Quicklet on That Used To Be Us By Thomas Friedman And Michael Mandelbaum

by Karen Lac

What's in the book?

Quicklets: Your reading sidekick!

    • About the Book
    • Introducing the Authors
    • Overall Summary
    • Part I: The Diagnosis
    • Part II: The Education Challenge
    • Part III: The War on Math and Physics
    • Part IV: Political Failure
    • Part V: Rediscovering America
    • List of Important People
    • Notable Terms and Definitions
    • Interesting Related Facts
    • Sources and Additional Reading



That Used to Be Us is a book about America. Authors Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum borrow the title from the American phrase used when confronted with the successes and progresses made by other countries. The most obvious country that we compare ourselves to is China. In a few short years, China has transformed itself from a largely peasant agrarian society to a global economic powerhouse with enviable economic growth and a growing middle class. According to the Central Intelligence Agency, China now has the third highest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, right behind the European Union and the U.S.

America used to be the envy of the world. It used to be a place where majority of the population had access to good public education and good jobs that sustained a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. It used to have public infrastructure that met the needs of the country and fostered economic growth. Americans used to trust their leaders and, most importantly, used to be willing to sacrifice individual wants for the greater good.

Now, millions of people are out of work. The housing bubble burst forced millions more out of their homes. Our roads and bridges are not maintained, as evidenced by the U.S. PIRG’s 2010 report which revealed that the country has more than 70,000 structurally deficient bridges and 90,000 miles of crumbling highways. Young people are increasingly squeezed out of higher education because of the astronomical tuition bills. Those who do get a degree are often saddled with debt that will negatively affect their standard of living for years to come.

The title is surely depressing but That Used to Be Us is actually an optimistic book. While it does point out the ways in which the country has fallen off the track and the problems that it faces, it is ultimately a call to action. Instead of just resigning themselves to America’s perilous fate, Friedman and Mandelbaum wrote the book to urge Americans to change their ways. They provide solutions so that future generations of Americans will not say: “that used to be us.”

Friedman and Mandelbaum set out four challenges facing America today. Examining America’s history, they identify the five things that America used to do that made it great. Lastly, they reinforce their belief that we must again do what we used to do while offering a fresh political solution.


If You See Something, Say Something

“Indeed, that sense of resignation, that sense that, well, this is just how things are in America today, that sense that America’s best days are behind it and China’s best days are ahead of it, have become the subject of watercooler, dinner-party, grocery-line, and classroom conversations all across America today.”

In China, the bullet train connecting the Beijing and Tianjin railway stations, both of which are equipped with the latest technologies and conveniences, covers about 72 miles in 29 minutes. The Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center, which is of such magnitude and sophistication that few buildings like it exist in America, was built in a mere eight months. Compare this to the subway stations in New York City, where broken escalators take months to fix. As Friedman recounted from a trip to the White House a few months after his September 2010 visit to China, even the door handle to get to the White House driveway was broken.

People have simply gotten used to their country’s inefficiencies and resigned themselves to the fact that China will be the world’s next superpower. Friedman and Mandelbaum refuse to resign themselves to the viewpoint. As frustrated optimists, they still believe in America’s greatness but are frustrated by the country’s slow decline.

The perception that China will be the next superpower is evidenced by the amount of books and articles written that state so. However, there are some notable people who don’t believe that to be the case. In 2011 at a public debate in Toronto, Henry Kissinger wrote that China will be so preoccupied with "enormous problems internally" that it won’t be able to lead the global world. Fareed Zakaria, Time magazine’s editor-at-large who was also at the debate, agreed, stating that China’s economic growth isn’t sustainable. According to Zakaria, China instead will become like Japan, another country that was previously thought to be the next global superpower.

Friedman and Mandelbaum attribute America’s slow decline to four causes:

  1. Since the end of the Cold War, we have stopped continuously examining what kind of world we live in and what we must do to thrive in it.
  2. We have failed to address the big problems, namely energy and climate change, education, and deficits and debts.
  3. We stopped investing in the things that made us great.
  4. Our political system is broken.

China, for all its achievements, has its own share of problems. What America needs to do is examine itself and solve its own problems. China only reminds us that prompt action is needed. The biggest problem facing us “is not that we’re failing to keep up with China’s best practices but that we’ve strayed so far from our own best practices.”

