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


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Book summary of 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, 400 pages

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

  1. 1. 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 400 pages Diagnosis: Critical Americans of all types and stripes know in their gut that something’s wrong with the US. Many share a pervading sense that the nation’s “best days are behind it,” and that the future belongs to emerging powerhouses like China. Americans have become increasingly accustomed to shaking their heads in acceptance and frustration when things go wrong, from the crumbling infrastructure of the country’s bridges and roads to its lagging educational standards, the dearth of jobs and the political deadlock that paralyzes Washington. Even a constantly malfunctioning door handle at the White House seems emblematic of a lack of will to get things done. Americans have become resigned to how the nation is, but they miss the way it “used to be” and who they were: a nation of gogetters who set their sights on seemingly impossible goals and achieved them, of citizens who were capable of “collective action on a large scale.” Today’s creeping deterioration traces its roots to the end of the Cold War, when the US sat back to savor the victory of capitalism over communism. This self-congratulatory mood blinded the nation’s leaders to the need to adapt to four overriding challenges that are coming to a head: 1. “How to adapt to globalization.” 2. “How to adjust to the information technology revolution.” 3. “How to cope with the large, soaring budget deficits.” 4. “How to manage a world of rising energy consumption and rising climate threats.” The irony is that these issues result from the US’s prior successes. Globalization simply extended America’s passion for capitalism and free trade to the rest of the world. The IT revolution got its start in the US; technical innovation – from transistors to the iPhone – emerged from American ingenuity. The world’s confidence in America’s economic might allowed the US to borrow on the strength of its currency. And the global explosion in energy consumption springs from the rest of the world’s pursuit of the snug, energy dependent lifestyles Americans have enjoyed for decades. The risks of not rising to these four challenges belong both to the US and to the world. Failure to address them will lead to a steady decline in US economic growth, endangering the potential prosperity of future generations. Without a strong America, the rest of the planet suffers a lack of US aid and support, and the loss of a strong exemplar of democracy, freedom and “human fulfillment.” The US’s influence will wane unless it tackles these four problems, and soon. Prognosis: Guarded Yet the situation is not all bleak, because the US has proven, time and again, that it can muster its people’s collective spirit to confront seemingly insurmountable tests. In the 18th century, the fledging states rose up as one in the War of Independence to beat the British, then the world’s greatest economic and military empire. Americans tamed the vast wilderness within its new borders. The country suffered a civil war but rebounded quickly from its ravages, and within only a few decades, Americans built a modern industrial nation that became the largest in the world. US participation in two world wars decided their outcomes and shaped modern societies.
  2. 2. America is hurt because its people have not understood the challenges they face and so have not demanded that their leaders show the will to confront their problems. Comfort and complacency have shielded people until now. Addressing the future will require sacrifice, more work and less consumption. The US attained its heights through a unique “partnership between the public and private sectors to foster economic growth.” That collaboration rested on “five pillars of prosperity”: 1) universal education, 2) building and maintaining infrastructure, 3) immigration, 4) state support for research and development, and 5) “necessary regulation” of private enterprise. The Founding Fathers advocated mass education but left implementation to the individual states. Abraham Lincoln won emancipation, championed settlement of the West and laid the groundwork for the transcontinental railway, the first step toward a unified economy. Theodore Roosevelt took up the cause of free markets when he regulated monopolies and, in 1907, presided over “the largest single annual intake [of immigrants] in US history to that point,” more than 1.2 million new arrivals. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the basic infrastructure that catapulted the American economy after the Great Depression. He instituted the “social safety net” of Social Security and unemployment insurance that, in part, “ensures the legitimacy and stability of the free market economy.” Harry Truman authorized the GI Bill to educate returning veterans, and Dwight D. Eisenhower steered the building of the nation’s highway system. These achievements built America’s strength, but now the US lives off its past successes. Those who abhor government involvement in the private economy don’t recognize that American “exceptionalism” grew from the judicious partnering of state and private sectors. Employment and Education As technological connectivity unites data and people, it also changes the world of work. Jobs are no longer geographically constrained; the emergence of the “low-wage, highskilled worker” means that job competition will be fierce – and global. The “flat world” that technology engenders empowers workers in far-flung places to communicate and collaborate, but it also changes the very essence of work itself. If the world is fully wired, then the only distinguishing factor among workers will be each individual’s ability to rise above “average.” Soon, being a middling employee no longer will suffice. Workers will need to differentiate themselves by the quality of their ideas and the unique substance they bring to the workplace. “Employment polarization” means that technology is eliminating the “routine” jobs that less- educated workers normally fill, opening up jobs where better-trained people can be more productive and make extra valuable contributions. The question is how much value they add. Modern workers are “creators” or “servers” and they fill four kinds of jobs: 1. “Creative creators” – These people hold non-routine jobs and excel, such as excellent attorneys, physicians, writers, artists or scientists. 