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

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

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

3/5 (80 ratings)
649 pages
14 hours
Sep 5, 2011


America is in trouble. We face four major challenges on which our future depends, and we are failing to meet them—and if we delay any longer, soon it will be too late for us to pass along the American dream to future generations.
In That Used to Be Us, Thomas L. Friedman, one of our most influential columnists, and Michael Mandelbaum, one of our leading foreign policy thinkers, offer both a wake-up call and a call to collective action. They analyze the four challenges we face—globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation's chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption—and spell out what we need to do now to sustain the American dream and preserve American power in the world. They explain how the end of the Cold War blinded the nation to the need to address these issues seriously, and how China's educational successes, industrial might, and technological prowess remind us of the ways in which "that used to be us." They explain how the paralysis of our political system and the erosion of key American values have made it impossible for us to carry out the policies the country urgently needs.
And yet Friedman and Mandelbaum believe that the recovery of American greatness is within reach. They show how America's history, when properly understood, offers a five-part formula for prosperity that will enable us to cope successfully with the challenges we face. They offer vivid profiles of individuals who have not lost sight of the American habits of bold thought and dramatic action. They propose a clear way out of the trap into which the country has fallen, a way that includes the rediscovery of some of our most vital traditions and the creation of a new thirdparty movement to galvanize the country.
That Used to Be Us is both a searching exploration of the American condition today and a rousing manifesto for American renewal.

Sep 5, 2011

About the author

Thomas L. Friedman is an internationally renowned author, reporter, and columnist-the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of six bestselling books, among them From Beirut to Jerusalem and The World Is Flat. He was born in Minneapolis in 1953, and grew up in the middle-class Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1975 with a degree in Mediterranean studies, attended St. Antony's College, Oxford, on a Marshall Scholarship, and received an M.Phil. degree in modern Middle East studies from Oxford. After three years with United Press International, he joined The New York Times, where he has worked ever since as a reporter, correspondent, bureau chief, and columnist. At the Times, he has won three Pulitzer Prizes: in 1983 for international reporting (from Lebanon), in 1988 for international reporting (from Israel), and in 2002 for his columns after the September 11th attacks. Friedman's first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem, won the National Book Award in 1989. His second book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (1999), won the Overseas Press Club Award for best book on foreign policy in 2000. In 2002 FSG published a collection of his Pulitzer Prize-winning columns, along with a diary he kept after 9/11, as Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11. His fourth book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005) became a #1 New York Times bestseller and received the inaugural Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in November 2005. A revised and expanded edition was published in hardcover in 2006 and in 2007. The World Is Flat has sold more than 4 million copies in thirty-seven languages. In 2008 he brought out Hot, Flat, and Crowded, which was published in a revised edition a year later. His sixth book, That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World We Invented and How We Can Come Back, co-written with Michael Mandelbaum, was published in 2011. Thomas L. Friedman lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his family.

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Preface to the Paperback Edition: It’s Halftime in America

Like many moviegoers, both of us are Clint Eastwood fans, and never more so than during the halftime of the 2012 NFL Super Bowl game in Indianapolis, when the automaker Chrysler paid for a commercial, narrated by Eastwood and seen by more than 100 million people, entitled It’s Halftime in America.

In two minutes Eastwood summed up the major themes of this book: We have been slipping as a country—our version of a bad first half of a game—but we have all the resources and talent to come back. We have done this before and we can do it again, but only if we pull together and do what is both right and hard. Here’s what Eastwood said:

It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker rooms discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half. It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game. The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together. Now Motor City is fighting again. I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems that we’ve lost our heart at times. The fog of division, discord, and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one—because that’s what we do. We find a way through tough times, and if we can’t find a way, then we’ll make one. All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And how do we win? Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us. This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines. Yeah, it’s halftime, America. And our second half ’s about to begin.

We agree—and we intend this book to be a game plan for America’s second half, a road map for rising to the challenges and opportunities that will determine whether we remain a country that can continue to pass prosperity from one generation to the next, as we always have, and can continue to play the role of global stabilizer, as we surely must. These challenges are staring us in the face and they have not changed—or been addressed—since this book was first published in 2011. Nor have the solutions changed: Without collective action we cannot fix what needs fixing. America desperately needs a series of grand bargains between the country’s two major political parties and among the major stakeholders in finance, energy, and education.

For starters, we need a short-term plan that helps to stimulate job growth through targeted investments that upgrade U.S. infrastructure—roads, bridges, school buildings, bandwidth, and mass transit. But to get such a short-term plan through Congress, and ensure that it doesn’t exacerbate our broader deficit, it must be paired with a long-term plan that addresses our structural fiscal imbalances at the real scale of the problem. This will require a grand bargain between Democrats and Republicans involving entitlement and tax reform, including the raising of additional revenue.

At the same time, we need a grand bargain on energy between environmentalists and the oil and gas industry. Such a deal would establish the highest environmental standards for extracting natural gas through fracking, as well as oil from remote locations, so America can take advantage of its bounty of both oil and gas. In the past five years, thanks to better drilling techniques, rising biofuel contributions to gasoline, and improving mileage standards for automobiles, America has reversed a twenty-year increase in energy dependence on other countries. In 2011, the United States was meeting more than 80 percent of its energy needs from domestic sources. If we continue to exploit these resources properly, energy experts estimate that America could be the biggest, and cleanest, oil and gas producer in the world by 2020. This would raise more tax revenue and decrease our concern about the Middle East while increasing our leverage there. It would also enable us to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases by replacing the coal that fires many of our power plants with much cleaner natural gas and moving our truck fleets onto natural gas as well. But we must make certain of two things. The first is that we are drilling the oil and extracting the natural gas by the safest, most environmentally sensitive means possible. And the second is that we are gradually but steadily shifting our economy to cleaner energy systems—be they nuclear, wind, solar, wave, or natural gas—and a more efficient use of resources. To do that we need to tax the things we don’t want (oil and coal) and subsidize and provide incentives for the things we prefer—systems that give us more heating, cooling, lighting, and mobility with fewer, cleaner, and more renewable resources. Not only is there no reason such a grand bargain cannot be reached—the technology exists and the additional costs are eminently manageable—but failing to do so would leave America at a competitive disadvantage in what will surely be the next great global industries: clean power and energy efficiency. As the world moves from seven billion to more than nine billion people by 2050, getting more growth from more-sustainable and less-polluting resources is going to drive the next great wave of innovation. America should lead it.

We also need a grand bargain between generations. We need to augment the health-care plan signed into law by President Obama, which expanded access to health-care coverage to some thirty-two million uninsured Americans, with an equally credible, ambitious plan to contain health-care costs, which will crowd out everything else in the federal budget if left unchecked and make us a society that spends far too much money on nursing homes and far too little on nursery schools. We, as a nation, must invest in the future as well as in the past.

Finally, we need a comprehensive approach to job creation, one that focuses both on how we get more people starting companies—if we want more employees we need more employers—and on how more Americans can acquire the skills and education that twenty-first-century industries and services demand. This will require a grand bargain among labor, capital, and government. Capitalists need to look for more opportunities to invest in America, every community needs to make sure it is producing the skilled workers for the jobs of the future, and government policy has to enable both.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks not only unemployment in America but also the number of jobs employers can’t fill. In early 2012 it found that there were more than three million jobs vacant in America, despite general unemployment of around 8 percent. That tells us that far too many American workers don’t have the math, reading comprehension, or technical skills that are now required by companies engaged in advanced manufacturing—the only manufacturing we’re going to be doing in America in the future.

Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, told us that on a good day he’ll read in his local paper that a firm such as Accenture has announced it’s adding five hundred jobs in Chicago. On a bad day he finds himself staring right into the whites of the eyes of the skills shortage. His city has thousands of job openings going unfilled. He says, I had two young CEOs in the health-care software business in the other day, sitting at this table. I asked them: ‘What can I do to help you?’ They said, ‘We have fifty job openings today, and we can’t find people.’ One hears this complaint from employers, blue-collar and white-collar, all across America today.

We cannot remain a manufacturing power unless we—labor, capital, and government, both Republicans and Democrats—agree to reenergize and reinvest in what we call America’s traditional five-part formula for success: providing access to postsecondary education (vocational, liberal arts, or science and math) for more Americans; upgrading our infrastructure; admitting more talented and energetic immigrants; putting in place regulations that encourage risk-taking without abetting recklessness; and spending more on research and development that expands the boundaries of physics, biology, chemistry, energy, and material sciences.

In that vein, it was hard not to notice the mixed emotions with which Americans greeted the untimely death in 2011 of the Thomas Edison of our age, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. On the one hand, there was overwhelming praise, rightly showered on a man who personified America’s spirit of invention. After dropping out of college in the 1970s, he went on to develop iconic products over the course of four decades—from the Mac to the iPad and from computer-animated movies to an online music store. There was something quintessentially American about him. And yet laced throughout so many of the obituaries and paeans to Jobs was a certain melancholy, a gnawing anxiety that America can no longer produce people like him.

We do not believe that is the case. But to ensure that America produces more companies like Apple and more visionary entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs requires seriously addressing the national agenda we have described above. That, in turn, depends on politics, and politics today is America’s Achilles’ heel.

Our political system is not rising to this moment. It is not only that we are too polarized. Things are worse than that. We are polarized over the wrong issues. What is depressing about American politics today is not just that it is dominated by hyper-partisanship but that it is often beside the point. As we write these words, in the heat of the 2012 presidential campaign, a Martian landing in the United States could be excused for thinking that the biggest issue in America is who should pay for contraceptives, whether Satan stalks our land, and whether President Obama is a closet Kenyan anticolonial socialist. We don’t just need more civility; we need more reality. In the past, America and its leaders have always been at their best when they combined radical empiricism and flexibility, not radicalism and a refusal to compromise. We are never going to have complete consensus on how to get where we are going, but we had better have consensus on where we want to go. And right now, we don’t—although the desirable destination for America ought to be obvious. The central question in our national political life today should be: How do we create enough jobs and economic growth to pay off our debts and pass on a higher standard of living to our children without despoiling the environment, while also supplying the global leadership that the world needs?

Unfortunately, too many Republicans today think the answer is simply to go back and do what Ronald Reagan did. There are two problems with that. Reagan didn’t do what they think he did; and what he actually did took place thirty years ago, and since then the world has fundamentally changed. As we show in this book, when Reagan confronted severe imbalances in the government’s budget due to his tax cuts, he approved tax increases, or revenue enhancements as he preferred to call them, on multiple occasions, including a boost of the federal gasoline tax. Everything being equal, it is better to see the government lowering taxes, not raising taxes, but everything today is not equal. We have a national debt of more than $15.7 trillion—which is larger than our entire annual economic output and amounts to about $138,000 per taxpayer—along with a roughly $1.5 trillion annual deficit.

President Obama has, to his credit, shown at least a rhetorical willingness to embrace the budgetary changes we need. But it is still not clear whether he can bring his party’s base to accept long-term structural reforms in Medicare and Social Security—or how hard he will try.

In short, too many Republicans want to go back to a previous era that did not exist as they imagine it and, in any event, is not all that relevant to the present. And too many Democrats, while acknowledging the need for change, still want more government than they are willing to pay for or that the country can afford.

What we desperately need is a political debate on the real issues of the world in which we’re living. That is why we expressed our hope in this book that if the two parties didn’t give us the debate we needed, we would see the emergence of an effective centrist independent candidate who would challenge—and keep honest—both parties. A model of such an such independent thinker is David Walker, who served as the country’s comptroller general, its chief auditor, from 1998 to 2008 and is currently CEO of the Comeback America Initiative, a nonpartisan group dedicated to getting America’s fiscal house in order. We agree with Walker when he says the American people today are starved for three things—truth, leadership, and solutions. Unfortunately, the two parties are just offering laggardship—waiting for something to hit the fan so they can again react without adequate due diligence.

The grand bargain that needs to be made on the budget is hiding in plain sight, insists Walker. He praises President Obama for emphasizing the right metric—our overall debt-to-GDP ratio—and for offering short-term ideas to enhance economic growth and address unemployment, such as investments in infrastructure. But these ideas, he argues, have to be coupled with a credible and enforceable plan to address the structural deficits that threaten our nation’s future position in the world and our standard of living at home—and there Obama has continued to fall short in his first term. Democrats, argues Walker, have been in denial about the need to renegotiate our social insurance contract.

As for Republicans, says Walker, they don’t have a plan to restore fiscal sanity either. They’re in denial that we can solve our structural deficit problems with either our current level of taxation—between 15 and 16 percent of GDP—or even with our historical average, about 18 percent of GDP. We need more revenue. Our deficit problem is primarily a spending problem, but it is not only a spending problem. We need $1 in new revenues for every $3 or $4 in spending cuts, says Walker—and that should be accomplished through reform that makes our tax system simpler, fairer, and more competitive, while generating more revenue. The Republicans are simply in denial about this, he repeats.

As Bill Gates said to us in an interview about American politics today:

[The] big thing that’s missing is a technocratic understanding of the facts and where things are working and where they’re not working. And I do think when things were less partisan there were people in the Congress who would say, Okay, my committee is where I’m going to spend my time. I’m going to get to know transportation or housing. And they were competent. And they weren’t put to some acid test of party loyalty. And experts would come into their committee. Now you get very simplistic views: No, government shouldn’t be in this at all or Yes, government should be in it massively, as opposed to Well, give me how much you want government to be in and here’s the best way to spend this money.

Gates adds that his foundation is trying to help schools experiment with the use of more facts and data. We know that unless the teachers and the students like it in the end, and the results are better, it won’t get broad adoption.

It may sound naive in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere, but we need to bring the same intelligence to politics, Gates argues. He said, Political systems are supposed to adjust when things are wrong, and that’s why the country’s gotten through so many crises … It’s easy to think when we look at the budget, when we look at energy, that right now we’re particularly short on a common view of the crisis and adopting a common solution. If government screwed up, is the answer to have less of it or to fix it? Well, area by area you have to look at it.

That is why it would have been beneficial to have had a responsible third-party candidate in the race and, particularly, participating in the debates. As Gates put it, it could be valuable to have someone saying: "It’s all nice to hear what you two guys say but what you said doesn’t add up. Let me tell you, voters, how even if you cut spending a lot you have to raise taxes. And unfortunately you can only get some portion from the very richest. You’re going to have to raise taxes a bit more broadly than that and cut spending."

