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.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back By Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum Farrar, Straus & Giroux 400 pp.

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.

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.”

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.

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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