2. “Routine creators” – These employees also hold non-routine jobs but they are ordinary performers, “average accountants,” “average professors” or average doctors. 3. “Creative servers” – These individuals approach mundane jobs with verve and imagination. Think of a great cook who invents new recipes, a compassionate nurse who develops a meaningful specialty or a well-trained waiter with deep knowledge of wines. 4. “Routine servers” – These folks get by doing regular work in an average way. Education is an economic priority. To keep building America’s wealth and influence, its students need to study more, do more homework, and excel in math, science, reading and creative thinking. Just bringing poorer school districts up to par with better-funded schools no longer is enough; US students across the board lag behind their counterparts in countries like Singapore, Finland and Canada in tests of critical thinking. The US’s current educational standards are turning out graduates for the jobs of the past: “They are being prepared for $12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.” Teachers, administrators, parents, businesses and neighborhoods must come to grips with failing schools. And students: Put away your
  3. 3. video games and log off Facebook – US teens spend 7.5 hours daily in front of a screen; 50% “send 50 or more text messages a day.” The US must quickly decide whether it will continue funding the past or start investing in the future. The soaring cost of social benefits – particularly for an aging population – cuts into the country’s ability to invest in education, energy alternatives and cures for other pressing issues. Reducing taxes while waging two wars in the first decade of the 21st century was mathematically illogical, so borrowing became the way to pay for it all, resulting in an immense national deficit. The US must meet four criteria in confronting its debt problem: 1) The country must tackle this issue with a “seriousness” that is proportionate to its severity; 2) the nation must reduce its debt and safeguard the wealth of future generation; 3) spending reductions must reach across the board, affecting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending; and 4) everyone must contribute to solving today’s problems by paying a fair share of increased taxes. Americans took leave of their collective senses when some political leaders and pundits fomented doubt about climate change. You can argue about its effects on the planet, but denying scientific evidence that it exists amounts to wishful revocation of physical laws. While the US is still debating global warming, other nations are funding solutions, such as alternative energy, as part of their national policies. The US should begin setting “high energy-efficiency standards” to impel consumers to demand more efficiency and to urge industry to find innovative ways to provide it. Such innovations will translate into lowercost alternative fuels. A cap-and-trade solution for carbon emissions will drive economic incentives away from expensive, damaging oil. “Political Failure” Two illustrative but disheartening examples show how the US political will has cracked: Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, worked on bipartisan carbon tax legislation but had to abandon the effort when the right-wing media shot it down as a tax increase. And Congress is dithering over approving $25 million each for eight proposed “innovation hubs” that could lead to new energy advances and job-creating industries. Meanwhile, Singapore is spending more than $1 billion on such initiatives. “Think small and carry a big ego” appears to be the current US slogan. Political polarization is not new in American politics, but its continuing dominance is untimely when so many critical issues await reasoned solutions. Political extremists have arisen on both sides because of the way legislators have redrawn (or “gerrymandered”) congressional districts to ensure the election of a particular party’s candidate. Voters in primaries tend to be more ideologically driven, so candidates must hew to extreme positions to gain votes. Meanwhile, the vast majority of citizens continue to be moderates but are forced to choose among extreme candidates: “Representative government in America does not accurately represent Americans.” Meanwhile, Americans spent more money on potato chips in 2009 ($7.1 billion) than the government did on energy R&D ($5.1 billion). That year, foreign-based firms earned more than half of all US patents. Today, teachers without math degrees or certification teach math to 69% of US students; some 93% of students study physical sciences under teachers with no science training. California spends 11% of its revenue on prisons and 8% on education, compared to 3% and 30%, respectively, 30 years ago. And most damning of all: About half of “US adults do not know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun.” A (Third) Way Out? One place to start thawing the paralyzed US government is to promote and support a third- party candidate for president. While the US electoral system is rigged to make electing someone who is neither a Republican nor a Democrat almost impossible, history suggests that an independent influence emerging amid conflict and deadlock can rouse the moderate, centrist majority and impel established political parties to move away from extremist positions. In the past, movements such as the Tea Party have served only to allow people to
  4. 4. “let off steam,” but the right independent candidate, someone with a commonsense platform, someone who can give the disaffected majority a voice, might help move the nation out of its gridlock. The road to solving America’s challenges begins with widespread understanding that the US largely caused its own changes in many unforeseen ways. This awareness can reawaken citizens’ strength and ingenuity, and their determination to deal with their nation’s problems, in ways that will benefit their children and ensure their crucial place within the world community. About the Authors The author of five bestsellers, Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New York Times. Michael Mandelbaum is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and directs the university’s American Foreign Policy Program.