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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.

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For education, that means setting a “Lake Wobegon” standard, matching Garrison Keillor’s fictional town where “all the children are above average.” It’s no longer good enough to have one of the best schools in the US; the country’s educational system must be world class to compete with countries like Singapore, where the biggest complaint from parents is that students are not being challenged enough.

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In the labor market, we must operate as though “no job is safe.” Not just low-skill jobs are being shipped overseas but highly skilled technical work as well. “There is no job that is America’s God-given right [to keep] anymore,” says former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina.

What are the jobs of the future? Be an innovator or creator of something new – or do your service-oriented job (a chef or accountant, for example) in a uniquely creative way.

Friedman and Mandelbaum, both early baby boomers, call on their generation to step up to the challenge. “The future of the country is in our hands, as it was for the GIs on the beaches of Normandy,” they write.

They quote a song from Marx Brothers classic “Horse Feathers” to describe the logjam in Washington (“Your proposition may be good,/ But let’s have one thing understood,/ Whatever it is, I’m against it./ And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it,/ I’m against it.”) Today, Republicans argue that tax cuts will be a panacea, and Democrats refuse to reform Medicare and Social Security. A serious third party candidate, such as H. Ross Perot in 1992 or, a century ago, Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose Party, is needed to provide “shock therapy” – “a very big bee that can sting both parties in a way they can neither ignore nor shrug off.” The goal isn’t to win the White House but to pull a Democratic or Republican winner toward realistic solutions in the center.

Anyone who cares about America’s future – anyone planning to vote in 2012 – ought to read this book and hear the authors’ compelling case. Their solution “may be a long shot,” they concede, “but it’s the best shot we have.”

When the smoke clears, an America back at its best would again be a wonder to behold, “the world’s most attractive launching pad – the place where everyone wants to come to work, invent, collaborate, or start something new....”

It’s not impossible, they say. After all, that used to be us.

Gregory M. Lamb is a senior editor for the Monitor’s print edition.

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