As the nation faces a number of challenges, we think it important to reflect on some of these issues and will do so through the perspectives of Tom Friedman, three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, journalist and internationally renowned author of six bestselling books, such as From Beirut to Jerusalem and The World Is Flat.
In his latest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Friedman takes a very thorough look at both our nation’s weaknesses and its strengths. While we are not in any way endorsing his points of view, we do think it wise to provide a framework to approach and become aware of the issues Friedman discusses. In this series, we’ve provided ways for clients and friends to consider his thinking, his interesting anecdotes, and the views of experts he consults. We are committed to helping our clients prepare carefully and thoughtfully for what they may face in their own futures, but also our collective futures. We hope you enjoy this blog series.
Part 1: Frustrated Optimist
I recently had the opportunity to hear Tom Friedman, the New York Times columnist and author, deliver a talk on his latest book, That Used to Be Us. In both his talk and book, Friedman claims that over the last couple of decades the United States has rested on its laurels while other nations have diligently advanced, to the extent that the US now has to catch up significantly in areas like modern infrastructure, education, scientific research, energy efficiency, political effectiveness and fiscal responsibility.
He believes that the conclusion of the Cold War was a key turning point for us when we lost the unity of purpose to demonstrate to the world that an American-led approach to economic and political systems was far superior to the systems implemented in the communist Soviet Union and China. We won and sat back—rather than winning and focusing on the future challenges of competing with the rest of the world, which, ironically, was to follow the American model in various aspects more tenaciously and effectively than America itself.
Friedman talks quite a bit about China, with the point being that we should not want to be like China—rather we need to be better at being ourselves. China is maxing out its potential under a second-rate authoritarian system, while the United States is operating below its potential in its first-rate system. Friedman quotes Orville Schell, an expert on US-China issues: “‘We see what they have done and project onto them something we miss, fearfully miss, in ourselves – that ‘can-do,’ ‘get-it done,’ ‘everyone-pull-together,’ ‘whatever-it-takes’ attitude that built our highways and dams and put a man on the moon.”1
One of Friedman’s most memorable remarks was that he recently flew from Shanghai with its ultra-modern airport to the state-of-the-art, circa 1970, Los Angeles airport (LAX). In his words, “It was like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.”2
In the end, Friedman is very optimistic that the American approach can continue to serve as the leading model for the world if it lives up to its full potential. For now, though, he is frustrated with how things seem so stagnant and misdirected when the US should be getting back on the high potential trajectory that it held for most of the 20th century. There is some serious catching up to do.
In future entries, I will review the key points of our education, energy and fiscal policies that Friedman discusses in his book and what I heard in his talk where he looks at problems and explores solutions. Again in the author’s words:
Our problem is not China, and our solution is not China. Our problem is us—what we are doing and not doing, how our political system is functioning and not functioning, which values we are and are not living by. And our solution is us—the people, the society, and the government that we used to be, and can be again. That is why this book is meant to be a wake-up call and a pep talk—unstinting in its critique of where we are and unwavering in its optimism about what we can achieve if we act together.3