Fei Fei 's Reviews > 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 by Thomas L. Friedman
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's review
Sep 11, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: international-affairs
Read from September 11 to 13, 2011

"Unscathed by the great disruptions, unburdened by the necessity of great sacrifice, unpressured by the daily effort of confronting a huge global predator... the baby boom generation has in too many cases displayed too little fiscal prudence, too much political partisanship, and too short a sense of history to engage in the collective nation-building at home that America badly needs today."

In summary, the message is clear: Dear Baby Boomers, you fucked up big time. Please fix it before the situation becomes completely hopeless. Please and thank you, the United States of America.

I'll admit, Friedman and Mandelbaum are nothing if not well-intentioned. They've openly declared themselves here as "frustrated optimists", intent on warning fellow Americans the depth and breath of United States' problems. And these problems are equally embarrassing and completely serious. Let me illustrate here through a number of quotes:

From Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education: “Currently about one-fourth of ninth graders fail to graduate high school within four years. Among the O.E.C.D. countries, only Mexico, Spain, Turkey and New Zealand have higher dropout rates than the United States.”

From Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Joseph Stiglitz: “The top 1 percent of Americans now take in roughly one-fourth of America’s total income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, . . . the top 1 percent now controls 40 percent of the total. This is new. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”

"China's Tsinghua and Peking Universities are the two largest suppliers of students who receive Ph.D's in the United States."

"It took China's Teda Construction Group thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up - including giant escalators in every corner - and it was taking the Washington Metro crew twenty-four weeks to repair two tiny escalators of twenty-one steps each."

Citing professional quotes, statistics and real-life anecdotes, Friedman and Mandelbaum hammers home four critical challenges facing the US:
1. The slacking quality, attention, and funding of education across the country and it's effects on the current and future workforce
2. "War on Math", as in the out-of-control, crippling national debt that's unjustly burdening the younger generation for the sake of the retiring, older generation
3. "War on Physics", as in the blatant denial of climate change and the need for massive environment/energy policy overhauls in the nation
4. Political gridlock in Washington, encumbered by "hyperpartisanship", 24/7 media scrutiny and money.

An impressive list with some truly telling analysis. The proofs are there: America is in decline. What's worse, according to the authors, the decline is slow in coming and hence, we fail to even recognize the existence of the problem. This is an important topic but the book falls short in truly addressing the problem.

I have three main criticisms:

1. The authors excessive patriotism and optimism interferes with their arguments and undermines their credibility by drawing contradictory statements. What do I mean by this? Here's what I found in the first chapter:
"We believe that China is getting 90% of the potential benefits from its second-rate political system.... we are getting only 50% of the potential benefits from our first-rate political system."
... wait, what? PC much? I'm not a government expert by any means but neither are they (one's a journalist and the other's a foreign policy professor). Quite a stupid thing to say in my opinion, especially as they then went on to illustrate just how "first-rate" the American political system is with an entire section titled: "Political Failure". The authors' continuous contention to the superiority of the American political system lacks any such economic OR social proof in the book.

While commenting on the state of education in the US, they make the comment that schools must learn to "inspire" students unlike the Chinese educational system that notoriously "stifle creativity" (with no citation of evidence I might add). Fine, but then please don't turn around in the very next section and urge for an open-door policy towards high-skilled immigrants from India and China, whose "capabilities" and "innovative-thinking" will sustain the brain-pool of America's workforce and drive the US economy. And the string of contradictory evidence and statements go on.

I find it highly hypocritical that while the authors are urging for a change in the attitude of readers, in particular, that "sense of entitlement and righteousness of American ways", they are in fact propagating that very sentiment through their writings. They are emphatic that this book isn't a comparison between American and Chinese ways nor about changing American policies to follow China's example, yet at every opportunity, Freidman and Mandelbaum seem to be contrasting two countries - just look at the examples I drew up for this review!

2. They repeatedly state that the problem is serious yet you wouldn't be able to tell from the Introduction or Conclusion. Reading this book from beginning to the end reminds me of listening to a tender-hearted mother. She loves her problematic son dearly, knows that he needs serious help and tries to warns her son of this. Yet she phrases her words so delicately - not wishing to unduly injure or offend - that the dire message gets lost. This is what the book reads like for me. The opening and ending are so full of optimism and pep as the authors try to rally the spirits of the reader that the stark stories they've included in the middle are lost amidst reassurances. I wish they had been more decisive in their message: There's serious trouble, listen up!

3. With such foreboding tidings, you would usually expect that it comes with an "unless" - those concrete steps that will reverse America's fortune. But - and here is my main criticism - their main recommendations & solutions are frustratingly vague, incomplete and incapable of immediate action. For example, the authors encourage for more educational funding and government policies to encourage quality teaching. That's all fine, yet they've completely ignored the glaring problem that is increasingly unaffordable post-secondary education. Unless something is done to make college tuitions more affordable, America's "education gap" will continue to widen. To combat the national debt and climate change, they call for balanced budgets - increasing taxes where they are due - and green energy innovation. Also good. But precisely how/where...? The authors did not elaborate on the details. In terms of the political gridlock at Washington, DC. they have perhaps the most ... creative, shall I say... solution to the problem: "Shock Therapy". That is, the introduction of a third, independent political party to force a stop to the hyperpartisanship of congress by introducing a more candid, centrist view towards politics. But who would they propose for this role? Just who are they thinking about in particular who will step up to the plate?

With no concrete plans of change, Freidman and Mandelbaum instead relies heavily on anecdotal examples of success. They are essentially saying: Take heart! Change is possible. See here, here and here. But at the conclusion, you, the average reader, is still left in a confusing quadmire about how to proceed on a personal level.

Bottom-line: An important topic to tackle and write about, certainly. But, the evidence - significantly lacking in certain areas and misleading in others as it were - is not anything new. The arguments and solutions are fairly standard to those already in the loop and provide no additional enlightenment. The one positive is perhaps that the literary clout of these two authors in writing this book will, produce more open, honest and focused discussions to recovering some of that former "American greatness".
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Reading Progress

09/11/2011 page 200
09/11/2011 page 200
53.0% "So 2010 turned out to be a microcosm of all the forces undermining our ability to get something big, or even something small, done to deal with our energy and climate challenges. The Democrats were cowardly, and the Republicans were crazy. The Democrats understood the world they were living in but did not want to pay the political price-alone-for adapting to it. The Republicans simply denied the reality of this world"
09/12/2011 page 355
93.0% "Unscathed by the great disruptions, unburdened by the necessity of great sacrifice, unpressured by the daily effort of confronting a huge global predator... the baby boom generation has in too many cases displayed too little fiscal prudence, too much political partisanship, and too short a sense of history to engage in the collective nation-building at home that America badly needs today."
12/02/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-1 of 1) (1 new)

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Chris Sowick I agree. I didnt have such a harsh opion as yours about the book in general, I expected it to be candy coated in optimism because editors push for that for good reason, a lot of people would be turned off a book they percieve as all America bashing; but my take away was that it WAS a depressing book anyway. All the optimism is dependent on the US doing this and this and that, but when you hear what all those things are, no brainers as they may be, its blatantly obvious that we're never going to do any of that stuff! We're screwed, and we're not going to do any of that stuff for exactly the reasons they so perfectly describe in the book. Washington is a disaster. The whole thing's corrupt. The idea America could acutually get its act together enough to enact half of Friedman and Mandlbahms proscriptions is almost laughable. Laghably depressing.

Have a nice day!

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