Tom Friedman and public goods for the rich

Friedman is just silly to suggest that Chinese live better than Americans because they have faster trains. But it’s true that making prosperous Americans better off means primarily providing more of the public goods they crave, not increasing their private incomes.

Beating up on Tom Friedman’s amoral gadget-headedness is always good, clean fun, even if it’s done from a rah-rah-America neocon viewpoint. Of course a country’s quality of life isn’t measured by the quality of its cellphone network or the speed of its bullet trains, and it takes a hard heart or a soft head to imagine that the average Chinese lives as well as the average American.

But there is an important insight hidden in Friedman’s breathless prose: you can’t much improve the quality of life of currently prosperous Americans (let’s say, folks above twice the median family income where they live) by giving them more of the things that money can buy. A safe neighborhood, walkable cities, fast, comfortable inter-city transport, excellent public schools and universities, scientific discovery, medical progress, clean air to breathe, an economy that is sustainable into the lives of one’s children and grandchildren, a vibrant high culture: these are primarily public goods, and need public expenditure to bring them about.

Higher taxes on the prosperous to buy the public goods prosperous folks want is a win-win proposition. Now that those folks constitute a major chunk of the Democratic electorate, I hope that Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will make a point of seeking out opportunities to make them (us) better off, at their own expense.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: