A book Review by Linda Thomas
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
Loved this book. Maybe it is because I felt like it validated many of my opinions…funny how that works! For those who’ve read other Thomas Friedman books, you know his style is engaging and his facts thoroughly researched.
Yesterday I heard a piece about Greece on NPR. The reporter was interviewing a 19-year-old Greek man about his prospects for the future. He found them to be incredibly bleak and said he thought he would have to leave Greece to make a living. He blamed his parent’s generation for living beyond their means without regard to the future or concern for the next generation. Friedman and Mandelbaum make that same point about America early on in this book. “The formula has a long lead time; it involves one generation investing on behalf of another. So when we opt for deferring maintenance on the formula rather than making farsighted investments in it, we are denying the next generation the tools it will need to maintain the American dream.”
The book focuses on education as one of the keys to keeping America competitive. But, instead of comparing student test scores amongst national averages, we need to be comparing education results against other countries now leading the way. Susan Engel a senior lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College…frames our challenge this way: “There are two basic problems with education in America. The first glaring problem, the one getting lots of attention, is that too many kids have no choice but to go to schools that are dangerous, badly staffed, educationally indifferent, and underfunded…So, problem one: too many kids in America go to schools that don’t even begin to offer them the hope of getting to average.” Did this make you think of the Oracle School Bond issue?
Of course, solving many of our problems takes money. That Used to Be Us paints a clear picture of the trouble America is headed for with regard to the deficit and lack of revenue. From the tidal wave of Medicare and Social Security entitlements caused by massive Baby Boomer retirements, to the new challenges presented by “the expansion of globalization and the IT revolution” we have been caught flat-footed and need to act now to update our “five-part formula for greatness—education, infrastructure, immigration, research and development and appropriate regulation.”
I was amazed by some of the facts provided in this book such as the fact that “in 2009, United States consumers spent significantly more on potato chips that the government devoted to energy research and development–$7.1 billion versus $5.1 billion.” So, we can’t break our bondage to the oil industry, because we are too intent on adding to our obesity problem.
Speaking of oil brings me to the subject of the wars we are currently fighting. According to the authors, “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the first time Americans were not asked to pay higher taxes—and cut nonessential programs to support the military effort. Remarkably, we actually lowered taxes.”
Warning: you may get pretty frustrated reading this book. The good news is though, that Friedman and Mandelbaum do believe that it is not too late. They quote Timothy Shriver (son of Sargent Shriver and chairman of the Special Olympics) as saying: “I still see this enormous hunger for public purpose—people wanting to be part of something bigger than themselves, people volunteering to help others, looking for ways to join in solving big problems. But our political leaders won’t channel all this goodwill into national purpose and I don’t understand why.”
Byron Auguste, a management consultant who specializes in education and social issues summed up where America finds itself today in a 2011 speech to the Harvard Business School community: “We face some big challenges right now, short term and long term. But if the goal is to have the most prosperous and dynamic economy ten years, twenty years, fifty years from now, I’d rather be us than anyone else. Compared with other rich countries, we have youth, openness, dynamism, the best minds from around the world, enormous human capital, the deepest capital markets, unparalleled institutions of innovation, and a market no global businesses can ignore. Compared to the big developing countries, we have high social trust, low corruption, and historic link between effort and achievement, and democracy, as messy as it is sometimes is.”
The book wraps up with Friedman’s contention that it will take an independent presidential candidate in 2012 to make both Democrats and Republicans address the real issues in a meaningful way. I know one thing for sure…we won’t fix the problems by letting the talking heads spin us up over nonsense, by not working together or by sitting on the sidelines. It will take all of us realizing the time is now, the who is each of us, and that problems won’t get solved without some sacrifice on everyone’s part. That Used to Be Us lays out where we are, why we got there and what we can do about it. It is up to each of us to make it happen.