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Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux
eBook Kindle Edition
America has a huge problem. It faces four major challenges, on which its future depends, and it is failing to meet them. In That Used to Be Us, Thomas L. Friedman, one of our most influential columnists, and Michael Mandelbaum, one of our leading foreign policy thinkers, analyze those challenges - globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation's chronic deficits, and its pattern of energy consumption - and spell out what we need to do now to rediscover America and rise to this moment.
They explain how the end of the cold war blinded the nation to the need to address these issues. They show how our history, when properly understood, provides the key to addressing them, and explain how the paralysis of our political system and the erosion of key American values have made it impossible for us to carry out the policies the country needs. They offer a way out of the trap into which the country has fallen, which includes the rediscovery of some of our most valuable traditions and the creation of a new, third-party movement.
That Used to Be Us is both a searching exploration of the American condition today and a rousing manifesto for American renewal. "As we were writing this book," Friedman and Mandelbaum explain, "we found that when we shared the title with people, they would often nod ruefully and ask: 'But does it have a happy ending?' Our answer is that we can write a happy ending, but it is up to the country - to all of us - to determine whether it is fiction or nonfiction. We need to study harder, save more, spend less, invest wisely, and get back to the formula that made us successful as a country in every previous historical turn. What we need is not novel or foreign, but values, priorities, and practices embedded in our history and culture, applied time and again to propel us forward as a country. That is all part of our past. That used to be us and can be again - if we will it."
Growing Up in America
A reader might ask why two people who have devoted their careers to writing about foreign affairs—one of us as a foreign correspondent and columnist at The New York Times and the other as a professor of American foreign policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies—have collaborated on a book about the American condition today. The answer is simple. We have been friends for more than twenty years, and in that time hardly a week has gone by without our discussing some aspect of international relations and American foreign policy. But in the last couple of years, we started to notice something: Every conversation would begin with foreign policy but end with domestic policy—what was happening, or not happening, in the United States. Try as we might to redirect them, the conversations kept coming back to America and our seeming inability today to rise to our greatest challenges.
This situation, of course, has enormous foreign policy implications. America plays a huge and, more often than not, constructive role in the world today. But that role depends on the country's social, political, and economic health. And America today is not healthy—economically or politically. This book is our effort to explain how we got into that state and how we get out of it.
We beg the reader's indulgence with one style issue. At times, we include stories, anecdotes, and interviews that involve only one of us. To make clear who is involved, we must, in effect, quote ourselves: "As Tom recalled ..." "As Michael wrote ..." You can't simply say "I said" or "I saw" when you have a co-authored book with a lot of reporting in it.
Readers familiar with our work know its mainly as authors and commentators, but we are also both, well, Americans. That is important, because that identity drives the book as much as our policy interests do. So here are just a few words of introduction from each of us—not as experts but as citizens.
Tom: I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was raised in a small suburb called St. Louis Park-made famous by the brothers Ethan and Joel Coen in their movie A Serious Man, which was set in our neighborhood. Senator Al Franken, the Coen brothers, the Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, the political scientist Norman Ornstein, the longtime NFL football coach Marc Trestman, and I all grew up in and around that little suburb within a few years of one another, and it surely had a big impact on all of its. In my case, it bred a deep optimism about America and the notion that we really can act collectively for the common good.
In 1971, the year I graduated from high school, Time magazine had a cover featuring then Minnesota governor Wendell Anderson holding up a fish he had just caught, under the headline "The Good Life in Minnesota." It was all about "the state that works." When the senators from your childhood were the Democrats Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Eugene McCarthy, your congressmen were the moderate Republicans Clark MacGregor and Bill Frenzel, and the leading corporations in your state—Dayton's, Target, General Mills, and 3M—were pioneers in corporate social responsibility and believed that it was part of their mission to help build things like the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, you wound up with a deep conviction that politics really can work and that there is a viable political center in American life.
I attended public school with the same group of kids from K through 12. In those days in Minnesota, private schools were for kids in trouble. Private school was pretty much unheard of for middle-class St. Louis Park kids, and pretty much everyone was middle-class. My mom enlisted in the U.S. Navy in World War II, and my parents actually bought our home thanks to the loan she got through the GI Bill. My dad, who never went to college, was vice president of a company that sold ball bearings. My wife, Ann Bucksbaum, was born in Marshalltown, Iowa, and was raised in Des Moines. To this day, my best friends are still those kids I grew up with in St. Louis Park, and I still carry around a mental image—no doubt idealized—of Minnesota that anchors and informs a lot of my political choices. No matter where I go—London, Beirut, Jerusalem, Washington, Beijing, or Bangalore—I'm always looking to rediscover that land of ten thousand lakes where politics actually worked to make people's lives better, not pull them apart. That used to be us. In fact, it used to be my neighborhood.
