That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back
Tom Friedman urges Americans: Let’s save our greatness – before it’s too late.
Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum call themselves “frustrated optimists” about America. The country still has a lot going for it, especially its entrepreneurial spirit and creative energy, they say. But it’s off its game at the moment – way off. And that’s happening at just the wrong time, when technological advances have enabled new economic and political competitors (think China) to take advantage.Skip to next paragraph
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America is in denial, unwilling to accept that it’s been living beyond its means and getting, well, a little lazy. For the authors, a country music lyric from the 2009 film “Crazy Heart” sums it up: “Funny how fallin’ feels like flyin’/ For a little while....”
Meanwhile, the two major political parties have become so polarized, and so willing to pander to voters and tell them only what they want to hear, that they can neither propose real solutions separately nor work together to find them.
In That Used to Be Us, Friedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times, and Mandelbaum, a foreign-policy expert at Johns Hopkins University, do a masterly job of explaining just what’s wrong and why our nation is on the brink of tragedy. They employ lively examples and telling statistics to make their points, and buttress them with incisive quotes from those inside America’s political system. From preface to conclusion, the book paints a devastating picture.
But since the authors declare themselves optimists, a reader awaits some fresh solutions to the country’s massive problems, including out-of-control debt and deficits and slipping competitiveness. What comes is a slap of cold reality: Hard times lie ahead. There is no magic potion for returning to greatness, no easy answers. “Americans will have to save more, consume less, study longer, and work harder than they have become accustomed to doing in recent decades,” they write.
But hard is not impossible. “That Used to Be Us” issues an appeal to return to the formula that made the US a political and economic superpower. That includes finding the “radical center,” where the best ideas from the right and left of the political spectrum work in harmony. Hewing to this middle path is far from easy, they say. But it presents the best hope for the kind of radical reform that’s needed.
The United States faces four big challenges, the authors say: adapting to globalization, adjusting to the information revolution, coping with budget deficits, and managing energy consumption and climate change. Solutions rest on five pillars that have come to represent a “uniquely American formula” for success over the past 230 years.
Tax-cutting is not on their agenda. Carefully selected tax increases are. “Our goal should not be merely to solve America’s debt and deficit problems,” they write. “That is far too narrow.... [W]e must also invest in education, infrastructure, and research and development, as well as open our society more widely to talented immigrants and fix the regulations that govern our economy. Immigration, education, and sensible regulation are traditional ingredients of the American formula for greatness.”