That’s right, he said it in his column today. He approvingly quoted Kishore Mahbubani, a retired diplomat who is now the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore:
“No U.S. leaders dare to tell the truth to the people. All their pronouncements rest on a mythical assumption that ‘recovery’ is around the corner. Implicitly, they say this is a normal recession. But this is no normal recession. There will be no painless solution. ‘Sacrifice’ will be needed, and the American people know this. But no American politician dares utter the word ‘sacrifice.’ Painful truths cannot be told.”
Sacrifice is wonderful if it serves a purpose, but there are two big unanswered questions. First how would sacrifice help the recovery right now and second, exactly who do Mr. Friedman and Mahbubani think should be doing the sacrificing?
On the first question, I suppose that Friedman and Mahbubani want to see taxes increased or benefits like Social Security and Medicare cut. Both of these steps would mean real sacrifices for low and middle class people, but how exactly do they help the recovery?
Remember our problem is too little demand. So we make people sacrifice by paying higher taxes. How does this increase demand? Or we cut their Social Security benefits or make them pay more for their Medicare. Again, this would imply real sacrifice, but how does this spur the economy?
Are there businesses out there who are saying that they will not hire or invest today because Social Security and Medicare are too generous? Will these businesses decide to hire more workers and expand their business if the government cut these benefits?
In more normal times, there was at least a plausible argument that this could be the case. The story would go that reducing the deficit would lower interest rates, thereby encouraging businesses to invest. (Actually most research shows that investment is not very responsive to interest rates.) However, with interest rates already at post-Depression lows, it is difficult to envision them going much lower, nor that there would be much additional investment even if they did. In other words, Friedman and Mahbubani seem to be calling for pointless sacrifice.
The second part of the story is who they want to sacrifice. The top 10 percent of income distribution received the vast majority of the gains from economic growth over the last three decades. A grossly disproportionate share went to the top 1.0 percent and the top 0.1 percent. It might be reasonable to expect that the big gainers over this period would be the ones who should be doing the sacrificing.
But not in Thomas Friedman’s world. In his world, sacrifice must be shared equally. Those who are incredibly rich and those who are barely getting are both called upon to make sacrifices for the greater good. That’s Thomas Friedman justice.