Failure after failure after failure. Bubbles that end in busts. Wars that aren’t won. Stimuli that don’t stimulate. All together plunging the United States into the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, America faces a geopolitical rival that is also an effective economic competitor — a combination not seen since the kaiser’s Germany.
Photo: Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre
The Continental Motors plant in Detroit, Michigan
Into this grim situation, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum step forward to offer hope. Or do they?
For there is an unnerving tension at the core of “That Used to Be Us,” a discordant emotional counterpoint. I don’t think it’s a disagreement between the authors so much as a disagreement within each of them.
Friedman and Mandelbaum repeatedly describe themselves as “optimists,” albeit “frustrated” optimists. Yet the stories they tell repeatedly suggest very different and less reassuring conclusions.
The main line of the book’s argument will arrive with congenial familiarity. Friedman is one of America’s most famous commentators, Mandelbaum one of its most distinguished academic experts on foreign policy. Their views — and their point of view — are well known. They speak from just slightly to the left of the battered American political center: for free trade, open immigration, balanced budgets, green energy, consumption taxes, health care reform, investments in education and infrastructure.
There is a lot to like and admire in this approach. It is progressive and liberal in the best senses of both those words. It has resulted in a book that is at once enlightened and enlightening. Friedman — not that you need me to tell you this — is a very good reporter. He takes us with him to visit a high school for disadvantaged youths that triumphantly sends 100 percent of its graduates to college, then to view a new fighter jet that runs on fuel 50 percent of which is derived from the oil of pressed mustard seeds. The partnership with Mandelbaum has been fruitful, curbing Friedman’s notorious verbal excesses and stiffening the book with extra analytic rigor: a chart detailing the collapse of federal support for research and development is especially disturbing.
Together they offer a range of examples of how America can do better than it has done in the recent past. Despite its slightly misleading subtitle, “That Used to Be Us” is not really a “how to” book, not really a policy book. Friedman and Mandelbaum go very light on the programmatic details. Instead, they emphasize the power of good examples: instance after instance of forward-looking C.E.O.’s, effective military commanders, tough educational administrators, responsible politicians who have made things work. The book is more a demonstration than an argument: The situation isn’t hopeless! Success is possible! See here and here and here and here.
And yet . . . Friedman and Mandelbaum also point out things like this: New military recruits arrive much less physically fit than previous generations because of a lack of exercise, and they come in with what Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls “a mixed bag of values.” Dempsey goes on: “I am not suggesting they have bad values, but among all the values that define our profession, first and most important is trust. If we could do only one thing with new soldiers, it would be to instill in them trust for one another, for the chain of command and for the nation.” O.K., so that’s alarming.
And so is this point 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.”
How about this statistic from Friedman and Mandelbaum: “Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California’s general revenue fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education.”
Or this, which comes from the Nobelist 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.”
Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Camden, New Jersey, is one of the nation's poorest and most dangerous cities.
Or this, from the Pentagon via Arne Duncan: “Seventy-five percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.”
The “frustrated optimists” describe a country whose people are falling behind, a political system increasingly paralyzed and institutions that seem ever more inadequate to meet ever more intractable challenges. They remark that China led the world until it bumped into a series of “bad centuries” after 1644. That fate could overtake America too.
Prophetic warnings usually culminate with an “unless” clause. The casual reader will flip through the book searching in some frustration for the Friedman-Mandelbaum “unless.” Their main recommendations tend to stop a block short of the destination: the solutions are unspecific, when they are not outright fanciful, like their yearning for a third-party presidential campaign.
Yet there is an “unless” looming implicitly in these pages. Through the weltering confusion of their four points of this and five pillars of that, Friedman and Mandelbaum again and again return to one inspiring theme: the leader “too dumb to quit,” who insists on battling a problem again and again until a solution is found.
“That Used to Be Us” is a morality play, in which responsible and irresponsible leaders contend against one another: the senator willing to make compromises against the senator who cravenly signs a no-tax pledge; the C.E.O. rebuilding a manufacturing plant against the banker engaged in paper manipulations; the governor who persuades teachers to rewrite their contract to end tenure for the incompetent against the politicians who dismiss today’s deficits as tomorrow’s problem.
Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.
And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.
American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.
David Frum is the editor of FrumForum.com.