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Summary - 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
by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum
Americans of all types and stripes know in their gut that something’s wrong with the US.
Many share a pervading sense that the nation’s “best days are behind it,” and that the future
belongs to emerging powerhouses like China. Americans have become increasingly
accustomed to shaking their heads in acceptance and frustration when things go wrong,
from the crumbling infrastructure of the country’s bridges and roads to its lagging educational
standards, the dearth of jobs and the political deadlock that paralyzes Washington. Even a
constantly malfunctioning door handle at the White House seems emblematic of a lack of will
to get things done. Americans have become resigned to how the nation is, but they miss the
way it “used to be” and who they were: a nation of gogetters who set their sights on
seemingly impossible goals and achieved them, of citizens who were capable of “collective
action on a large scale.”
Today’s creeping deterioration traces its roots to the end of the Cold War, when the US sat
back to savor the victory of capitalism over communism. This self-congratulatory mood
blinded the nation’s leaders to the need to adapt to four overriding challenges that are
coming to a head:
1. “How to adapt to globalization.”
2. “How to adjust to the information technology revolution.”
3. “How to cope with the large, soaring budget deficits.”
4. “How to manage a world of rising energy consumption and rising climate threats.”
The irony is that these issues result from the US’s prior successes. Globalization simply
extended America’s passion for capitalism and free trade to the rest of the world. The IT
revolution got its start in the US; technical innovation – from transistors to the iPhone –
emerged from American ingenuity. The world’s confidence in America’s economic might
allowed the US to borrow on the strength of its currency. And the global explosion in energy
consumption springs from the rest of the world’s pursuit of the snug, energy dependent
lifestyles Americans have enjoyed for decades.
The risks of not rising to these four challenges belong both to the US and to the world.
Failure to address them will lead to a steady decline in US economic growth, endangering
the potential prosperity of future generations. Without a strong America, the rest of the planet
suffers a lack of US aid and support, and the loss of a strong exemplar of democracy,
freedom and “human fulfillment.” The US’s influence will wane unless it tackles these four
problems, and soon.
Yet the situation is not all bleak, because the US has proven, time and again, that it can
muster its people’s collective spirit to confront seemingly insurmountable tests. In the 18th
century, the fledging states rose up as one in the War of Independence to beat the British,
then the world’s greatest economic and military empire. Americans tamed the vast
wilderness within its new borders. The country suffered a civil war but rebounded quickly
from its ravages, and within only a few decades, Americans built a modern industrial nation
that became the largest in the world. US participation in two world wars decided their
outcomes and shaped modern societies.
America is hurt because its people have not understood the challenges they face and so
have not demanded that their leaders show the will to confront their problems. Comfort and
complacency have shielded people until now. Addressing the future will require sacrifice,
more work and less consumption. The US attained its heights through a unique “partnership
between the public and private sectors to foster economic growth.” That collaboration rested
on “five pillars of prosperity”: 1) universal education, 2) building and maintaining
infrastructure, 3) immigration, 4) state support for research and development, and 5)
“necessary regulation” of private enterprise.
The Founding Fathers advocated mass education but left implementation to the individual
states. Abraham Lincoln won emancipation, championed settlement of the West and laid the
groundwork for the transcontinental railway, the first step toward a unified economy.
Theodore Roosevelt took up the cause of free markets when he regulated monopolies and,
in 1907, presided over “the largest single annual intake [of immigrants] in US history to that
point,” more than 1.2 million new arrivals. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the
basic infrastructure that catapulted the American economy after the Great Depression. He
instituted the “social safety net” of Social Security and unemployment insurance that, in part,
“ensures the legitimacy and stability of the free market economy.” Harry Truman authorized
the GI Bill to educate returning veterans, and Dwight D. Eisenhower steered the building of
the nation’s highway system. These achievements built America’s strength, but now the US
lives off its past successes. Those who abhor government involvement in the private
economy don’t recognize that American “exceptionalism” grew from the judicious partnering
of state and private sectors.
Employment and Education
As technological connectivity unites data and people, it also changes the world of work. Jobs
are no longer geographically constrained; the emergence of the “low-wage, highskilled
worker” means that job competition will be fierce – and global. The “flat world” that
technology engenders empowers workers in far-flung places to communicate and
collaborate, but it also changes the very essence of work itself. If the world is fully wired,
then the only distinguishing factor among workers will be each individual’s ability to rise
above “average.” Soon, being a middling employee no longer will suffice. Workers will need
to differentiate themselves by the quality of their ideas and the unique substance they bring
to the workplace.
“Employment polarization” means that technology is eliminating the “routine” jobs that less-
educated workers normally fill, opening up jobs where better-trained people can be more
productive and make extra valuable contributions. The question is how much value they add.
Modern workers are “creators” or “servers” and they fill four kinds of jobs:
1. “Creative creators” – These people hold non-routine jobs and excel, such as excellent
attorneys, physicians, writers, artists or scientists.