The problem and solution is not China; the problem is us and the solution rests with us.

As the authors immediately make clear, Americans shouldn’t be so preoccupied with what China does. Even if Kissinger’s and Zakaria’s assessment that China won’t become the superpower is true, it doesn’t really matter because it doesn’t mean that the U.S. will have a secure future. What really matters is what we do domestically.

This is quite a refreshing take that departs from the majority of literature concerning China out there. It reminds me of my parent’s advice to stop paying so much attention to what others are doing and concentrate instead on what I’m doing for myself. When I see a neighbor who churns out a beautiful garden every year, should I just sit back and moan that she’s so much better? No, I should take it as a reminder to get up and work on my own garden. In the same vein, China shouldn’t be thought of not as a threat but as a motivator.

Ignoring Our Problems

“The more the present generation shrinks from the nation’s challenges now, the longer sacrifice is deferred, the higher will be the cost to the next generation of the decline in America’s power and Americans’ wealth.”

World War II and the Cold War forced Americans to sacrifice, take action, and stay on their toes. With the end of the Cold War however, which freed millions of people in other countries to practice capitalism and live just like us, we became lazy just at the time when we needed to do more to stay competitive. Globalization meant that we had to work harder but instead we became overconfident.

America faces four big challenges:

1. Adapting to globalization,

2. Adjusting to the information technology (IT) revolution,

3. Coping with the mounting budget deficits, and

4. Managing a world with increased energy consumptions.

How we address these four big challenges will define our future.

I admit I was perplexed when I first read these four big challenges. Mounting budget deficits are no surprise; it’s what Republicans and Democrats are fighting about every day as the public debate rages on between austerity and stimulus. I live in California, where the budget deficit has miraculously grown from $9 billion to $16 billion in a few short months. But globalization and the IT revolution? Perhaps it is because California is so connected with the rest of the world, in both business and population, and is the home of Silicon Valley that I failed to see the how these were challenges for the rest of the country.

As Friedman and Mandelbaum explain, globalization has threatened American job security. The IT revolution has eliminated old jobs and created new ones that demand more skill and education. The country’s soaring budget deficits, which we’ve so far been allowed to make because of the dollar’s position and confidence in the American economy, threatens our ability to function and invest in ourselves. Increased energy consumption, a result of globalization, threatens to kill the very planet we live in.

If we still share “the American dream,” we must have a collective response to all four of these challenges. It’s not just Americans who have a stake in how we respond to our challenges, for “America has acted as the architect, policeman, and banker of the international institutions and practices it established after World War II and in which the whole world now participates. No country is prepared to step in and replace America.

Some probably disagree with the authors’ assessment that no country is prepared to step in and replace America. Many certainly disagree with their belief that the world is a better place with America as the global superpower. Americans themselves are increasingly ambivalent and even reluctant to get militarily involved with anything overseas, even for a noble mission like getting rid of a Syrian dictator.

Ignoring Our History

“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.”

America’s prosperity was built on five pillars:

1. Expansive public education,

2. The continual building and modernization of infrastructure,

3. An open immigration policy,

4. Support for scientific research and development, and

5. Strong regulation of private economic activity.

Providing good public education for a big part of the population has allowed the populace to work good jobs and take advantage of new technologies. The building and modernization of infrastructure, such as airports, bridges, roads, and ports, has facilitated the growth of the country and economy. The open immigration policy has encouraged both low-skilled and highly-skilled people to contribute to America’s economy, start businesses and invent here. Support for scientific research and development has helped create new products and processes that keep the economy growing and innovative. Regulating private economic activity has helped protect us from economic collapse as well making it easier and safer to invest in America.

These five pillars are part of our formula for economic success, a formula “in which the government creates the foundations for the risk-taking and innovation delivered by the private sector.”

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s discussion of federal actions being the backbone of America’s success is sure to rankle those who believe in limited government involvement and even reducing the size of the federal government. People such as Mitt Romney largely credit the success of the country to the private sector. But as Friedman and Mandelbaum point out, the country’s success has been because of federal involvement that allowed the private sector to grow. While they probably won’t convert hardcore libertarians, they certainly make a convincing argument full of evidence that’s hard to argue with. After all, the truth is that almost all of us, whether it is from attending public schools, taking out government loans for college, using Medicare, or buying groceries from Social Security funds, has benefited from government programs.

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