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‘That Used to Be Us’: Tom Friedman’s Rx for America to Get Its Groove Back

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief
Daily Ticker

In That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, co-authors Michael Mandelbaum and Thomas Friedman detail reasons why America has lost its footing and seems destined to fall behind in the 21st century.

Four mistakes were key to America slippage, the authors contend:

  • Misreading the end of the Cold War which was not a military "victory" but the start of a very big challenge to U.S. hegemony.
  • Taking a Bad Course After 9/11 by focusing on the losers of globalization vs. the winners.
  • Underestimating the Impact of Technological Change which has made the world "hyper-connected."
  • A Generational Shift from the "Greatest Generation" who believed in thrift and "sustainable values" to the Baby Boomers who use "situational values" and prefer to 'borrow and spend', instead of save.

But as the subtitle suggests, the book is not so much a recap of what went wrong but an attempt to alert America to the dangers, and offer some prescriptions for a revival.

"The book has a backward looking title but a forward-looking theme," Friedman says.

In the accompanying video, the NY Times columnist, best-selling author and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner describes what he calls the "Five Pillars of Success" America used to become the world's greatest nation:

  • Education: From the cotton gin to the super conductor, America educated citizens up to the level of the most modern technology of the time, so they could exploit it.
  • Have the world's best infrastructure.
  • Immigration Policies that encourage the world's best and brightest to come to America...and stay here.
  • The Right Mix of Regulation to encourage capital creation while also protecting society from predatory practices.
  • Government-sponsored research and development, which helped spur huge advances in transportation, communications, technology and biotechnology.

In each of these areas, America is "in a declining mode," Friedman says, which is why we're falling behind emerging nations not just on a relative basis, which was inevitable given how far ahead we were after WW2, but on an absolute basis. "China's not only rising but we're actually falling," he says.

The really frustrating thing is Friedman believes the solutions to these problems are "pretty obvious but our politics is so paralyzed we can only produce suboptimal solutions."

In an effort to end on a (somewhat) optimistic note, Friedman recommends parents encourage their kids to "think like an immigrant" -- who know expect nothing will be given to them -- and "act like an artisan," meaning take tremendous pride in everything you do.

"Average is over," he says. "An average performance is not going to return average wages."

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @atask or email him at altask@yahoo.com