Awhile back I wrote a sneak preview of the book I was reading – Tom Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum’s “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back.” I promised – then, and again in yesterday’s post, that I would write more about this important book.
Today I’ll write a bit about what Friedman & Mandelbaum presented as how we got here. The temptation is vast to write about everything I underlined – there are SO many important ideas in this book. But if you wanted to read all the ‘sound bites’ I”m guessing you’d just buy the book (and you know, you should! it’s important!).
Here’s a few of the things I garnered about how we went from being the victors of World War II and loved throughout much of the world, to being – well, you know where we’re at now, and it’s not pretty.
- We won the Cold War, which opened the door for globalization. But we had been so focused on “beating the communists” that we didn’t get that winning created a new set of opportunities/problems. Honestly, til I read this book it hadn’t occurred to me that we had ‘won’, or that winning the Cold War was a root cause of globalization – opening the doors to further trade
- Redistricting is a major root cause of our current totally polarized political paralysis. In order to differentiate candidates each party presents people at the total extremes of their position (Republicans, conservative; Democrats, liberal/progressive). Most people in America on both sides are more centrist than the candidates presented.
- There are four major challenges facing us, which, if unattended to, will make our current malaise look like the golden days. We have thus far chosen to largely ignore them, greatly to our peril. These big four issues to address are:
- How to adapt to globalization
- How to adjust to the Information Technology (IT) revolution
- How to cope with the large and soaring budget deficits, stemming from the growing demands on government on every level
- How to manage a world of both rising energy consumption and rising climate threats
If you’ve read any of Friedman’s other books (The World is Flat and Hot, Flat and Crowded are two that I’ve read), you know that he makes a point, provides evidence from his research and reading, and then tells stories to further drive it home. This book too is filled with example after example of where we took a wrong turn and what it is costing us.
As with Hot, Flat and Crowded, the first half of the book – outlining the problem – could almost drive you to despair with points like:
- “The bursting of the housing bubble wiped out a whole swath of low-skilled blue-collar jobs (many of the people who were building the houses) just when the intensification of globalization wiped out a whole swath of low- and mid-level white-collar jobs (many of the people who were buying the houses).
- While American fourth graders compete well internationally on academic tests, high school kids are WAY behind the rest of the western world – below countries like Korea, Estonia, Slovenia, Poland – in fact, on the chart Friedman provided we were significantly below average in Math and below average in reading and science. With all respect to Eastern Europe – really? We’re behind Slovenia?
- “At precisely the moment when we need more education to bring the bottom up to the average and the American average up to the global peaks, our students are spending more time texting and gaming and less time than ever studying and doing homework.”
- “The largest factor in high systemic unemployment is a failure in our schools and workforce to recognize that we have entered into a “free agent” era of labor.”
- “To put it bluntly, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, America declared war on both math and physics.”
- “In sum, national, state and local economic and fiscal policies, over the last two decades added up to a bipartisan flight from prudence, common sense, and reality that has created an enormous challenge for the United States.” (he goes on with examples of craziness from both Democrats and Republicans).
Speaking of which, my favorite line in the entire book is this one:
“The Democrats were cowardly, and the Republicans were crazy.”
I’ll write another blog entry next week on part two – some of their innovative suggestions.
I think this book is really important. We are most assuredly standing at a turning point. Washington is ineffectual beyond belief, sitting back while mega-corporations amp up their global destructiveness. Anyone over 40 can easily see how far America has tumbled from its former glory – Friedman and Mandelbaum help to explain how that happened. And, as we’ll cover next, what to do about it.
Have you read “That Used to be Us”? What did you think? And/or – what is YOUR take on how we fell so far from glory?