Michael: While Tom and his wife come from the middle of the country, my wife, Anne Mandelbaum, and I grew up on the two coasts—she in Manhattan and I in Berkeley, California. My father was a professor of anthropology at the University of California, and my mother, after my two siblings and I reached high school age, became a public school teacher and then joined the education faculty at the university that we called, simply, Cal.
Although Berkeley has a reputation for political radicalism, during my childhood in the 1950s it had more in common with Tom's Minneapolis than with the Berkeley the world has come to know. It was more a slice of Middle America than a hotbed of revolution. As amazing as it may seem today, for part of my boyhood it had a Republican mayor and was represented by a Republican congressman.
One episode from those years is particularly relevant to this book. It occurred in the wake of the Soviet Union's 1957 launching of Sputnik, the first Earth-orbiting satellite. The event was a shock to the United States, and the shock waves reached Garfield Junior High School (since renamed after Martin Luther King Jr.), where I was in seventh grade. The entire student body was summoned to an assembly at which the principal solemnly informed us that in the future we all would have to study harder, and that mathematics and science would be crucial.
Given my parents' commitment to education, I did not need to be told that school and studying were important. But I was impressed by the gravity of the moment. I understood that the United States faced a national challenge and that everyone would have to contribute to meeting it. I did not doubt that America, and Americans, would meet it. There is no going back to the 1950s, and there are many reasons to be glad that that is so, but the kind of seriousness the country was capable of then is just as necessary now.
We now live and work in the nation's capital, where we have seen firsthand the government's failure to come to terms with the major challenges the country faces. But although this book's perspective on the present is gloomy, its hopes and expectations for the future are high. We know that America can meet its challenges. After all, that's the America where we grew up.
Thomas L. Friedman Michael Mandelbaum Bethesda, Maryland, June 2011
If You See Something, Say Something
This is a book about America that begins in China.
In September 2010, Tom attended the World Economic Forum's summer conference in Tianjin, China. Five years earlier, getting to Tianjin had involved a three-and-a-half-hour car ride from Beijing to a polluted, crowded Chinese version of Detroit, but things had changed. Now, to get to Tianjin, you head to the Beijing South Railway Station—an ultramodern flying saucer of a building with glass walls and an oval roof covered with 3,246 solar panels—buy a ticket from an electronic kiosk offering choices in Chinese and English, and board a world-class high-speed train that goes right to another roomy, modern train station in downtown Tianjin. Said to be the fastest in the world when it began operating in 2008, the Chinese bullet train covers 115 kilometers, or 72 miles, in a mere twenty-nine minutes.
The conference itself took place at the Tianjin Meijiang Convention and Exhibition Center—a massive, beautifully appointed structure, the like of which exists in few American cities. As if the convention center wasn't impressive enough, the conference's co-sponsors in Tianjin gave some facts and figures about it (www.tj-summerdavos.cn). They noted that it contained a total floor area of 230,000 square meters (almost 2.5 million square feet) and that "construction of the Meijiang Convention Center started on September 15, 2009, and was completed in May, 2010." Reading that line, Tom started counting on his fingers: Let's see—September, October, November, December, January ...
Returning home to Maryland from that trip, Tom was describing the Tianjin complex and how quickly it was built to Michael and his wife, Anne. At one point Anne asked: "Excuse me, Tom. Have you been to our subway stop lately?" We all live in Bethesda and often use the Washington Metrorail subway to get to work in downtown Washington, D.C. Tom had just been at the Bethesda station and knew exactly what Anne was talking about: The two short escalators had been under repair for nearly six months. While the one being fixed was closed, the other had to be shut off and converted into a two-way staircase. At rush hour, this was creating a huge mess. Everyone trying to get on or off the platform had to squeeze single file up and down one frozen escalator. It sometimes took ten minutes just to get out of the station. A sign on the closed escalator said that its repairs were part of a massive escalator "modernization" project.
What was taking this "modernization" project so long? We investigated. Cathy Asato, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, had told the Maryland Community News (October 20, 2010) that "the repairs were scheduled to take about six months and are on schedule. Mechanics need 10 to 12 weeks to fix each escalator."
