February 24, 2021

That Used to Be Us — By Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum — Book Review

Into this grim situation, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum step forward to offer hope. Or do they?

For there is an unnerving tension at the core of “That Used to Be Us,” a discordant emotional counterpoint. I don’t think it’s a disagreement between the authors so much as a disagreement within each of them.

Friedman and Mandelbaum repeatedly describe themselves as “optimists,” albeit “frustrated” optimists. Yet the stories they tell repeatedly suggest very different and less reassuring conclusions.

The main line of the book’s argument will arrive with congenial familiarity. Friedman is one of America’s most famous commentators, Mandelbaum one of its most distinguished academic experts on foreign policy. Their views — and their point of view — are well known. They speak from just slightly to the left of the battered American political center: for free trade, open immigration, balanced budgets, green energy, consumption taxes, health care reform, investments in education and infrastructure.

There is a lot to like and admire in this approach. It is progressive and liberal in the best senses of both those words. It has resulted in a book that is at once enlightened and enlightening. Friedman — not that you need me to tell you this — is a very good reporter. He takes us with him to visit a high school for disadvantaged youths that triumphantly sends 100 percent of its graduates to college, then to view a new fighter jet that runs on fuel 50 percent of which is derived from the oil of pressed mustard seeds. The partnership with Mandelbaum has been fruitful, curbing Friedman’s notorious verbal excesses and stiffening the book with extra analytic rigor: a chart detailing the collapse of federal support for research and development is especially disturbing.

Together they offer a range of examples of how America can do better than it has done in the recent past. Despite its slightly misleading subtitle, “That Used to Be Us” is not really a “how to” book, not really a policy book. Friedman and Mandelbaum go very light on the programmatic details. Instead, they emphasize the power of good examples: instance after instance of forward-looking C.E.O.’s, effective military commanders, tough educational administrators, responsible politicians who have made things work. The book is more a demonstration than an argument: The situation isn’t hopeless! Success is possible! See here and here and here and here.

And yet . . . Friedman and Mandelbaum also point out things like this: New military recruits arrive much less physically fit than previous generations because of a lack of exercise, and they come in with what Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls “a mixed bag of values.” Dempsey goes on: “I am not suggesting they have bad values, but among all the values that define our profession, first and most important is trust. If we could do only one thing with new soldiers, it would be to instill in them trust for one another, for the chain of command and for the nation.” O.K., so that’s alarming.

And so is this point from Arne Duncan, the secretary of education: “Currently about one-fourth of ninth graders fail to graduate high school within four years. Among the O.E.C.D. countries, only Mexico, Spain, Turkey and New Zealand have higher dropout rates than the United States.”

How about this statistic from Friedman and Mandelbaum: “Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California’s general revenue fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education.”

Or this, which comes from the Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz: “The top 1 percent of Americans now take in roughly one-fourth of America’s total income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, . . . the top 1 percent now controls 40 percent of the total. This is new. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”

Or this, from the Pentagon via Arne Duncan: “Seventy-five percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.”

David Frum is the editor of FrumForum.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=223f46008c8e9755637377b02ea0fdd1

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