That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back

  • Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by
  • October 24, 2011

From two astute observers, a near-manifesto on what it will take for the country to work better against global competition.

Listen to an audio clip from That Used To Be Us from Macmillan Audio: ThatUsedToBeUs_webclip

Reviewed by Robert M. Knight

Well written and carefully edited, this book is aimed at all Americans; through no fault of writer or editor, it is also long and complex. That’s because the subject is. And that is the whole point. As a people, we don’t do long or complex well, and we’re suffering for it.

What Jimmy Carter would call the national “malaise” is so complex that most Americans don’t want to think about it. Yet it requires much thought. That’s depressing.

Tom Friedman of The New York Times and Michael Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins University tell us that our nation itself can again be upbeat, but only if we can all get together and do some serious thinking and acting together. Anyone who reads the first four of the five parts and does not come away with the feeling that a giant bear claw has taken a well-aimed swipe at America’s gut, simply has not been paying attention. Anyone who can zip through Part 4, “Political Failure,” and not contemplate suicide must have a limitless ego. Though  Part 5, “Rediscovering America,” is more uplifting, it might not lift enough to return us to psychological health.

This Used to Be Us is no page-turner, but outstanding writing prevents the book from proving a slog for the reader. Friedman and Mandelbaum draw frequently on popular culture ― from anecdotes to movies to “The Daily Show” and even to 19th-century Gilbert and Sullivan tunes ― to introduce and establish their points.

This is a significant book, almost a manifesto. Unlike Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, however, this book aims not to destroy capitalism but to help American capitalism work better against world competition, which has become a whole lot stiffer.

Friedman has a well-earned reputation for taking what is complex and abstract and explaining it simply ― not simplistically ― to make it comprehensible without writing down to the reader. The result is a blessing. And a curse to those who refuse to believe that we are not all in this together, that everyone must contribute. Some benighted Americans believe such thinking is communistic. Worse, everyone, even the super-rich, must have their taxes raised. In addition, programs like AARP’s sacred cows, Medicare and Social Security, might have to be trimmed.

What’s scary is that the malaise is more than simple depression. Friedman and Mandelbaum say our profligate ways helped mightily to get us into this complex recession. They call this country “the United States of Deferred Maintenance.” (China, by contrast, is “the People’s Republic of Deferred Gratification.”) They write:

“We forgot who we were, how we had become the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, where we wanted to go, and what we needed to do to get there,” they write. “We failed to update our five-part formula for greatness ― education, infrastructure, immigration, research and development, and appropriate regulation ― just at a time when changes in the world, especially the expansion and globalization of the IT revolution, made adapting that formula to new circumstances as important as it had ever been. Then we fell into the pit of the Great Recession, while fighting two wars in the Middle East and being the first generation of Americans not only not to raise taxes to pay for the war but actually to cut them.”

In regard to the first part of the formula, education: Today’s American students rank with those in the Third World. Then infrastructure: Highways and bridges aren’t keeping up with engineering standards, and we abandoned railroads a long time ago. Immigration: At a time when we most need to issue visas for educated and trained people, to keep America in competition with the likes of China and India, we are telling such prospective immigrants we want them to go home and stay home. Research and development: We gave up funding to any great degree 30 years ago. Appropriate regulation: We have not as much as progressives want, but much more than conservatives are comfortable with.

One result of not generating enough income: In 2009, the authors write, the American Society of Engineers issued a “Report Card for America’s Infrastructure” and gave the country an overall grade of D. “Decades of underfunding and inattention have endangered the nation’s infrastructure,” the engineers said, estimating that in 2009 America needed $2.2 trillion in repairs to its infrastructure.

In Part 5, Friedman and Mandelbaum welcome Arne Duncan, the nation’s education secretary, to their stage. In an October 2009 address to the Council on Foreign Relations, Duncan noted: “In many other developed countries, the proportion of young adults with associate’s or bachelor’s degrees soared in the last 15 years. Here in the United States, we simply flat-lined. We stagnated, we lost our way ― and others literally passed us by. …75 percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.”

Duncan’s argument seems to support the authors’ “embarrassing favorite” statistic that “49 percent of U.S. adults do not know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.”

It’s no Pearl Harbor or 9/11 here ― the gaggle of problems has been sneaking up on us for decades, yet most of us don’t know they exist. We seem too caught up in the issues of gay rights, abortion, gun control, too caught up in celebrity news and silly sitcoms to pay any attention to the problems. (As I write this review, the political story with the greatest TV coverage asks the question, “Is Mormonism a cult?”)

The authors don’t spare Wall Street, or Friedman’s own news media. They quote Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham as saying that the 24-hour news cycle has hurt attempts to reform programs like Social Security, Medicare and tax reform because “all it takes is one or two liberal or conservative special-interest groups to be able to get traction” by playing up their news value “and then you start losing people.” Graham’s own South Carolina conservatives sounded the alarm on Fox News that he was “pushing the carbon tax” with the so-called cap-and-trade bill, which made much environmental and economic sense but was hated by the oil, gas and coal lobbies. He was “unable to continue his support of the bill.”

Friedman and Mandelbaum explain that before about 1980, “working politicians had to follow, and contend with, only newspapers and the three major television networks,” but today,  talk radio, cable television news, the Internet and the blogosphere are inescapable aspects of their working lives. “From our interviews,” they write, “it appears that the time politicians spend obsessing on what is written about them in the blogosphere rivals the time they spend dialing for dollars,” which takes as much as 25 percent of their time.

A reviewer’s note here: As a student of public communication and a retired journalist, I can say that the authors’ six-page look at the modern consequences of the new (and news) media is the best I’ve read.

About that uplifting Part 5: It suggests that if anyone is going to get us out of the malaise, it will be the generation that now is following the retiring boomers. The authors provide encouraging stories of young adults finding their own way and, in the process, helping the rest of the nation.

The first thing we of all generations need do, however, is involve ourselves in a “national conversation” that leads to a practical strategy that replaces our thinking on job security and education. Blue-collar jobs in cramped, smelly factories aren’t coming back, according to Friedman and Mandelbaum. But with the right training, new workers can easily find jobs in a growing number of clean, computerized U.S. plants.

Such a strategy would encourage “a different set of incentives for our political leadership and powerful special interests” that will “require a shock to the system. It could come from the market or Mother Nature or the middle of the political spectrum.” The authors vote for the impact of a possible third political party. Not that a candidate like Ross Perot or George Wallace would ever win, but a strong showing might shock Republicans and Democrats into bending their proposed policies toward the center.

Toward the book’s end, a qualified optimism comes through. “In general, if you were to design a country ideally suited to flourish in the world we are living in, it would look more like the United States than any other.” We still value creativity and quirkiness, economic flexibility, reliable institutions and “an outstanding legal environment” for risk-taking and innovation. America “understands that failure is often the necessary condition for success.” But most Americans still don’t get it, not yet.

As an American reviewing an American book aimed at Americans, I must say, simply: “Read it.” We Americans can still read. Can’t we?

Robert Knight is the author of Journalistic Writing: Building the Skills, Honing the Craft (Marion Street Press, 2010). He lives near Gettysburg, Pa.

comments powered by Disqus