman on 05/07/2018 - 10:14 am.

    Friedman Unit

    Google Friedman Unit and you will find out all you need to know about Friedman’s powers of prognostication. Buyer beware.

    • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/07/2018 - 02:32 pm.

      Never Speak Never Wrong

      The odds of making mistakes when one writes a column for decades are pretty high. Especially if one is daring enough to look for trends and make predictions.

      One can always be correct if they never voice their opinions and predictions.

      Not that it matters, but I was and am a supporter of the Iraq invasion. People seem to forget that we had a tiger by the tail. (ie no fly zones) And that there were 3 choices:
      1. Give up the No Fly Zones and let Saddam retaliate against the Shia and Kurds.
      2. Maintain the No Fly Zones forever like in South Korea.
      3. Remove Saddam and hope the Iraqis were ready for Democracy and Peace.

      We chose #3 and unfortunately the Iraqi people failed to grasp the gift they were given. And they let past feuds and power grabs rip their country apart.

      The upside for us was that almost every terrorist went there to fight and die. Thus leaving us in the USA safe and secure.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/07/2018 - 04:54 pm.

        We’re way off topic here but…

        Military invasion isn’t a “gift” under any circumstances, and this invasion was not requested by the Iraqi people. No one had the moral or legal authority to decide that hundreds of thousands of Iraqi’s are better off dead than they would have been living under Saddam. And since no one can restore any of the hundreds of thousands and millions of dead and disfigured back to life or well being, this isn’t a gift that can be returned for refund.

        • Submitted by John Appelen on 05/08/2018 - 09:34 am.


          I think you are forgetting the Saddam was Sunni. The majority of the Iraqi population is Shia and Kurd and was over joyed with the American “invasion” and his removal. And the “invasion” did not kill many people at all.

          It was the resulting civil war that killed the people, not American bombs and guns.

          We paid with money and US military lives to give them an opportunity to be free and self governing. They squandered it with in fighting. Hopefully they learned after the ISIS disaster.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/08/2018 - 08:35 am.

        uh huh…

        So as long as you write a lot… you’re bound to get something correct once and while.

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