A lot more is riding on our getting this right than just America’s future. Since this book first appeared in 2011, the need for a strong, stable, and vibrant America has grown even more urgent. In East Asia, the world’s fastest-growing region, China’s relations with its neighbors have become more strained, and the closed, secretive, aggressive, nuclear-armed communist dynasty ruling North Korea has begun an uncertain transfer of power. In the Middle East—the site of the largest readily accessible deposits of the world’s economically indispensable mineral, oil—a set of political upheavals has removed from power long-ruling governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen and threatened others in Bahrain and Syria. The nature of the regimes that the Arab Awakening will ultimately bring to power remains unknown. Meanwhile, the radical anti-Western rulers of Iran continue their efforts to develop nuclear weapons capability. In the European Union, the world’s largest economic unit, financial crises in several participants in its common currency, the euro, threatened to drag Europe and other countries into an economic downturn as severe as—and conceivably even deeper and longer than—the one the world experienced from 2007 to 2009 as the result of the subprime debacle in the United States.

East Asia, the Middle East, and Europe are places where American power has for decades helped to foster stability and prosperity. American strength alone will not suffice to fix the problems in these regions, but without an economically robust, socially cohesive, and politically confident United States these problems will all surely be far more difficult to manage. America is hardly irrelevant in the making of the new world that’s taking shape today, but it isn’t as all-powerful and so cannot be as present at the creation as it once was. How could it be after fighting two trillion-dollar land wars in the Middle East and running up its deficit to levels at which we can no longer avoid making trade-offs between the retirement needs of boomers and the military’s demand for bombers?

So the grand bargains that America needs are just as important for the future security and prosperity of billions of people living far from the continental United States as they are for those living within our borders. If our political system continues to produce only suboptimal policy responses or, worse, no responses at all—because it remains paralyzed by hyper-partisanship and fails to ask and answer the most important question of all for public policy: What world are we living in?—people all across the globe will feel the effects.

In sum, the stakes in America’s capacity to come back, to come from behind, to have, in Clint Eastwood’s words, a good second half, is a matter of high stakes. Is this possible? For all the difficulties involved, and despite the discouraging political trends, we, the authors, continue to believe that it is. Our optimism about America’s future still rests on America’s past. We, as a nation, have risen to challenges even more formidable than the ones we face now. We have succeeded at tasks even more daunting than striking the bargains on which our national well-being depends. The America that recognized, confronted, and mastered those challenges is the country that used to be us. We still believe that it can be again.

Thomas L. Friedman

Michael Mandelbaum

Bethesda, Maryland, April 2012

Introduction: Growing Up in America

A reader might ask why two people who have devoted their careers to writing about foreign affairs—one of us as a foreign correspondent and columnist at The New York Times and the other as a professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies—have collaborated on a book about the American condition today. The answer is simple. We have been friends for more than twenty years, and in that time hardly a week has gone by without our discussing some aspect of international relations and American foreign policy. But in the last couple of years, we started to notice something: Every conversation would begin with foreign policy but end with domestic policy—what was happening, or not happening, in the United States. Try as we might to redirect them, the conversations kept coming back to America and our seeming inability today to rise to our greatest challenges.

This situation, of course, has enormous foreign policy implications. America plays a huge and, more often than not, constructive role in the world today. But that role depends on the country’s social, political, and economic health. And America today is not healthy—economically or politically. This book is our effort to explain how we got into that state and how we get out of it.

We beg the reader’s indulgence with one style issue. At times, we include stories, anecdotes, and interviews that involve only one of us. To make clear who is involved, we must, in effect, quote ourselves: As Tom recalled … As Michael wrote … You can’t simply say I said or I saw when you have a co-authored book with a lot of reporting in it.

Readers familiar with our work know us mainly as authors and commentators, but we are also both, well, Americans. That is important, because that identity drives the book as much as our policy interests do. So here are just a few words of introduction from each of us—not as experts but as citizens.

Tom: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was raised in a small suburb called St. Louis Park—made famous by the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen in their movie A Serious Man, which was set in our neighborhood. Senator Al Franken, the Coen brothers, the Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, the political scientist Norman Ornstein, the longtime NFL football coach Marc Trestman, and I all grew up in and around that little suburb within a few years of one another, and it surely had a big impact on all of us. In my case, it bred a deep optimism about America and the notion that we really can act collectively for the common good.

In 1971, the year I graduated from high school, Time magazine had a cover featuring then Minnesota governor Wendell Anderson holding up a fish he had just caught, under the headline The Good Life in Minnesota. It was all about the state that works. When the senators from your childhood were the Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy, your congressmen were the moderate Republicans Clark MacGregor and Bill Frenzel, and the leading corporations in your state—Dayton’s, Target, General Mills, and 3M—were pioneers in corporate social responsibility and believed that it was part of their mission to help build things like the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, you wound up with a deep conviction that politics really can work and that there is a viable political center in American life.

I attended public school with the same group of kids from K through 12. In those days in Minnesota, private schools were for kids in trouble. Private school was pretty much unheard of for middle-class St. Louis Park kids, and pretty much everyone was middle-class. My mom enlisted in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and my parents actually bought our home thanks to the loan she got through the GI Bill. My dad, who never went to college, was vice president of a company that sold ball bearings. My wife, Ann Friedman, was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was raised in Des Moines. To this day, my best friends are still those kids I grew up with in St. Louis Park, and I still carry around a mental image—no doubt idealized—of Minnesota that anchors and informs a lot of my political choices. No matter where I go—London, Beirut, Jerusalem, Washington, Beijing, or Bangalore—I’m always looking to rediscover that land of ten thousand lakes where politics actually worked to make people’s lives better, not pull them apart. That used to be us. In fact, it used to be my neighborhood.

Michael: While Tom and his wife come from the middle of the country, my wife, Anne Mandelbaum, and I grew up on the two coasts—she in Manhattan and I in Berkeley, California. My father was a professor of anthropology at the University of California, and my mother, after my two siblings and I reached high school age, became a public school teacher and then joined the education faculty at the university that we called, simply, Cal.

Although Berkeley has a reputation for political radicalism, during my childhood in the 1950s it had more in common with Tom’s Minneapolis than with the Berkeley the world has come to know. It was more a slice of Middle America than a hotbed of revolution. As amazing as it may seem today, for part of my boyhood it had a Republican mayor and was represented by a Republican congressman.

One episode from those years is particularly relevant to this book. It occurred in the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1957 launching of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. The event was a shock to the United States, and the shock waves reached Garfield Junior High School (since renamed after Martin Luther King Jr.), where I was in seventh grade. The entire student body was summoned to an assembly at which the principal solemnly informed us that in the future we all would have to study harder, and that mathematics and science would be crucial.

Given my parents’ commitment to education, I did not need to be told that school and studying were important. But I was impressed by the gravity of the moment. I understood that the United States faced a national challenge and that everyone would have to contribute to meeting it. I did not doubt that America, and Americans, would meet it. There is no going back to the 1950s, and there are many reasons to be glad that that is so, but the kind of seriousness the country was capable of then is just as necessary now.

We now live and work in the nation’s capital, where we have seen firsthand the government’s failure to come to terms with the major challenges the country faces. But although this book’s perspective on the present is gloomy, its hopes and expectations for the future are high. We know that America can meet its challenges. After all, that’s the America where we grew up.

Thomas L. Friedman

Michael Mandelbaum

Bethesda, Maryland, June 2011




If You See Something, Say Something

This is a book about America that begins in China.

In September 2010, Tom attended the World Economic Forum’s summer conference in Tianjin, China. Five years earlier, getting to Tianjin had involved a three-and-a-half-hour car ride from Beijing to a polluted, crowded Chinese version of Detroit, but things had changed. Now, to get to Tianjin, you head to the Beijing South Railway Station—an ultramodern flying saucer of a building with glass walls and an oval roof covered with 3,246 solar panels—buy a ticket from an electronic kiosk offering choices in Chinese and English, and board a world-class high-speed train that goes right to another roomy, modern train station in downtown Tianjin. Said to be the fastest in the world when it began operating in 2008, the Chinese bullet train covers 115 kilometers, or 72 miles, in a mere twenty-nine minutes.

The conference itself took place at the Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center—a massive, beautifully appointed structure, the like of which exists in few American cities. As if the convention center wasn’t impressive enough, the conference’s co-sponsors in Tianjin gave some facts and figures about it (www.tj-summerdavos.cn). They noted that it contained a total floor area of 230,000 square meters (almost 2.5 million square feet) and that construction of the Meijiang Convention Center started on September 15, 2009, and was completed in May, 2010. Reading that line, Tom started counting on his fingers: Let’s see—September, October, November, December, January …

Eight months.

Returning home to Maryland from that trip, Tom was describing the Tianjin complex and how quickly it was built to Michael and his wife, Anne. At one point Anne asked: Excuse me, Tom. Have you been to our subway stop lately? We all live in Bethesda and often use the Washington Metrorail subway to get to work in downtown Washington, D.C. Tom had just been at the Bethesda station and knew exactly what Anne was talking about: The two short escalators had been under repair for nearly six months. While the one being fixed was closed, the other had to be shut off and converted into a two-way staircase. At rush hour, this was creating a huge mess. Everyone trying to get on or off the platform had to squeeze single file up and down one frozen escalator. It sometimes took ten minutes just to get out of the station. A sign on the closed escalator said that its repairs were part of a massive escalator modernization project.

What was taking this modernization project so long? We investigated. Cathy Asato, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, had told the Maryland Community News (October 20, 2010) that the repairs were scheduled to take about six months and are on schedule. Mechanics need 10 to 12 weeks to fix each escalator.

