Monday, October 08, 2012

Tom Friedman's Busted Escalator

Someday we'll have to admit that protectionism is the only answer

It isn't every day that you'll see me offer words of praise for a FOX commentator, but I guess there's a first time for everything.

Actually, Martin Sieff may be better known as an author and analyst at an outfit called The Globalist Research Center than he is for his work at FOX. A few years back he wrote a book called The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East. I'm dubious about how useful the politics in it was, but there sure was a lot in it that was just plain incorrect. As I recall, his main thesis was that the only time the Middle East was functional at all was when the Ottoman Turks ran it despotically with an iron fist, and that this is what it needs today, with the Saudis basically filling in the role that the Ottomans once did. I don't think I was able to get all the way through it.

There is one particular matter, though, where I find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Sieff (even though that troubles me somewhat), and that is in his blistering critique of the free trade, globalizing thoughts of Thomas Friedman, who recently wrote a book with Michael Mandelbaum called, That Used to Be US: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.

I've written about Friedman before; about his wide influence and how in his previous books, speeches, and  interviews, he has succeeded in turning "protectionism" and "fair trade" into dirty words. In his latest effort, much like Charles Lindbergh returning from the Third Reich in the 1930s, he laments the fact that the USA lacks the drive and efficiency that he saw in the fascist state he just visited. Having been recently bedazzled by a high-speed railway station and a convention center thrown up by the Chinese in a matter of months, he couldn't help but to compare them to the broken escalators he saw in Washington DC subway station, which had been out of service for almost as long a period of time as it took the Chinese to build their state-of-the-art monuments to the 21st Century.  In an interview he did on WBUR's On-Point program, it was described this way:
In September 2010, Tom attended the World Economic Forum’s summer conference in Tianjin, China. Five years earlier, getting to Tianjin had involved a three-and-a-half-hour car ride from Beijing to a polluted, crowded Chinese version of Detroit, but things had changed. Now, to get to Tianjin, you head to the Beijing South Railway Station -an ultramodern flying saucer of a building with glass walls and an oval roof covered with 3,246 solar panels- buy a ticket from an electronic kiosk offering choices in Chinese and English, and board a world-class-high-speed train that goes right to another roomy, modern train station in downtown Tianjin. Said to be the fastest in the world when it began operating in 2008, the Chinese bullet train covers 115 kilometers, or 72 miles, in a mere twenty-nine minutes.

The conference itself took place at the Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center¬a massive, beautifully appointed structure, the like of which exists in few American cities. As if the convention center wasn’t impressive enough, the conference’s co–sponsors in Tianjin gave some facts and figures about it. They noted that it contained a total floor area of 230,000 square meters (almost 2.5 million square feet) and that “construction of the Meijiang Convention Center started on September 15, 2009, and was completed in May, 2010.” Reading that line, Tom started counting on his fingers: Let’s see—September, October, November, December, January . . . Eight months.

Returning home to Maryland from that trip, Tom was describing the Tianjin complex and how quickly it was built to Michael and his wife, Anne. At one point Anne asked: “Excuse me, Tom. Have you been to our subway stop lately?” We all live in Bethesda and often use the Washington Metrorail subway to get to work in downtown Washington, D.C. Tom had just been at the Bethesda station and knew exactly what Anne was talking about: The two short escalators had been under repair for nearly six months. While the one being fixed was closed, the other had to be shut off and converted into a two-way staircase. At rush hour, this was creating a huge mess. Everyone trying to get on or off the platform had to squeeze single file up and down one frozen escalator. It sometimes took ten minutes just to get out of the station. A sign on the closed escalator said that its repairs were part of a massive escalator “modernization” project.

What was taking this “modernization” project so long? We investigated. Cathy Asato, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, had told the Maryland Community News (October 20, 2010) that “the repairs were scheduled to take about six months and are on schedule. Mechanics need 10 to 12 weeks to fix each escalator.”

A simple comparison made a startling point: It took China’s Teda Construction Group thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up -including giant escalators in every corner- and it was taking the Washington Metro crew twenty-four weeks to repair two tiny escalators of twenty-one steps each.
Why, those lazy American slackers! Why can't they work hard, fix those escalators chop-chop, and make the trains run on time like El Duce and Der, sorry... I mean Hu Jintao... There are all kinds of things wrong with the simplicities laid out in those paragraphs, but I'll leave it to Martin Sieff to take apart Mr. Friedman's analysis. This following is taken from the introduction to his riposte to Friedman's book. It is called, That Should Still Be Us: How Thomas Friedman's Flat World Myths Are Keeping Us Flat on Our Backs.
Here we have the core of Thomas Friedman’s prescription for America.

First, we let China and South Korea have all those high-paying old-fashioned- jobs making cars. We don’t need them.

Second, we retrain all those auto workers as doctors, engineers, and MBAs.

Then, we get those Asian countries to start venture capital funds to pay for thousands of start-ups that may or may not bring products to market. Everybody wins!

Well, no. China wins! South Korea wins! Japan wins! But America loses! America loses! America loses!

America loses because most of the well-paying industrial jobs in China, South Korea, and Japan are not in Friedman’s cutesy little enterprising high-tech startups…

Memo number one to Messrs. Friedman and Mandelbaum: if you insist on focusing US government efforts on high-tech research and development and refuse to protect low-tech, far-from-cutting-edge traditional industries, you can expect endless delays in getting spare parts for your Metro rail escalators, your buses, the wonderful new high-speed-train systems, and everything else you fantasize, because you no longer have the broad industrial base to produce those spare parts and basic systems yourself.

And that is likely also the real reason why China was able to build its new super railway station in only eight months: it’s capable of producing most, if not all, of the components for anything it wants to build right there in its own factories. And it has the foreign currency on hand to easily afford the rest overseas.

And why is that? Because the Chinese, like the Germans, have very sensibly protected their own industrial economy from potentially destructive foreign competition.

And where did they learn to act in this manner, which is so different from the idealized flat world of Friedman’s endless siren songs? They learned it from us because that used to be us.