ASPEN - America is falling behind as a global leader on many fronts and could use a shock to its system, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman said Thursday during an Aspen Ideas Festival interview.
Friedman, 57, who also is a best-selling author, discussed politics, the environment, the economy, education and technology in a diverse 75-minute session with Aspen Institute president and CEO Walter Isaacson. The institute's Doerr-Hosier Center was packed for the morning event, with listeners spilling into the lobby area.
Friedman said he believes the upcoming presidential election will be ripe for the emergence of a third-party candidate, someone who stands to shake up the "corrupt duopoly" that Democrats and Republicans seek to preserve.
"I am for a third party," Friedman said. "If [former U.S. Sen.] Alan Simpson and [former White House Chief of Staff] Erskine Bowles want to run as president and vice president I will vote for them. If [New York Mayor] Michael Bloomberg wants to run, I'm very happy to vote for him.
Simpson, who was in the audience Thursday, and Bowles co-chaired the president's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform last year. It released a report with a five-step plan in late 2010, calling for reductions in discretionary and defense spending, and raising revenues by reforming the tax code. It also sought modifications to Social Security and better control of health care costs. Its blueprint for meaningful reform was ultimately derailed by Republican and Democrats alike.
"If we do the debt the way we should be doing it - and Simpson-Bowles have laid out that plan for us - that's like going to the dentist and getting a rotten tooth pulled out with Novocaine. It comes out, it hurts, but we get the tooth out," Friedman said.
"If we don't do that, our tooth is coming out, only the dentist will be called the market and Mother Nature, and when the market and Mother Nature do your dental work, that's like having a caveman remove your tooth with stone tools. Now the tooth will come out, but there will be blood all over you, all over the floor, and it'll probably knock out the other three teeth around it," he said.
Friedman said he has "no illusions right now that a third party can win" but added that the effects of a third-party candidacy would reverberate through the 2010 presidential election and years beyond it because U.S. voters are in a radical mood and want to fuel a potential change in the system.
Friedman said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008, then backtracked in jest, saying that as a journalist he's not supposed to divulge whom he supports. Under prodding from Isaacson, he said he's disappointed with Obama's leadership.
"If I had voted for Obama, the reason I would have voted for him, is because I thought he would change the polls, not read the polls," Friedman said. "And I see a man just reading the polls. And I also see the Republicans behaving with just utter recklessness."
The United States is "driving without a bumper and a spare tire," he said, in part because Obama has failed to push his agenda after his first few months in office and also because Democrats and Republicans aren't doing the things necessary to get the nation back on track.
Various political leaders have offered solutions, but there doesn't seem to be a comprehensive plan that addresses the big picture of sparking the economy and reducing the federal budget deficit, Friedman suggested.
"We need to be doing three things," he said. "We need to cut [spending]. We need to raise taxes. We also need to reinvest and reinvent our formula for success."
Friedman said that willy-nilly cutting won't fix the problem.
"I'm all for cutting, but if you don't do it in the framework of a plan that's built on the arteries of your success, you're actually going to make the problem so much worse you're going to imperil the American Dream," he said.
"This is a really dangerous market right now," Friedman explained. "We used the 'bumper and the spare tire' just to get out of the subprime [mortgage-lending] crisis."
In other remarks and in response to audience questions, Friedman made the following observations:
• American workers are falling behind the workforces of several other countries largely because of a flawed U.S. educational system, he said. Employers are looking for workers who provide "value-add," he said, and being average doesn't cut it anymore.
"Because I, as an employer, now have access, every day a little more, to more above-average talent, anywhere in the world, or above-average software or above-average robotics. So if you can't find your 'extra,' you're gonna have a real problem."
• Social media such as Twitter and Facebook have their place, Friedman said, adding that he's too busy to deal with it. He said he reads several newspapers in the morning but ultimately wants to fill his time by going directly to the source than reading myriad interpretations of news events.
"I don't want to have it filtered," he said. "I want to be there. ... I can't concentrate when people are pinging me all the time. Or stopping me to say, 'Did you see what was written about this or that.' You cannot focus. I don't think you can think straight. So I just put as much of this technology out of my hands as I can to survive because I'm just overwhelmed."
• Friedman said he doesn't get involved in "Internet wars."
"If you say something nasty about me, there's one thing I can guarantee you, I'm not going to fire back, because I'm just too busy trying to figure it out. I see a lot of people [who] in my mind waste a lot of time and energy because these technologies can take you down into blind alleys."