A simple comparison made a startling point: It took China’s Teda Construction Group thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up—including giant escalators in every corner—and it was taking the Washington Metro crew twenty-four weeks to repair two tiny escalators of twenty-one steps each. We searched a little further and found that WTOP, a local news radio station, had interviewed the Metro interim general manager, Richard Sarles, on July 20, 2010. Sure, these escalators are old, he said, but they have not been kept in a state of good repair. We’re behind the curve on that, so we have to catch up … Just last week, smoke began pouring out of the escalators at the Dupont Circle station during rush hour.

On November 14, 2010, The Washington Post ran a letter to the editor from Mark Thompson of Kensington, Maryland, who wrote:

I have noted with interest your reporting on the $225,000 study that Metro hired Vertical Transportation Excellence to conduct into the sorry state of the system’s escalators and elevators … I am sure that the study has merit. But as someone who has ridden Metro for more than 30 years, I can think of an easier way to assess the health of the escalators. For decades they ran silently and efficiently. But over the past several years—when the escalators are running—aging or ill-fitting parts have generated horrific noises that sound to me like a Tyrannosaurus Rex trapped in a tar pit screeching its dying screams.

The quote we found most disturbing, though, came from a Maryland Community News story about the long lines at rush hour caused by the seemingly endless Metro repairs: ‘My impression, standing on line there, is people have sort of gotten used to it,’ said Benjamin Ross, who lives in Bethesda and commutes every day from the downtown station.

The National Watercooler

People have sort of gotten used to it. Indeed, that sense of resignation, that sense that, well, this is just how things are in America today, that sense that America’s best days are behind it and China’s best days are ahead of it, have become the subject of watercooler, dinner-party, grocery-line, and classroom conversations all across America today. We hear the doubts from children, who haven’t been to China. Tom took part in the September 2010 Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) meeting in San Jose, California. As part of the program, there was a School of the Future Design Competition, which called for junior high school students to design their own ideal green school. He met with the finalists on the last morning of the convention, and they talked about global trends. At one point, Tom asked them what they thought about China. A young blond-haired junior high school student, Isabelle Foster, from Old Lyme Middle School in Connecticut, remarked, It seems like they have more ambition and will than we do. Tom asked her, Where did you get that thought? She couldn’t really explain it, she said. She had never visited China. But it was just how she felt. It’s in the air.

We heard the doubts about America from Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, in his angry reaction after the National Football League postponed for two days a game scheduled in Philadelphia between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings—because of a severe snowstorm. The NFL ordered the games postponed because it didn’t want fans driving on icy, snow-covered roads. But Rendell saw it as an indicator of something more troubling—that Americans had gone soft. It goes against everything that football is all about, Rendell said in an interview with the sports radio station 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia (December 27, 2010). We’ve become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.

We read the doubts in letters to the editor, such as this impassioned post by Eric R. on The New York Times comments page under a column Tom wrote about China (December 1, 2010):

We are nearly complete in our evolution from Lewis and Clark into Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. We used to embrace challenges, endure privation, throttle our fear and strike out into the (unknown) wilderness. In this mode we rallied to span the continent with railroads, construct a national highway system, defeated monstrous dictators, cured polio and landed men on the moon. Now we text and put on makeup as we drive, spend more on video games than books, forswear exercise, demonize hunting, and are rapidly succumbing to obesity and diabetes. So much for the pioneering spirit that made us (once) the greatest nation on earth, one that others looked up to and called exceptional.

Sometimes the doubts hit us where we least expect them. A few weeks after returning from China, Tom went to the White House to conduct an interview. He passed through the Secret Service checkpoint on Pennsylvania Avenue, and after putting his bags through the X-ray machine and collecting them, he grabbed the metal door handle to enter the White House driveway. The handle came off in his hand. Oh, it does that sometimes, the Secret Service agent at the door said nonchalantly, as Tom tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket.

And often now we hear those doubts from visitors here—as when a neighbor in Bethesda mentions that over the years he has hired several young women from Germany to help with his child care, and they always remark on two things: how many squirrels there are in Washington, and how rutted the streets are. They just can’t believe that America’s capital would have such potholed streets.

Frustrated Optimists

So, do we buy the idea, increasingly popular in some circles, that Britain owned the nineteenth century, America dominated the twentieth century, and China will inevitably reign supreme in the twenty-first century—and that all you have to do is fly from Tianjin or Shanghai to Washington, D.C., and take the subway to know that?

No, we do not. And we have written this book to explain why no American, young or old, should resign himself or herself to that view either. The two of us are not pessimists when it comes to America and its future. We are optimists, but we are also frustrated. We are frustrated optimists. In our view, the two attitudes go together. We are optimists because American society, with its freewheeling spirit, its diversity of opinions and talents, its flexible economy, its work ethic and penchant for innovation, is in fact ideally suited to thrive in the tremendously challenging world we are living in. We are optimists because the American political and economic systems, when functioning properly, can harness the nation’s talents and energy to meet the challenges the country faces. We are optimists because Americans have plenty of experience in doing big, hard things together. And we are optimists because our track record of national achievement gives ample grounds for believing we can overcome our present difficulties.

