That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 380 pp., $28.00.
Thomas Friedman has been a pivotal author for me. I distinctly remember reading “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” in a cabin on a boy scout winter campout as a teenager, reading “The World is Flat” as part of an international relations course, and listening to excerpts from “Hot, Flat and Crowded with my wife during a cross country drive. For over twelve years, Friedman has been a key spokesman promoting globalization and leading the national discourse on how a changed world will directly benefit those who prepare appropriately.
For a briefer period of time, Professor Michael Mandelbaum has had an important impact on me too. A professor at my graduate school, I thoroughly enjoyed his lectures and his prior academic writings. He—along with the other professors at SAIS—have a unique ability to clearly show how economic systems interact, leading to the political economy present in the world today.
With this as background, I was clearly anticipating a phenomenal book from these authors examining U.S. domestic politics from a foreign policy perspective. Unfortunately, the book did not live up to my (perhaps overly) high standards. The authors’ styles do not mix well, leading to awkward transitions and an over-reliance on broad generalizations. And perhaps I am tiring a bit of the anecdote-as-proof model that journalists such as Friedman have perfected. In terms of economics and globalization, I fear we simply do not have the necessary historical perspective to fully appreciate the current era we live in. Friedman and Mandelbaum argue strongly that America is in a state of significant decline and needs a rebirth. While the prognosis may be accurate, I question both the cited symptoms and the recommended cure.
Building off common themes from Friedman’s prior books (Friedman has been nothing if not consistent in his driving thesis during the past decade), “That Used to Be Us” cites four great challenges facing America: adapting to globalization, adapting to the IT revolution, coping with the national debt, and managing rising energy costs and climate change. To meet these challenges, the authors call upon leaders and Americans to revitalize the country’s winning formula by reforming education, infrastructure, immigration, R&D, and regulation policies.
Friedman and Mandelbaum are essentially arguing that the U.S. suffers from undercapitalization and must boost investment to maintain its competitive advantage. I certainly cannot argue with that line of reasoning, but I wonder if there isn’t more to the story. The U.S. problems did not occur in a vacuum and America's ability to overconsume requires the willing cooperation of the rest of the world. The world’s current accounts must balance in the end. So why the global savings glut? What has been the long-term impact of the ending of the Bretton Woods system in the 1970s? And how do we explain the Great Recession or understand its lasting impact on geopolitical politics? While some of this story emerges (especially in a few chapters clearly written by Mandelbaum), I feel this book falls short of its intended mark. In this respect, I cannot help but compare Martin Wolf’s excellent analysis written in 2009 which for me remains one of the best summaries of the global economic system.
In essence then, I am disappointed that these two great foreign policy thinkers somehow forgot about foreign policy (especially international monetary policy) when they decided to write a book about domestic issues. I tire of the constant focus on China by Friedman and countless other authors, and I think the China-U.S. nexus is inherently more complex than it is often portrayed. The discussions on climate change and the national debt feel patronizing too, myopically focused on current events. The overall structure of the book does not allow the reader take a step back and look at the larger picture either. Maybe the solutions are as simple as Friedman and Mandelbaum say and we are currently living in a once-in-a-lifetime moment, but I fear there is more to the story. (A recent Slate article dovetails nicely on this point I think.)
Like I said, perhaps I expected too much. In its defense, the book is a pleasant and quick read, full of fascinating stories and vignettes stemming mostly from Friedman’s journeys throughout the world. I love stopping and thinking about how the world continues to evolve, and I share the author’s childlike fascination with the transformative power of globalization. But in the end, I wanted something more substantive. Such a work would take more time than Friedman’s standard leave of absence from the New York Times every three years. But I sincerely hope that at some point in the future, he is willing to invest the effort.