Book Review: That Used to Be Us by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

Sharp on what ails the U.S., That Used to Be Us falls flat on how to get our mojo back

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; 380 pp; $28


First, great title. Slap some American-flag imagery on the cover, call your book That Used to Be Us, and already, you’ve touched a nerve among a populace itchy with downward-mobility anxiety. The words are a lift from a Barack Obama quote about Asia’s advancing techno-industrial might—“We just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth; that used to be us,” the President said at a press conference last year—but the broader lament is that America the superpower isn’t super anymore. Massive budget deficits, political gridlock, economic inertia, underperforming schools—this isn’t the thrifty, can-do U.S. that the Greatest Generation grew up in, fought for, and populated with cheery kids in coonskin caps and gingham pinafores.

Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum entered the world in the halcyon “used to be” days of the postwar Baby Boom: a time, as the former says in the preface, of “deep optimism about America and the notion that we really can act collectively for the common good.” Both men became prominent public intellectuals—Friedman as a columnist for the New York Times, Mandelbaum as a professor and foreign-policy expert at Johns Hopkins University. Yet now, they write, “our country is in slow decline, just slow enough for us to be able to pretend—or believe—that a decline is not taking place.”

Friedman and Mandelbaum are earnestly pained by what they see, and this book is their earnest attempt to sort out what went wrong and how we can fix things. Earnestness is an underrated virtue in popular discourse. In a country whose politicians are partisan intransigents and whose commentators are more interested in zingers than solutions, it takes courage to be so baldly civic-minded.

Friedman, for his unrelenting earnestness, has been mocked in the blogosphere as the “Mustache of Understanding,” but, at his best, he is our Mustache of Enlightenment. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11—a time when we were all asking “How did this happen?” and “Why do they hate us?”—there was no better columnist in the U.S., no one more adept at contextualizing the terrorist attacks and explaining how, while we were diverted by such trifling matters as Monica Lewinsky’s dress and Katherine Harris’s makeup, the Arab street was teeming with no-hope youths whose sense of humiliation was about to boil over into rabid anti-Americanism. Similarly, Mandelbaum, with such books as The Case for Goliath: How America Acts as the World’s Government in the 21st Century (2006) and The Frugal Superpower (2010), has proven himself an accessible explicator, offering cogent analysis for non-wonks of America’s role in the post-Cold War, post-Sept. 11, post-bust eras.

Here, Friedman and Mandelbaum start off by watching, agog, as emergent China seizes the mantle of hypercompetitive hypercompetence that was once ours. Friedman recounts a recent visit to the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, where he arrived by state-of-the-art bullet train to attend a conference in a glorious, spanking-new convention center that took all of eight months to build—a wow experience tempered by his return home to Bethesda, Maryland, where it has taken the local transit authority six months merely to repair the two clapped-out escalators at his subway stop.

The two authors consult a variety of political, academic, and business leaders to explain this torpid state of American affairs. Paul Otellini, the chief executive officer of Intel, expresses frustration over this country’s lack of incentives for would-be job-creators like him, complaining, “I can build a factory anywhere but here and get a $1 billion discount.” Curtis Carlson, CEO of California-based research institute SRI International, argues that the future lies with companies that encourage their lower-level employees to be critical thinkers. “More and more,” Carlson says, “innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly and dumb. Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart.” Bill Gates wonders: “What was all that good stuff we had that other people copied?”

Friedman chimes in, offering an updated gloss on the thesis of his 2005 book, The World Is Flat. He posits that such information technology advances as social media and cloud computing have only further leveled the playing field since that book was published. Today, denizens of the so-called Second and Third Worlds are equipped with the tools to vie for the jobs and riches that Americans considered theirs.

Provocative, thoughtful, connect-the-dots stuff: a fine job of delivering on the first half of the subtitle of That Used to Be Us, “How America Fell Behind.” The authors have us psyched and primed for the second half: “How We Can Come Back.” And then, bafflingly, they wimp out. Given the accurately dire picture they paint of a lost, wobbly superpower whose political theater has turned farcical, you would expect some bold solutions. “Our big challenges today require the kind of national responses that wars have evoked,” they write. Amen to that. So why are they so timid and tentative in offering concrete suggestions for such responses?

An example: Friedman and Mandelbaum underscore the importance of making teaching a more exalted and rewarding profession. Hear, hear. And yet they propose no big initiatives, merely citing some inspiring anecdotes, such as one wherein Williams College in Massachusetts honors four of its senior class’s former high-school teachers each year at graduation, and another in which the Washington public school system held a gala ceremony last year at the Kennedy Center for 600-plus teachers who were deemed especially effective. “Not every community has access to the Kennedy Center,” they write, “but every community can do more to make teachers feel appreciated and to inspire excellence.” As visionary proposals go, this is risible, the policy-making equivalent of one of those comedy prop guns that, instead of firing a bullet, releases a flag from its barrel with the word BANG on it.

Likewise, Friedman and Mandelbaum’s fix for our broken political system is toothless and vague. They call for—wish for, really—a viable independent Presidential candidate who would be a level-headed straight shooter, unshackled by the orthodoxies of the two major parties. “The candidate America needs would demonstrate his or her seriousness by spelling out with specificity which taxes would rise, which programs would shrink, and where investments would be made … rather than falling back, as presidential candidates tend to do, on generalities and platitudes.”

It takes some sort of chutzpah to chastise candidates for lacking specifics while lacking specifics yourselves. Tom, Michael: You command a big stage! You’re smart guys! Where are your huge, bold initiatives for getting “us” back to the “that” that we “used to be”? What about some kind of mandatory youth service in a nonmilitary civilian corps? What about a toughened-up education policy that would no longer allow rubber-stamp graduations for high-school kids who can barely spell, read, or compute? What about tax breaks for businesses that initiate gap-year programs for high-school graduates so that these new grads could earn money and learn the value of actual labor before college?

Friedman and Mandelbaum have their hearts in the right place, and they are correct that the time is ripe for big, concrete ideas to renew America. It’s disappointing that they propose none of their own.

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