“A country that steps up to the challenges that it faces and masters them is the country that used to be us.”
Not very encouraging words, but the authors of “That Used To Be Us,” Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, insist they’re optimists.
“We want to maintain American greatness,” they write. “We’re Fourth of July guys.” Hence the U-turn of their subtitle: “How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.”
They’re convincing on the fell-behind part -- so convincing that I found their chipper, can-do tone grating. They’re like a doctor who says you have stage-four cancer and then adds brightly, “Think of it as an opportunity!”
Friedman and Mandelbaum identify the four major challenges the U.S. faces as globalization, the information revolution, astronomical deficits and the lethal combination of runaway energy consumption and climate change. The sensible measures they offer in response include more government spending on education, stricter energy standards, higher taxes (especially on fossil fuels) and cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits.
Good luck with that.
Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist and the author of five books; Mandelbaum teaches foreign policy at Johns Hopkins and is the author or co-author of 12 books. They aren’t starry-eyed fools -- they know a lot and would sincerely like to make a difference.
They point to the decline of the decent values Americans used to have. But being nice guys who don’t want to offend anybody, they meekly add, “Because it happened in an incremental way, we didn’t notice it -- until the subprime crisis in 2008 showed just how far we had drifted from some of the bedrock values that used to be us.”
Really -- they didn’t notice? I noticed it 20 or 30 years ago, around the time of the buyout boom and the junk-bond scandal and the elevation of investor profit into the one and only value that was driving many American businesses. When Gordon Gekko declared, “Greed is good” in 1987’s “Wall Street,” it didn’t come out of nowhere.
Extending their inoffensiveness, the authors conscientiously point fingers at both national parties. Democratic spending on entitlements, they write, has been irresponsible; the Republican intransigence over even the teeniest tax hike is delusional. During last year’s effort to fashion an energy bill, “The Democrats were cowardly, and the Republicans were crazy.”
But they’re not just complainers -- they have a solution. They call it shock therapy, and they hold off unveiling it, dramatically, until the end of the book. It turns out to be depressingly feeble: a third-party presidential candidacy (no names mentioned) that would convince voters to “join hands in the radical center.”
Moving to the center is radical, according to them, because it requires “far more substantial changes in the current ways of doing things” than either party could muster the courage to propose. Good luck with that, too.
Thinking of Trotsky
Of course, if you’re a centrist -- as Friedman and Mandelbaum proudly are -- it may be easy to convince yourself that “the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.” At this point my own thoughts went to Leon Trotsky (not an author I would expect them to cite), who dismissed such a conviction as the cheap conclusion of lazy minds.
I freely confess to being one of those partisans whom the authors accuse of paralyzing our political system. I might be willing to move to that radical center if I thought it existed, but it sounds to me more like a tool to help extremist politicians convince gullible voters that they’re moderates.
And no, I don’t have a better solution than the one the authors offer -- except to keep fighting for what you believe in, the only solution that has ever worked in politics.
“That Used to Be Us” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (380 pages, $28). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)