That Used To Be Us

How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back.

America is in the midst of a slow decline. Worse yet, it’s a decline slow enough that we don’t drop everything and do something about it. That’s the core issue identified in “That Used to Be Us,” coauthored by New York Times columnist  and best-selling author Thomas L. Friedman, and Michael Mandelbaum, director of American Foreign Policy at Johns Hopkins.

Why are we doing so poorly? In part, it’s because many of the challenges America faces are subtle and incremental and we have overlooked them. But it’s also because some kind of sacrifice is necessary to address most of the problems, which we have not been willing to do.

According to Friedman and Mandelbaum, we have gotten away from our public/private formula for prosperity, which includes a commitment to: education; investment in infrastructure; investment in R&D; and an “appropriate regulatory environment”—that is, one strict enough to prevent dangerous excesses, but not so confining as to discourage risk-taking.

They go on to identify four major challenges facing the U.S.: the challenge posed by globalization; the revolution in information technology (which has stripped away entire categories of jobs); chronic annual deficits at the federal, state and municipal levels; and our enormous reliance on fossil fuels.

The arguments presented are all compelling and easy-to-follow. And their solutions are straightforward and commonsensical. Perhaps that’s because the authors describe themselves as “frustrated optimists” who “want to do things sustainably, not situationally.” But it’s clear that the problems they identify won’t be easy to address, much less solve. That’s because our political system is broken, a result of the extreme polarization of our two major political parties.

Yet the stakes for failing to address our challenges are high. Not only is the American Dream at risk, but the world will suffer if we cannot sustain our global role. The bottom line is that America must begin to act collectively on a grand scale. “We are going to have a hard decade,” they conclude, “or a bad century.”