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Review: "That used to be us" ... before becoming lazy writers

Tom Friedman, font of mixed metaphor, is scrabbling for a big idea that just won't show up. His latest book (with co-author Michael Mandelbaum) finds little favour with our reviewer
Ethan Wagner
28 November 2011

It’s easy to pick on Tom Friedman.

The influential New York Times columnist has increasingly become the subject of ridicule over the years because of his penchant for headache-inducing metaphors and his apparently oracle-like abilities to divine great truths about the world around us from things that would strike any other human as mundane and insignificant.

McSweeney’s once ran a scathing parody called “Create Your Own Thomas Friedman Column,” in which readers could generate a formulaic Friedman-esque op-ed entitled “Disorder and Dreams in [Country in the News].” Matt Taibbi, the Rolling Stone writer, has mercilessly lampooned Friedman’s bizarre maxims about American foreign policy, like “The first rule of holes is when you’re in one, stop digging. When you’re in three, bring a lot of shovels.” A befuddled Taibbi wrote, “First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you’re supposed to stop digging when you’re in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense?” And several years ago commentators Duncan Black and Matt Yglesias coined the term “Friedman unit,” defined as the six month period Tom Friedman frequently cites in his column as the critical amount of time in which one thing or another must occur.

Friedman continues his assault on the English lexicon in That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, in which Friedman partners with Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins, to sound the alarm about the country’s woes. The authors believe that a sense of gloom has befallen the United States and, worse still, many Americans have resigned themselves to the inevitability of decline and bought into the view that the country will soon become a has-been, an Ozymandias among nations.

The authors like enumerated lists: they identify four challenges facing the nation (globalization; the IT revolution; debt; and excessive energy consumption) and four causes for our recent decline (slow reaction time; failure to address education, rising debt, and energy crises; abandonment of America’s traditional formula for greatness; and political paralysis/deterioration of values).

That “formula for greatness” may have caught your eye; though readers are left to wonder for a few pages just what it is, the suspense is soon lifted: it consists of “immigration, education, and sensible regulation.” However, this equation is soon amended, without comment on why the earlier formula has been discarded; now, the five pillars of a “uniquely American formula” are public education, infrastructure modernization, immigration, government support for R&D, and economic regulations. How does this formula, which the authors claim as “uniquely American,” differ from what most other nations seek to achieve? Friedman and Mandelbaum don’t elaborate on this point.

This sloppiness is characteristic of the book. The authors begin with a fairly uncontroversial premise—the country is facing several big, intractable problems—but then generally fail to weigh in with specific solutions. Take education—there is broad consensus that the American school system isn’t keeping up with its international counterparts, and an active debate exists over possible remedies. Should we make education more like other professions, incentivizing teachers through merit pay and abolishing the tenure system? Or should we emulate countries like Finland and South Korea—perennially ranked among the world’s best in education—and eschew standardized testing as an unreliable measure of teacher performance? The authors don’t say. To cure our legislative paralysis, should we abolish the filibuster? Consider a move to a more parliamentary system? Don’t look here for the answers.

The one prescription that the authors do settle on, hastily presented in the last chapter, is lackluster: the emergence of a third-party presidential candidate. Not one who will win, mind you. Just one who will shake up the system enough to function as “political shock therapy.” This dream candidate should find the “radical center.” The authors seem to suggest that if conservatives say A and liberals say C, the right answer, ipso facto, must be B.

In just one early chapter, Friedman (it’s difficult to imagine these being spawned in his co-author’s head) unleashes a cavalcade of baffling metaphors: Americans are driving a car without a bumper, we are like a cross-country runner, we are the Yankees and the Russians are the Red Sox, the rest of the world is a shaken-up champagne bottle, we are dinosaurs in danger of extinction, lions stalking our enemies on the savanna, a brick house with central heating, a 40 year-old talking about our glory days as high school football stars, Japan is a tornado, China is a category-5 hurricane, and so on, in an entertaining but dizzying barrage. The impression these analogies give is of someone groping endlessly for the next “big idea” or catchphrase that will stick.

Other aggravations creep into the book. With all the jingoistic subtlety of Larry the Cable Guy, the authors write, “So, do we buy the idea, increasingly popular in some circles, that Britain owned the 19th century, America dominated the 20th century, and China will inevitably reign supreme in the 21st century? No, we do not.” (Italics in the original) Lest anyone still doubt their pro-‘Murica cred, they then proclaim, “We, the authors of this book, don’t want simply to restore American solvency. We want to maintain American greatness. We are not green-eyeshade guys. We’re Fourth of July guys.” To support their contentions, the authors occasionally make odd choices of interview subjects. In a section on the need for government to increase research spending, here’s Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, saying, “There’s a long history in this country of government spending that prepares the way for new industries that thrive for generations.” Great, but one wonders what the writers of later chapters advocating a return to American values, an increase in taxes, and limitations on lobbying would think about the revelation, six months before the book went to press, that GE effectively paid zero in income taxes to the US government via a combination of loophole accounting, offshoring, and lobbying for tax breaks.

Or take Ed Rendell, the former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who the authors approvingly cite ranting against the NFL for postponing a game due to a blizzard and concerns that road conditions around the stadium were unsafe: “We’ve become 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?” This seems a strange argument to endorse at a time when China—following the disastrous train collision in Zhejiang and the collapse of buildings in the Wuhan earthquake—is moving to implement far more cautious and stringent safety standards across the board.

Several of the supposed luminaries whom the authors quote offer little more than meaningless management-guru blather. Says one, describing the kind of workers he seeks: “You had better assemble the best team. Not a good team—the best team. You don’t want to be ‘world class.’ That just means there are a lot of others like you. You want your team to be the best in the world.” Another says employees must have the “Three Cs”: communication, collaboration, and critical thinking.

And stylistically, because the book has two authors, it is frequently written in the third-person. This has the unfortunate effect of making long passages read like a Berlitz children’s book: “Tom went to a conference…” or “Michael called Tom…” and so on.

That Used to Be Us is not entirely without redemption. A chapter called “They Just Didn’t Get the Word” contains a number of interesting profiles of entrepreneurs and innovators. The authors are at their best when they show, not tell—the passages in which an Indian call center CEO describes the lightning technological shifts that have occurred in his industry, or Michelle Rhee explains the detriments of viewing education as a social rather than economic issue are genuinely enlightening.

But on the whole, the book is disappointing, mostly because Friedman was once not merely a good writer, but a great one. From Beirut to Jerusalem, penned by a younger Friedman focused more on reporting than philosophizing, is required reading for anyone seeking to understand the Middle East in the 1980s. Mandelbaum, too, is a respected and accomplished observer of America’s place in the world. But by the end of the book, their conclusion—that what we really need to understand is “our own history,” rather than understanding how we fit into the rapidly changing world in which we now live—seems wrongheaded. In the end, perhaps the most stinging criticism for an author constantly seeking to come up with the next big idea is this: That Used to Be Us just doesn’t have much to say that’s new.

 

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