2. “Routine creators” – These employees also hold non-routine jobs but they are ordinary
performers, “average accountants,” “average professors” or average doctors.
3. “Creative servers” – These individuals approach mundane jobs with verve and
imagination. Think of a great cook who invents new recipes, a compassionate nurse who
develops a meaningful specialty or a well-trained waiter with deep knowledge of wines.
4. “Routine servers” – These folks get by doing regular work in an average way.
Education is an economic priority. To keep building America’s wealth and influence, its
students need to study more, do more homework, and excel in math, science, reading and
creative thinking. Just bringing poorer school districts up to par with better-funded schools no
longer is enough; US students across the board lag behind their counterparts in countries
like Singapore, Finland and Canada in tests of critical thinking. The US’s current educational
standards are turning out graduates for the jobs of the past: “They are being prepared for
$12-an-hour jobs – not $40 to $50 an hour.” Teachers, administrators, parents, businesses
and neighborhoods must come to grips with failing schools. And students: Put away your
video games and log off Facebook – US teens spend 7.5 hours daily in front of a screen;
50% “send 50 or more text messages a day.”
The US must quickly decide whether it will continue funding the past or start investing in the
future. The soaring cost of social benefits – particularly for an aging population – cuts into
the country’s ability to invest in education, energy alternatives and cures for other pressing
issues. Reducing taxes while waging two wars in the first decade of the 21st century was
mathematically illogical, so borrowing became the way to pay for it all, resulting in an
immense national deficit. The US must meet four criteria in confronting its debt problem: 1)
The country must tackle this issue with a “seriousness” that is proportionate to its severity; 2)
the nation must reduce its debt and safeguard the wealth of future generation; 3) spending
reductions must reach across the board, affecting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and
defense spending; and 4) everyone must contribute to solving today’s problems by paying a
fair share of increased taxes.
Americans took leave of their collective senses when some political leaders and pundits
fomented doubt about climate change. You can argue about its effects on the planet, but
denying scientific evidence that it exists amounts to wishful revocation of physical laws.
While the US is still debating global warming, other nations are funding solutions, such as
alternative energy, as part of their national policies. The US should begin setting “high
energy-efficiency standards” to impel consumers to demand more efficiency and to urge
industry to find innovative ways to provide it. Such innovations will translate into lowercost
alternative fuels. A cap-and-trade solution for carbon emissions will drive economic
incentives away from expensive, damaging oil.
Two illustrative but disheartening examples show how the US political will has cracked:
Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican, worked on bipartisan carbon tax legislation but had
to abandon the effort when the right-wing media shot it down as a tax increase. And
Congress is dithering over approving $25 million each for eight proposed “innovation hubs”
that could lead to new energy advances and job-creating industries. Meanwhile, Singapore
is spending more than $1 billion on such initiatives. “Think small and carry a big ego”
appears to be the current US slogan.
Political polarization is not new in American politics, but its continuing dominance is untimely
when so many critical issues await reasoned solutions. Political extremists have arisen on
both sides because of the way legislators have redrawn (or “gerrymandered”) congressional
districts to ensure the election of a particular party’s candidate. Voters in primaries tend to be
more ideologically driven, so candidates must hew to extreme positions to gain votes.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of citizens continue to be moderates but are forced to choose
among extreme candidates: “Representative government in America does not accurately
represent Americans.” Meanwhile, Americans spent more money on potato chips in 2009
($7.1 billion) than the government did on energy R&D ($5.1 billion). That year, foreign-based
firms earned more than half of all US patents. Today, teachers without math degrees or
certification teach math to 69% of US students; some 93% of students study physical
sciences under teachers with no science training. California spends 11% of its revenue on
prisons and 8% on education, compared to 3% and 30%, respectively, 30 years ago. And
most damning of all: About half of “US adults do not know how long it takes for the Earth to
revolve around the sun.”
A (Third) Way Out?
One place to start thawing the paralyzed US government is to promote and support a third-
party candidate for president. While the US electoral system is rigged to make electing
someone who is neither a Republican nor a Democrat almost impossible, history suggests
that an independent influence emerging amid conflict and deadlock can rouse the moderate,
centrist majority and impel established political parties to move away from extremist
positions. In the past, movements such as the Tea Party have served only to allow people to
“let off steam,” but the right independent candidate, someone with a commonsense platform,
someone who can give the disaffected majority a voice, might help move the nation out of its
The road to solving America’s challenges begins with widespread understanding that the US
largely caused its own changes in many unforeseen ways. This awareness can reawaken
citizens’ strength and ingenuity, and their determination to deal with their nation’s problems,
in ways that will benefit their children and ensure their crucial place within the world
About the Authors
The author of five bestsellers, Thomas L. Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at
The New York Times. Michael Mandelbaum is a professor at Johns Hopkins University
School of Advanced International Studies and directs the university’s American Foreign