Linguistic Anthropology

The study of language has been part of anthropology since the discipline started in the 1ate 1870s. This site is a place for linguistic anthropologists to post their work and discuss important events and trends in the field.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Does Thomas Friedman read Thomas Friedman?

In his 24 December column, Time to Reboot America, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman compares US education, transportation and communication infrastructure - unfavorably - with that of Hong Kong. He suggests that US government attempts to alleviate the current recession should concentrate on improving this infrastructure.

What caught my attention was this aside near the end of the piece:

Generally, I’d like to see fewer government dollars shoveled out and more creative tax incentives to stimulate the private sector to catalyze new industries and new markets.

"Fine," you're saying, "that's a perfectly common political belief in the US. It's certainly nothing to excite the professional sensibilities of a linguistic anthropologist - even one who has been labeled a member of 'the political Left and centre-Left'." But what interests me is not any contrast with my own political or economic leanings. Rather, what interests me is the apparent disconnect between this preference and the prescriptions offered in the rest of column.

Friedman begins by noting problems with Kennedy Airport, Penn Station, and the Acela train from New York to Washington. Kennedy Airport is operated by The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and both Penn Station and the Acela line are owned by Amtrak. As I understand it, federal taxes are not a major expense for either semi-governmental organization; thus "creative tax incentives" would do nothing to encourage either to improve service.

Elsewhere in the piece, Friedman suggests that tax cuts, low energy prices, insufficient public schools, and strict immigration policies are 'indulgences' that the US 'cannot afford'. In fact, the sentence just prior to the one quoted above declares, "It [economic stimulus] has to go into training teachers, educating scientists and engineers, paying for research and building the most productivity-enhancing infrastructure — without building white elephants." These indeed sound like worthy aims, but I don't see how tax incentives, no matter how creative, contribute to them.

So if it doesn't relate to his specific arguments, where does this call for "creative tax incentives" come from? Perhaps it's some sort of index of a responsible, conservative voice that Friedman seeks to stand for, regardless of his actual prescriptions?

[Michael at the blog Breakthrough also notes a disconnect between Friedman's prescriptions for building infrastructure and offering tax breaks. He suggests that Friedman - who he calls "a prominent liberal columnist" - argues "as though the highways, the broadband networks, and the personal computers he loves were created through tax incentives rather than government contracts."]


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