Thomas Friedman’s Law of Cliché Recycling

It’s not Sunday without the comic stylings of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who drew a bizarre analogy yesterday between Moore’s law and the effect of social networking sites on political leadership:

In 1965, Gordon Moore, the Intel co-founder, posited Moore’s Law, which stipulated that the processing power that could be placed on a single microchip would double every 18 to 24 months. It’s held up quite well since then. Watching European, Arab and U.S. leaders grappling with their respective crises, I’m wondering if there isn’t a political corollary to Moore’s Law: The quality of political leadership declines with every 100 million new users of Facebook and Twitter.

The wiring of the world through social media and Web-enabled cellphones is changing the nature of conversations between leaders and the led everywhere. We’re going from largely one-way conversations — top-down — to overwhelmingly two-way conversations — bottom-up and top-down. This has many upsides: more participation, more innovation and more transparency. But can there be such a thing as too much participation — leaders listening to so many voices all the time and tracking the trends that they become prisoners of them?

My favorite part is the faux precision – why 100 million? Why not 50 million? Or 200 million? Moreover, the complaint that political leaders are too responsive to the public is an old one, but at least in the US, the recent increase in elite partisanship has arguably made leaders less responsive to the public, not more. It’s not clear that social media has changed that trend in any significant way.

I find this passage significant less for its content than its style, which is classic Friedman, the man who Matt Taibbi famously described as having an “anti-ear” that is “absolutely infallible.” And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Friedman over the years, it’s that he loves to recycle the same hackneyed catchphrases and cringe-inducing metaphors, including turning lemons into lemonade (7x), “Show me the money!” (3x), and “Houston, we have a problem” (2x).

Surprise! Friedman loves Moore’s law analogies too — here are three more from the archives. My favorite is the 1999 one about modems:

“Europe is using $7-a-gallon gasoline to stimulate the market for electric cars; China is using $5-a-gallon and naming electric cars as one of the industrial pillars for its five-year growth plan. And America? President Obama has directed stimulus money at electric cars, but he is unwilling to do the one thing that would create the sustained consumer pull required to grow an electric car industry here: raise taxes on gasoline. Price matters. Sure, the Moore’s Law of electric cars — “the cost per mile of the electric car battery will be cut in half every 18 months” — will steadily drive the cost down, says Agassi, but only once we get scale production going. U.S. companies can do that on their own or in collaboration with Chinese ones. But God save us if we don’t do it at all.” (9/26/10)

“Here’s one way to start [an imagined speech by President Obama]: “My fellow Americans, I want to speak to you about a new economic law. You’ve heard of Moore’s Law in information technology. I’d like to speak to you about the ‘Law of More’ in energy technology. Americans, Indians, Chinese, Africans, we all want more — more comfort in our homes, more mobility in our lives, more technologies with which to innovate. But there is only one way all 6.3 billion of us can have more and not make this an unlivable planet, and that is by living our lives and running our businesses in more sustainable ways and properly accounting for it.” (4/26/09)

“Indeed, the faster your kid’s modem, the faster he or she can get on line, the stronger must be his or her own personal software. You’ve heard of Moore’s Law, that the performance of microprocessors doubles every year and the price halves every year? Well, here (with tongue slightly in cheek) is Friedman’s Law: Parents should add one hour per week of quality time with their children each time the speed of their kid’s modem doubles.” (6/1/99)

[Cross-posted at]

Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College.