‘That Used To Be Us:’ The Problems With America [Review]

I finished ‘That Used To Be Us’ What Went Wrong With America – And How It Can Come Back a few days ago. A review draft was sitting in my unpublished section as I worked and blogged about other things, and tried to figure out why I wasn’t happy with what I was saying. I was getting into specifics, giving quotes, all the things you would expect from a book review. But it wasn’t working. I wasn’t doing something right.

‘That Used To Be Us’ is a well-written, well-researched and well-argued book about the situation in America. It was published in 2011, so it’s a few years old and it should be out of date by now. Political analysis has a short shelf-life. That’s because our world and our politics shift so much in short periods of time, with every election, or coup, or military engagement, or even philosophical and academic shifts. The quick expiration dates on political analyses is a sign of the fluid nature of our world.

Except that this book hasn’t expired at all. And that’s a real problem.

Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum are authors with oodles o experience and credentials. Friedman is a New York Times writer and has won the Pulitzer prize three times. Mandelbaum, at the time the book was published, was the Director of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. These are experts, trusted sources, authorities in their fields, and Americans who have lived through decades of history. They bring everything they have to this book in order to explain why America… well, why it isn’t so great anymore.

Their core argument is that the American formula for greatness has been ignored. There are five pillars to the formula:

  • Providing public education
  • Infrastructure development
  • Immigration
  • Government support for research and development
  • Regulations on private economic activity, which include incentives and protections

These are how America has stayed so “exceptional” and outpaced the world in development and prosperity.

The book offers examples and it makes a lot of sense. Take immigration, for example. Immigrants to America come for a better life, the adage goes, but they bring with them something that the country needs – the ability to take advantage of opportunity and create something great. The innovations of immigrants and their participation in our economy has bolstered us, made us great, and given us an edge over the countries those immigrants come from. An absurd amount of patents awarded by the U.S. Patent Office go to immigrants and a patent for a new technology given in America is a patent not given in some other country.

Immigrants are an advantage to America, not a drain (something that anti-immigration activists forget when they argue for closed borders). But now we have this debate over immigration, how it should go, who should come here, and all that jazz. Looking ahead to the 2016 presidential election, it’s easy to see that there is a need for reform and change. It’s not so easy to see what those changes might be.

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s book was published just in time to talk about the 2012 election. Far from expiring post-2012, it is even more relevant today. Why? Because nothing much has changed in the intervening time. That’s not good. In fact, it’s bad. It means that all the ills and political diseases they talk about have only gotten worse, not better.

Honestly, that conclusion is really depressing and it is part of the reason I have mulled this review over for longer than normal. Friedman and Mandelbaum end on an optimistic note, talking about the people who are succeeding and improving the nation despite the fact that the system is so broken. These are the people who “didn’t get the memo.” But that memo was from four years ago. It’s easy to be optimistic when things are current. If anything has expired in this book, perhaps it is the optimism with which its authors conclude.

I’m not a pessimist about people. Americans are great and they do great things. So are Australians, Chinese, Japanese, Brits, Europeans of every country, South Americans from Brazil, Peru, Chile, Latinos from Mexico, the citizens of African nations like Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the people in the Middle East who are struggling against interminable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places. India is a booming center of trade, commerce and innovation. Russia, for all its faults, is a major player on the world stage. People everywhere are achieving and accomplishing at faster rates than ever before. I’m inclined to think that not since the Enlightenment have ideas and technologies increased and been shared at such a rapid pace. Honestly, I am a “best of all possible worlds” believer.

But I am a pessimist about politics, especially in America. It is, after all, the system I am most familiar with. It is also almost (?) completely broken. ‘That Used To Be Us’ talks about that, too. One of the issues is partisanship, which has gotten so extreme and ideological that the necessary compromises of a working government are completely impossible to make. While I do identify as a liberal (though not as a party adherent), I would be more happy if there were centrist politicians who said, “Look, this is the problem and this is the middle way towards fixing it.” According to Friedman and Mandelbaum, I’m not the only person who feels that way.

Most Americans, in fact, are not partisans. Politics is controlled by extreme sides, both in government itself and in voting. Without a mandatory voting system, Americans who feel like there is no one who represents them simply don’t vote. Their vote really doesn’t count because A) there is no one for them to vote for and B) they don’t vote. I voted in the first election I was eligible to vote in, but after that I ceased to see the point. That was confirmed by my sophomore year Political Science professor who showed my class why our votes don’t matter. There is power in numbers and, frankly, sane people don’t have them.

Something should have changed between 2011 and 2015. What this book shows today is that nothing has happened. We are still mired in the muck of a decade or more ago and there is no sign that we’re getting out of it. We’re just getting more stuck.

The information and the solutions in this book are good. They are also still very relevant to today. If you read this book (and I recommend you do), you will learn a lot. And if you read it, you’ll be one of the few people who can make informed decisions about the future, maybe even about your vote next year. As for me, I have some more thinking to do. Maybe I need to get my absentee ballot set up. Or maybe not.


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