A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2011
In That Used to Be Us, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum analyze the four major challenges we face as a country-globalization, the revolution in information technology, chronic deficits, and our pattern of energy consumption-and spell out what we need to do now to preserve American power in the world. The end of the Cold War blinded the nation to the need to address these issues seriously, and China's educational successes, industrial might, and technological prowess in many ways remind us of a time when "that used to be us." But Friedman and Mandelbaum 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. That Used to Be Us is both a searching exploration of the American condition today and a rousing manifesto for American renewal.
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About the Author
Hometown:Washington, D.C. area
Date of Birth:July 20, 1953
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B.A. in Mediterranean Studies, Brandeis University, 1975; M.A. in Modern Middle East Studies, Oxford University, 1978
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
Table of Contents
Preface: Growing up in America 11
Part I The Diagnosis
1 If You See Something, Say Something 19
2 Ignoring Our Problems 38
3 Ignoring Our History 77
Part II The Education Challenge
4 Up in the Air 113
5 Help Wanted 167
6 Homework × 2 = The American Dream 202
7 Average Is Over 268
Part III The War on Math and Physics
8 "This Is Our Due" 309
9 The War on Math (and the Future) 317
10 The War on Physics and Other Good Things 361
Part IV Political Failure
11 The Terrible Twos 417
12 "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" 469
13 Devaluation 534
Part V Rediscovering America
14 They Just Didn't Get the Word 571
15 Shock Therapy 626
16 Rediscovering America 668
Reading Group Guide
"It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us. And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth—that used to be us." —President Barack Obama, November 3, 2010
From the skyrocketing federal deficit to plummeting rankings in education, America faces a turbulent future. How did we get to this point? What will it take to make our nation a beacon of innovation and prosperity once again? 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, provide a searching, clear-eyed assessment of the situation, with bold solutions for getting the country back on track. Drawing on in-depth analysis from around the globe, their approach balances evidence from a variety of viewpoints, including the political, entrepreneurial, scientific, and technological sectors. Despite America's woes, the authors argue, our nation's ideals remain strong—strong enough to propel us to a new era of reinvention.
A wake-up call for every American, That Used to Be Us raises the most important questions of our time. We hope this guide will enrich your discussion of Friedman and Mandelbaum's inspiring action plan.
1. The authors begin with recollections of their youth, capturing the economic and political climate of the 1950s and '60s. What does "that used to be us" look like in your family's memories?
2. The book's title comes from remarks President Obama delivered at the time of the 2010 midterm elections, when Republican victories changed the balance of power in Washington. Do you think the typical American voter realizes the importance of global competitiveness, particularly in the realms of technology and infrastructure described in the president's quote?
3. When the authors describe the long-delayed escalator repair in their Washington Metrorail station, what bigger problems do they illustrate? If their story is symbolic, what does it say about the cause of the nation's woes?
4. In chapter 3, "Ignoring Our History," the authors identify five pillars that have supported America's prosperity for more than 230 years: public education, renewal of infrastructure, keeping our doors open to high-aspiring immigrants, federal funding for research and development, and regulatory safeguards on private economic activity. How have these pillars benefited you? How would their erosion harm you?
5. Addressing the unemployment/underemployment crisis, the book emphasizes the need for an adaptable workforce that delivers nothing less than excellence—in which every worker is above average. In your field, what are the greatest challenges in keeping American workers continually trained in new skills and inspired to surpass average expectations?
6. In your opinion, what are the most powerful forces shaping the values of youth culture today? What would it take to reverse the widespread aversion to math and science? What is your twenty-first-century version of Sputnik?
7. When the authors describe the war on math and physics, they capture a society that tried to defy prudent economic principles and ignored the "gravity" that would send the Clinton-era surplus tumbling down into deficit. Do you predict that the nation's "Terrible Twos" are over? Where should federal spending priorities lie?
8. The authors point out that China's recent achievements occurred despite the republic's corruption, noxious pollution, and lack of political freedom. What does this say about global competition? Has democracy become an economic liability?
9. Chapter 14, "They Just Didn't Get the Word," describes such figures as Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America; Robert Stevenson, who found a way to keep Eastman Machine Company based in Buffalo; and scores of college students, military personnel, and other Americans who ignore naysayers and bring enlightenment to the world. What are the common threads in the book's success stories? How could these people's methods help you bring one of your ideas to life?
10. On the flip side, the authors admit that many of the achievements described in chapter 14 came from workers who care more about making a difference than making money. Is that a bad thing? Do low wages matter, as long as meaningful jobs are being created?
11. The authors remind us that tax-rate increases helped build the federal budget surplus, which began to grow in the late 1990s, while Bush tax cuts contributed to the current deficit. Property taxes and state income tax rates have also become a visible part of the equation as local governments try to cope with deficits. How has your tax bill fluctuated throughout your career? Would you be willing to pay higher taxes now, and if so, what would your top priority be in how that additional tax revenue is spent?
12. Discuss the third-party option, particularly a centrist third party that emphasizes moderate solutions. Have you ever voted for a third-party candidate? Is it possible to have a viable party in the twenty-first century that takes no extreme positions?
13. Discuss the book's take on exceptionalism—the idea that America has an exceptional history and therefore an exceptional identity—described in chapter 16, "Rediscovering America." Does exceptionalism help or hinder our success?
14. Revisit the Tocqueville letter that appears in chapter 15, "Shock Therapy." If you were to envision a happy ending that defies Tocqueville's dire observations, what would it look like? What would the ideal American future hold for the next generation?
15. Discuss That Used to Be Us in comparison to other books by Thomas L. Friedman or Michael Mandelbaum that you've read. How has their role as "frustrated optimists" evolved over the last decade?
Guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.