Thomas Friedman – Can’t Get No Respect

What’s with the Tom Friedman bashing? In 24 short hours from prime-time glorious mention of venture capital in Sunday’s New York Times op-ed pages, to opinionated humiliation at peHUB.

Easy boys, he’s just a writer. He doesn’t make the rules, he just reports them. Or tries to. And yes, sometimes he can be wrong, just like when we go to the movies and some teenage geek is clicking away in a basement computer trying to save Washington from imminent destruction by a rogue former Soviet Union apparatchik. You’re cheering (at least I am) when he Alt-Tabs his way from a page full of atomic codes to a CIA computer whose password he breaks from a simulated DOS-on-MAC window. Yay, brother! Technology is saving the world, but gimmee a break! Tout le monde knows that it doesn’t actually work that way, and that most laptops would be spinning their hourglass long after the mushroom cloud would cover the lower 48.

But we don’t leave the theater fretting over the incongruence of it all. They are just scriptwriters in Hollywood whose closest contact with technology was the Craigslist search for a roommate when they first got to Tinseland. They created Googling not Google.

Now I’m not saying that Thomas Friedman is a chintzy science fiction writer with only remote knowledge of technology or policy. As others have noted in these pages with usual political aplomb (“I love Thomas Friedman…I’m a huge fan of The World is Flat. Also of that other book, what was is called…. From Beirut to Damascus, or was it Baghdad…whatever it was called, I have a copy of it at home…anyway, he’s great. BUT HE’S DEAD WRONG IN EVERY CONCEIVABLE WAY. Let me tell you the top 30 reasons he’s so freaking wrong!), I happen to think Friedman transforms great ideas into bite size for mass audience consumption. Along the way, his layman reporting combines an artistic license with a fluid and humorous delivery which underscores his point. This doesn’t make him wrong, stupid, or intellectually flawed. It makes him good.

Take for example Hot, Flat and Crowded, Friedman’s latest bestseller which, to the trained eye of a regular Times reader, successfully blends several dozen New York Times articles into what would formerly have been a published collection of several dozen New York Times articles but now is called a book. In one poignant moment, Friedman recounts a panel he once moderated (successfully blending a previous article which reported on this speaking incident and is now delivered in a book – a brilliant study in a creative Creative Commons license that repurposes ones prior work several times over) where he suggested that Al Gore should apologize, yes apologize, for predicting the global climate catastrophe. The apology, he goes on to wittily remark, would not be for sounding this urgent alert, but for underestimating the effects of the global catastrophe. A memorable parable indeed.

The point I am making is that a reader of Friedman understands the literary tools that a great writer or speaker make in order to capture an audience and effectively transmit an idea. The power of persuasion, as Napoleon is probably incorrectly credited with saying, goes to those with grand and simple ideas, not to those with complex and accurate ones.

So what did Friedman actually say?

“You want to spend $20 billion of taxpayer money creating jobs? Fine. Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners — university endowments and pension funds — are tapped out, and make them this offer: The U.S. Treasury will give you each up to $1 billion to fund the best venture capital ideas that have come your way. If they go bust, we all lose. If any of them turns out to be the next Microsoft or Intel, taxpayers will give you 20 percent of the investors’ upside and keep 80 percent for themselves.”

What precisely is wrong with this statement? Nothing, actually. It turns out that if your policy goal is to provide jobs, especially those with a white-collar, no-shovel-needed variety, venture capital turns out to be absolutely the best vehicle for doing so. Sure you can hand out the money to defunct automakers and help them fund the cost of providing cheap Walgreens prescriptions to long-ago retired Detroit workers. Sure you can hand out billions to banks and subsidize the bonus expense of “talent” which might otherwise jump to Madoff Investments in order to keep making payments on their Hamptons chalet. But if you really care about building next-generation innovation in industries that will form the basis of the 21st century, there is simply no better way of dispensing the money than via venture capital. Its purpose, ladies and gentlemen, is to create jobs and innovation!

Yes, I know the arguments. There is no lack of venture capital. Well, certainly sitting on Sand Hill Road we think they are all having cake, but if you’re an entrepreneur thinking about leaving Cisco to build out a new product, you need not apply. Most VC firms today have stopped evaluating new investments because their existing portfolio companies are heading the way of Atlantis. Tell those entrepreneurs that “good ideas will always get funded.”

Then there is the “bailout” argument. Most VCs are making good money and wouldn’t stand having government restrict their compensation with such a “bailout.” But the government doesn’t need to set restrictions on compensation. It’s called a management fee. And most billionaire VCs didn’t get there by taking fees. Now if you’re taking millions of dollars out in fees while providing no returns, you don’t need the government to tell you something is wrong.

There is the over-funding argument. The VC industry is suffering, as others have postulated, because there is too much money in the system, not too little. There again most agree as I have argued before, that a liquidity crisis is the source of our ailment, and not excess of capital. Back in 1999, the last year most VCs made real money, there was a lot MORE excess venture capital but the abundance of exits provided success to many and nobody was complaining. Bring back the excess capital, as long as you bring back liquidity.

The “let’s scale this back to 20 firms” approach – which interestingly enough Friedman did pick up from his VC friends in Aspen – seems to be the recurring message here.  Venture Capitalist, it would seem, like Detroit automakers, think reducing or eliminating competition is the best way to win. Hmm…

Now I don’t want to leave you thinking there are no faults in Friedman’s prose and that I am an unrequited apologist for Mr. Iraq War. Take for example this statement in the same Sunday piece:

“Some of our best companies, such as Intel, were started in recessions, when necessity makes innovators even more inventive and risk-takers even more daring”

A quick check at Wikipedia would show Herr Friedman that Intel was started in 1968, a booming year almost exactly midway between the 1960-61 recession and the 1973-1974 oil-induced crisis. The “data” here is in fact, preposterously incorrect. But even if it were true, the great-companies-get-started-in-recessions narrative is an inspiring but statistically incorrect one. The fact that Facebook started during a recession does not increase its probability of success at all. Most other companies started at the same time have failed. But it makes a great story.

So go on Mr. Friedman, tell another good story. Some of us are still listening.