That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come 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, Michael Mandelbaum


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A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250013729
Publisher: Picador
Publication date: 08/21/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 245,382
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Thomas L. Friedman is an internationally renowned author, reporter, and columnist—the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of several bestselling and award winning books, among them From Beirut to Jerusalem, The World Is Flat, Thank You for Being Late and Hot, Flat, and Crowded.


Washington, D.C. area

Date of Birth:

July 20, 1953

Place of Birth:

Minneapolis, Minnesota


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

Michael Mandelbaum

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

Acknowledgments 687

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.

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That Used to Be Us 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 71 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The hardest part of reading this book was setting aside preconceived notions in order to fairly analyze what Friedman and Mandelbaum clearly lay out. The authors stick fairly close to centrist ideas though some political leanings come through in their choice of examples and descriptions. While the presentation of problems and solutions are the opinions of the authors, they come across in an honest, credible manner. Whether you agree or disagree with the content, there is no doubt this book is thought provoking and intellectually challenging especially if you are worried about the future of the US.
RolfDobelli More than 1 year ago
In this self-styled ¿wake-up call and pep talk,¿ award-winning journalist Thomas L. Friedman and professor and foreign policy expert Michael Mandelbaum offer their diagnosis of what they see as America¿s decline and set out some ideas to arrest its fall. In the first part, they largely succeed, detailing with illustrative, eye-opening stories and studies the depth of the problems Americans have ignored for too long: globalization, technology, national debt and climate change. However, they lose some steam in their prescriptive section where the challenges they outline seem to call for more than a pep talk ¿ although their ideas are worth considering and are great fodder for debates on real issues. Be prepared: Parts of this book make you want to cry; others make you want to scream; some pages do both. getAbstract suggests this bestseller to those in education, business and the public sector who want to understand the magnitude of America¿s challenges before rolling up their sleeves and getting to work on solutions.
fred1924 More than 1 year ago
Comments about Friedman & Mandelbaum’s book titled: “That used to be us” Much of the book describes the severe problems of our economy, our politics, industry and educational system. At the same time, much space is devoted to well known USA accomplishments in the past, and rightfully so. Space is also devoted to how often foreign people do a much better job today than Americans in areas such as education and economic growth, not to forget financial management. All true. The authors’ dearest wishes are for America to learn from their observations and in particular accept the fact that in their view of the modern world it would be essential for the USA to make the Government, much more of a real partner in business to become broadly competitive again. Clearly, that last part might cause very serious problems with those who believe that as little government as possible is preferable. Government should be supportive of a free market economy but not a competitor and player. Since Government assets and power greatly exceeds the business community’s resources it would not take long for us to end up like any other socialist Republic in the world. That’s not how we got to be who we are. Many people today, unfortunately, are not aware of it. Furthermore and unfortunately, the authors appear to be unqualified in matters of general physics and particularly in their attempt to make green energy and other hair-brained energy schemes basic elements of their recommendations to achieve a more promising future. In reality, it puts some of their energy related recommendations off the table. Plentiful and eventually cheap energy, from fossil fuels to nuclear and hydro and geothermal will take care of our future for at least the next 100 years. The lesson here is to let the energy industry keep us in a surplus energy condition and not allow the Government to waste billions of tax payer’s money on ill conceived green energy plots. As a graduate engineer I appreciate that neither carbon dioxide nor ocean acidification is likely to cause us problems for a very long time, if ever. The Chapter on education is the most challenging in my view and describes some of the currently active and innovative approaches to achieving serious improvements in the knowledge levels of teenagers and college students. Without achieving that, college level education is really a waste of money and time and will do nothing to make these youngsters more employable. What disappoints me in the book though is the lack of a common thread running through the issues that contributed to if not caused our current below-par condition as a nation of historically well-educated and clear thinking Americans. In my opinion that thread is our cultural demise during the past 60 years. Ask yourself, where is the spirit of hard work, at a job or in school? Where is the famous American habit of shaking hands on a deal without a 50 page legal document to back it up? Why is it that so few people really know the basics of our national history? This deplorable condition allows schools to teach that American culture is no better or worse than anyone else’s. Which is a preposterous affront to teach, of course, but indicative of our problems. In my view these are some of the aspects that caused our current political, educational and economic condition. The authors recognize our practical national problem and they believe, notwithstanding the contrary evidence, that we still have enough guts, skills, drive, imagination and assets to get us out of this box to a better future. I hope they are right. Frankly, I am not so sure, for the simple reason that the cultural deficiencies at the root of our problem are also the hardest and most challenging aspects of our national existence to repair. The book closes on a positive note but at the same time may mislead us in thinking that our challenge is just “another job” we have to perform to be back in shape again soon instead of the existential attempt it really is at recapturing our critical and unique national dynamics of exceptionalism and the world’s “least offensive policeman”. Frederik Engel 3/4/2012
Jules3 More than 1 year ago
Normally when I read books like this I am snoozing halfway through but this one kept my attention. This book covers both our weaknesses and our strengths but this country is quickly slipping while our political leaders are basically ineffective. America has been able to do great things when our backs are against the wall but we need to wake up...NOW!!! Read this and get inspired!!!
GShuk on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I listened to his ¿The World Is Flat¿ and ¿Hot, Flat & Crowded¿ and they were great. This one was just as long but did not seem to have anything new to say, although it was sprinkled with some interesting tidbits. Also, not sure how much I believe in their solutions to solve these issues.
Canadian_Down_Under on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
For the most part I enjoyed this latest book by Thomas Friedman. I think they (he and his co-author) make a very good case for what is wrong with the United States now. They talk about the lack of funding for education and R&D, the media, global warming, the polarization of the political parties and how that came to be and how the United States is competing with the world now on a more and more equal basis.The problem I had with the book was they spent very little time talking about solutions unlike Friedman's book, "Hot, Flat and Crowded" where he spent much of the book talking about very innovative green energy solutions. All in all, though, this is a good read which sums up very well the problems faced in the United States in a centrist way. The authors are quite fair in dishing out blame and despite all the problems they lay out they remain optimistic.
AlmaB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I'm a fan of Thomas Friedman's work ever since I read his book "The Lexus and the Olive Tree". I felt this most recent offering (produced in corroboration with Michael Mandelbaum) is certainly relevant and made some very strong points about America's current state of affairs. All his works build on each other -- like an on-going textbook with revisions -- so there's a lot of old material presented again. Hence, the highest review I can offer is 4 stars. I wonder if any of our politicians and "leaders" have bothered to examine the conclusions drawn in this work; or if they are strictly focused on their own personal & special interest agendas.
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Sits down and waits
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Im quitting rp. Btw...should i get this book? It sounds really good..
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It's fareasier to dissect and analyze Humpty's fall from grace than to put him back together again. The book is a great analysis, but solutions?? Not so much.
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