But that’s also why we’re frustrated. Optimism or pessimism about America’s future cannot simply be a function of our capacity to do great things or our history of having done great things. It also has to be a function of our will actually to do those things again. So many Americans are doing great things today, but on a small scale. Philanthropy, volunteerism, individual initiative: they’re all impressive, but what the country needs most is collective action on a large scale.

We cannot be pessimists about America when we know that it is home to so many creative, talented, hardworking people, but we cannot help but be frustrated when we discover how many of those people feel that our country is not educating the workforce they need, or admitting the energetic immigrants they seek, or investing in the infrastructure they require, or funding the research they envision, or putting in place the intelligent tax laws and incentives that our competitors have installed.

Hence the title of this opening chapter: If you see something, say something. That is the mantra that the Department of Homeland Security plays over and over on loudspeakers in airports and railroad stations around the country. Well, we have seen and heard something, and millions of Americans have, too. What we’ve seen is not a suspicious package left under a stairwell. What we’ve seen is hiding in plain sight. We’ve seen something that poses a greater threat to our national security and well-being than al-Qaeda does. We’ve seen a country with enormous potential falling into disrepair, political disarray, and palpable discomfort about its present condition and future prospects.

This book is our way of saying something—about what is wrong, why things have gone wrong, and what we can and must do to make them right.

Why say it now, though, and why the urgency?

Why now? is easy to answer: because our country is in a slow decline, just slow enough for us to be able to pretendor believe—that a decline is not taking place. As the ever-optimistic Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, son of Peace Corps founder Sargent Shriver, and nephew of President John F. Kennedy, responded when we told him about our book: It’s as though we just slip a little each year and shrug it off to circumstances beyond our control—an economic downturn here, a social problem there, the political mess this year. We’re losing a step a day and no one’s saying, Stop! No doubt, Shriver added, most Americans would still love to be the country of great ideals and achievements, but no one seems willing to pay the price. Or, as Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, put it to us: What we lack in the U.S. today is the confidence that is generated by solving one big, hard problem—together. It has been a long time now since we did something big and hard together.

We will argue that this slow-motion decline has four broad causes. First, since the end of the Cold War, we, and especially our political leaders, have stopped starting each day by asking the two questions that are crucial for determining public policy: What world are we living in, and what exactly do we need to do to thrive in this world? The U.S. Air Force has a strategic doctrine originally designed by one of its officers, John Boyd, called the OODA loop. It stands for observe, orient, decide, act. Boyd argued that when you are a fighter pilot, if your OODA loop is faster than the other guy’s, you will always win the dogfight. Today, America’s OODA loop is far too slow and often discombobulated. In American political discourse today, there is far too little observing, orienting, deciding, and acting and far too much shouting, asserting, dividing, and postponing. When the world gets really fast, the speed with which a country can effectively observe, orient, decide, and act matters more than ever.

Second, over the last twenty years, we as a country have failed to address some of our biggest problems—particularly education, deficits and debt, and energy and climate change—and now they have all worsened to a point where they cannot be ignored but they also cannot be effectively addressed without collective action and collective sacrifice. Third, to make matters worse, we have stopped investing in our country’s traditional formula for greatness, a formula that goes back to the founding of the country. Fourth, as we will explain, we have not been able to fix our problems or reinvest in our strengths because our political system has become paralyzed and our system of values has suffered serious erosion. But finally, being optimists, we will offer our own strategy for overcoming these problems.

Why the urgency? is also easy to answer. In part the urgency stems from the fact that as a country we do not have the resources or the time to waste that we had twenty years ago, when our budget deficit was under control and all of our biggest challenges seemed at least manageable. In the last decade especially, we have spent so much of our time and energy—and the next generation’s money—fighting terrorism and indulging ourselves with tax cuts and cheap credit that we now have no reserves. We are driving now without a bumper, without a spare tire, and with the gas gauge nearing empty. Should the market or Mother Nature make a sudden disruptive move in the wrong direction, we would not have the resources to shield ourselves from the worst effects, as we had in the past. Winston Churchill was fond of saying that America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options. America simply doesn’t have time anymore for exhausting any options other than the right

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What people think about That Used to Be Us

80 ratings / 11 Reviews
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  • (5/5)
    I first became aware of Thomas Friedman when a New York Times article he wrote came on my google news feed for anything with the title of my book.

    The novel I'm currently writing is called 'None of the Above', about an unconventional president. I saw a three page article that felt like a synopsis of my book, saying Thomas Friedman's choice for president is None of the Above. So I researched the author and found this book.

    It was weird/exhilarating to read a book with so many of the same thoughts I've had over the last few decades. I've been in tech for 20 years, so I've been familiar with the effects of globalization and hyper connectivity first hand.

    One of the things I did learn about was some of the historical context back in the 70s for some of the issues we face today. The book laid out the historical formula for American success in clear terms.

    I highly recommend the book. It's not too late to salvage our country, but we're definitely on a downward slope.

  • (4/5)
    I'm a fan of Thomas Friedman's work ever since I read his book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree". I felt this most recent offering (produced in corroboration with Michael Mandelbaum) is certainly relevant and made some very strong points about America's current state of affairs. All his works build on each other -- like an on-going textbook with revisions -- so there's a lot of old material presented again. Hence, the highest review I can offer is 4 stars. I wonder if any of our politicians and "leaders" have bothered to examine the conclusions drawn in this work; or if they are strictly focused on their own personal & special interest agendas.
  • (4/5)
    Good summary of what's gone wrong and mostly non-partisan in the blame (they rightly key on Republican fiscal myths and failures, but also pull no punches with Democrats weaknesses), though anyone aligning themselves with the "right" would likely see this as "liberal." (Can you tell I'm not a fan of those labels?)

    I don't think their proposals as to "how we can come back" are very achievable though. Too idealistic. They do recognize the many reasons why the collective solutions which are needed will fail in the current political culture.
  • (4/5)
    A cogent and impassioned analysis of the dilemmas facing the United States in a globalized world-economy: higher education, globalization, IT, GT (green technology), Deficit/the Debt, Global Warming, and so forth. Covers a lot.

    I would have appreciated a more thorough analysis and some more citations and deeper reasoning, but that would have required several more books. Nevertheless, this book diagnoses the problems fairly well - the dispute is on what is to be done.

  • (4/5)
    For the most part I enjoyed this latest book by Thomas Friedman. I think they (he and his co-author) make a very good case for what is wrong with the United States now. They talk about the lack of funding for education and R&D, the media, global warming, the polarization of the political parties and how that came to be and how the United States is competing with the world now on a more and more equal basis.The problem I had with the book was they spent very little time talking about solutions unlike Friedman's book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded" where he spent much of the book talking about very innovative green energy solutions. All in all, though, this is a good read which sums up very well the problems faced in the United States in a centrist way. The authors are quite fair in dishing out blame and despite all the problems they lay out they remain optimistic.
  • (4/5)
    A fascinating look at how the American Empire has got itself into big trouble and what it might do to recover its former power and glory. Presidential and Congressional elections are tomorrow (2012) and I neither see nor hear much that promises any change that will improve matters. Frankly, I found this volume somewhat depressing because I do not see the will to make the tough changes that are required to improve the situation. You may ask why a Canadian would be so concerned. To paraphrase a former Canadian Prime Minister, when you lay down beside an elephant, you must be careful when it rolls over.
  • (5/5)
    Well thought out overview of the state of our economy and our ability to compete and maintain in the global economy. The authors have several thought provoking observations about how we fell behind and what we need to do to pick ourselves us by the boot straps and get back in the game.
  • (5/5)
    Having not read their previous books I found this book was spot on as to why America seems to be losing ground to other countries in the world. The book is very non partisan but blames the extremes in both parties for much of our current malaise. They believe a third party should emerge based on what they call radical centrism. One that will cut entitlements but at the same time be willing to raise taxes. One theme is the two wars in the middle east were the only two in history that taxes were not raised to pay for them I think this is a must read book and I really can not see why the low rankings to this point. Lots of evidence and logical conclusions for the open minded.
  • (5/5)
    America is in trouble. We face four major challenges on which our future depends, and we are failing to meet them. If we delay any longer, soon it will be too late for us to pass along the American dream to future generations. In That Used To Be Us, Thomas L. Friedman, one of our most influential columnists, and Michael Mandelbaum, one of our leading foreign policy thinkers, offer both a wake-up call to collective action. They analyze four challenges we face - globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation's chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption - and spell out what we need to do now to sustain the American dream and preserve American power in the world. They believe that the recovery of American greatness is within reach. They show how America's history, when properly understood, offers a five-part formula for prosperity that will enable us to cope successfully with the challenges we face. They offer vivid profiles of individuals who have not lost sight of the American habits of bold thought and dramatic action. They propose a clear way out of the trap into which the country has fallen, a way that includes the rediscovery of some of our most vital traditions and the creation of a new third-party movement to galvanize the country.
  • (5/5)
    Anybody voting should read this book. Although it doesn't have all the answers, it does ask the key questions that need to be addressed in order for our country to thrive and not just barely survive.
  • (2/5)
    I listened to his “The World Is Flat” and “Hot, Flat & Crowded” and they were great. This one was just as long but did not seem to have anything new to say, although it was sprinkled with some interesting tidbits. Also, not sure how much I believe in their solutions to solve these issues.