A simple comparison made a startling point: It took China's Teda Construction Group thirty-two weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up—including giant escalators in every corner—and it was taking the Washington Metro crew twenty-four weeks to repair two tiny escalators of twenty-one steps each. We searched a little further and found that WTOP, a local news radio station, had interviewed the Metro interim general manager, Richard Sarles, on July 20, 2010. Sure, these escalators are old, he said, but "they have not been kept in a state of good repair. We're behind the curve on that, so we have to catch up ... Just last week, smoke began pouring out of the escalators at the Dupont Circle station during rush hour."
On November 14, 2010, The Washington Post ran a letter to the editor from Mark Thompson of Kensington, Maryland, who wrote:
I have noted with interest your reporting on the $225,000 study that Metro hired Vertical Transportation Excellence to conduct into the sorry state of the system's escalators and elevators ... I am sure that the study has merit. But as someone who has ridden Metro for more than 30 years, I can think of an easier way to assess the health of the escalators. For decades they ran silently and efficiently. But over the past several years-when the escalators are running-aging or ill-fitting parts have generated horrific noises that sound to me like a Tyrannosaurus Rex trapped in a tar pit screeching its dying screams.
The quote we found most disturbing, though, came from a Maryland Community News story about the long lines at rush hour caused by the seemingly endless Metro repairs: "`My impression, standing on line there, is people have sort of gotten used to it,' said Benjamin Ross, who lives in Bethesda and commutes every day from the downtown station."
The National Watercooler
People have sort of gotten used to it. Indeed, that sense of resignation, that sense that, well, this is just how things are in America today, that sense that America's best days are behind it and China's best days are ahead of it, have become the subject of watercooler, dinner-party, grocery-line, and classroom conversations all across America today. We hear the doubts from children, who haven't been to China. Tom took part in the September 2010 Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) meeting in San Jose, California. As part of the program, there was a "School of the Future Design Competition," which called for junior high school students to design their own ideal green school. He met with the finalists on the last morning of the convention, and they talked about global trends. At one point, Tom asked them what they thought about China. A young blond-haired junior high school student, Isabelle Foster, from Old Lyme Middle School in Connecticut, remarked, "It seems like they have more ambition and will than we do." Tom asked her, "Where did you get that thought?" She couldn't really explain it, she said. She had never visited China. But it was just how she felt. It's in the air.
We heard the doubts about America from Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, in his angry reaction after the National Football League postponed for two days a game scheduled in Philadelphia between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Minnesota Vikings-because of a severe snowstorm. The NFL ordered the games postponed because it didn't want fans driving on icy, snow-covered roads. But Rendell saw it as an indicator of something more troubling-that Americans had gone soft. "It goes against everything that football is all about," Rendell said in an interview with the sports radio station 97.5 The Fanatic in Philadelphia (December 27, 2010). "We've become a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus on the way down."
We read the doubts in letters to the editor, such as this impassioned post by Eric R. on The New York Times comments page under a column Tom wrote about China (December 1, 2010):
We are nearly complete in our evolution from Lewis and Clark into Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. We used to embrace challenges, endure privation, throttle our fear and strike out into the (unknown) wilderness. In this mode we rallied to span the continent with railroads, construct a national highway system, defeated monstrous dictators, cured polio and landed men on the moon. Now we text and put on makeup as we drive, spend more on video games than books, forswear exercise, demonize hunting, and are rapidly succumbing to obesity and diabetes. So much for the pioneering spirit that made its (once) the greatest nation on earth, one that others looked up to and called "exceptional."
Sometimes the doubts hit its where we least expect them. A few weeks after returning from China, Tom went to the White House to conduct an interview. He passed through the Secret Service checkpoint on Pennsylvania Avenue, and after putting his bags through the X-ray machine and collecting them, he grabbed the metal door handle to enter the White House driveway. The handle came off in his hand. "Oh, it does that sometimes," the Secret Service agent at the door said nonchalantly, as Tom tried to fit the wobbly handle back into the socket.
And often now we hear those doubts from visitors here-as when a neighbor in Bethesda mentions that over the years he has hired several young women from Germany to help with his child care, and they always remark on two things: how many squirrels there are in Washington, and how rutted the streets are. They just can't believe that America's capital would have such potholed streets.
So, do we buy the idea, increasingly popular in some circles, that Britain owned the nineteenth century, America dominated the twentieth century, and China will inevitably reign supreme in the twenty-first century-and that all you have to do is fly from Tianjin or Shanghai to Washington, D.C., and take the subway to know that?
Excerpted from THAT USED TO BE US: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, published in September 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. All rights reserved.
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