Walter Russell Mead
…a thoughtful and balanced corrective to critics on the left who believe that our present economic troubles demonstrate the fundamental failure of the liberal democratic capitalist ideas on which American society is built, and the critics on the right who believe that only a return to 19th-century small government policies can save us…Few readers will agree with every observation and argument in this thoroughly researched and passionately argued book, but all of them should find That Used to Be Us compelling, engaging and enlightening.
The New York Times
…a book that is at once enlightened and enlightening. Friedmannot that you need me to tell you thisis a very good reporter…The partnership with Mandelbaum has been fruitful, curbing Friedman's notorious verbal excesses and stiffening the book with extra analytic rigor
The New York Times Book Review
Reflecting on America's past greatness and its slipping position among global powers, Pulitzer-Prize winning New York Times columnist Friedman (The World is Flat) and foreign policy expert Mandelbaum (The Frugal Superpower) warn against the United States' "dangerous complacency" in the face of increasingly complex global challenges. They repeat a question first posed by Bill Gates ("What was all that good stuff we had that other people copied?") and prescribe a set of sensible government practices for prosperity: invest in public education and infrastructure, foster immigration and scientific research, and set up effective financial regulation. The rapid upheaval of the Arab Spring exemplifies the dynamism of today's intertwined world ("Flat World 2.0"), where ideas and innovation—not goods or skills—are an individual or country's top economic commodities. American workers must approach the global marketplace with creativity in order to remain globally competitive. To that end, they also support reigning in the national debt and committing to the use of alternative energy sources. Broad ranging in its anecdotes and research, conversational (if pedantic) in its tone, and hopeful in its patriotism, they look the challenges of the 21st century squarely in the eye. (Sept.)
From the Publisher
“[In That Used to Be Us there] are big truths, and the authors see them clearly and whole. As is usual in Mr. Friedman's work the power of the core argument is buttressed by detailed reportage and blizzards of specific fact and detail, but the accumulation of anecdote and evidence never detracts from the book's central thrust. That Used to Be Us is an important contribution to an intensifying debate, and it deserves the widest possible attention.” Walter Russell Mead, The New York Times
“Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners. And you know what? There's nothing wrong with that! . . . American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend.” David Frum, The New York Times Book Review
“[An] important and eminently readable book…” Stanley Hoffmann, The New York Review of Books
“This is a book of exceptional importance, written on a sweeping scale with remarkable clarity by two of our most gifted thinkers. A soon-to-be best seller, it should be read by policymakers and every American concerned about our country's future.” Elizabeth L. Winter, Library Journal
Globalization. Infotech shake-up. Out-of-control energy consumption. Lasting deficits. The four big problems we're not grappling with, according to three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Friedman (The World Is Flat) and Mandelbaum, director of the American Foreign Policy program at Johns Hopkins. Here they analyze the problems and offer some solutions, including the revival of our core values (okay, vague) and establishment of a third party. Sure to grab attention, given Friedman's rep, and get the debate going.
A comprehensive but unoriginal look at the challenges America faces in 2011 and beyond.
New York Timescolumnist Friedman (Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How It Can Save America, 2008, etc.) and Mandelbaum (American Foreign Policy/Johns Hopkins Univ.; The Frugal Superpower: America's Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era, 2010, etc.) join forces to explain why they believe America's glory days are waning and what Americans should do to reverse the downward slide. The authors suggest that America's problems should be addressed through "stick-to-itiveness," political compromise and a renewed sense of national purpose. Americans must admit that global warming exists, impose saner environmental regulations, reform the immigration policy, demand more from teachers, principals and schools, lower government spending and break the addiction to oil. None of these recommendations are new, and all have been argued more cogently elsewhere. (For more incisive discussions of climate change, see Bill McKibben's Eaarth. Regarding oil, see Amanda Little's Power Trip.) Friedman and Mandelbaum's solutions to America's difficulties take the form of motivational slogans littered with clichés, and they delight in relating inspirational tales of average Americans who accomplished great things by being "just too dumb to quit." More than once, they write that Americans must be prepared to do "something big and hard together," to become "creative creators." The urgency of deficit reduction places "the future of the country" in our hands, "as it was for the GIs on the beaches of Normandy." High-skilled immigrants are "brainy risk takers;" low-skilled immigrants are "the brawny ones" (America needs both). Friedman and Mandelbaum are clearly attempting to make complicated concepts accessible to a general audience. However, in relying on Friedman's trademark blend of condescension, clumsy analogies and uninspiring centrism, they fail to break any new ground.
While the challenges described in the book are serious indeed, and most readers will agree with much of what the authors explore, the narrative execution is lacking. Disappointing.
Read an Excerpt
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 some- thing: 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 neighbor- hood. 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 en- listed 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 first- hand 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
Bethesda, Maryland, June 2011
THAT USED TO BE US © 2011 by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum