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WRM Reviews Friedman, Mandelbaum Book in NYT

My review of That Used To Be Us, the new book by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, appears in this morning’s New York Times.  You can read it here.

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  • Anthony

    Have not read book but have seen both authors on Charlie Rose discussing “That Used to Be Us.” Your review and observations present book and its contents in balanced, nuanced manner (as I can conditionally affirm as not having read book). WRM, New York Times’ most recent celebrated Book Reviewer….

  • Denny

    Great review, especially in pointing out that the authors ignore – to their peril – the validity of the Jefferson/Jackson riposte to Hamilton. And these men founded the Democratic Party! As a Democrat myself, I lament that my party hangs on so abjectly to the New Deal legacy and fails to understand that the world is moving on. The clearest road map, I believe, is provided by Philip Bobbitt in his Shield of Achilles. He asserts correctly that in a racially diverse nation the welfare state cannot stand. And California proves this. What Bobbitt forecasts is a transition to a “market state” where a much smaller government provides only opportunity, not entitlement. The Tea Party sees this and, in this regard, has a clearer view of the future than Friedman. Jefferson and Jackson were right all along.

  • WigWag

    In addition to Professor Mead, the New York Times also assigned David Frum to review the new Friedman/Mandelbaum book.

    Frum’s review can be found here,

    I actually have to give the Times a little credit; far too often, authors with a relationship to the newspaper get a home field advantage. That is, books written by reporters or columnists for the newspaper are assigned to reviewers guaranteed to give the book in question glowing recommendations.

    Both Mead and Frum had mostly positive things to say about “That Used To Be Us” but both are, to some extent, ideological adversaries of Friedman’s so the Times couldn’t have known in advance that the reviews would be positive. Both Mead and Frum have strong standards of integrity and neither seems likely to provide a softball review just to keep the Times editors happy so they will be invited back to write more book reviews in the future.

    On the pages of his blog, Mead has warned both his readers and his students that most of the books written about public affairs that make it to the best sellers list are usually of little importance and offer nothing of value likely to last for generations. Given his positive comments about “That Used To Be Us” presumably Mead thinks this book is important enough that its message will have resonance for a long period of time.

    I haven’t read the book yet but my only criticism of the Mead review is this sentence tucked away towards the end,

    “As American politics looks increasingly dysfunctional, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum show great courage in casting aside conventional assumptions…”

    I highly doubt that penning a book destined to appear on the best sellers list if for no other reason, the fame of its authors, can be called “courageous.”

    Perhaps I should reserve judgment until I’ve read the book, but it seems highly unlikely to me that Friedman or Mandelbaum have said anything that puts their physical security at risk or their professional reputations or careers at risk.

    Has the word “courage” been so dumbed down that writing a best seller now qualifies celebrity authors for heroic status?

    The books Ayaan Hirsi Ali wrote were courageous. She told the truth at great personal cost.

    Calling Friedman or Mandelbaum “courageous” is just silly. For Friedman, “That Used To Be Us” represents little more than an excuse to pad his already large bank account and get a few more appearances on all the right televsion shows as America’s kibitzer in chief.

    For Mandelbaum, “That Used To Be Us” is little more than a new title to add to his already ample CV.

    Do you really think Friedman and Mandelbaum are courageous, Professor Mead?

  • Walter Sobchak

    High speed rail. Tom Friedman is one of the most tedious people in the world. The only worthwhile thing he ever wrote was the first half of “From Beirut to Jerusalem” which he wrote as a reporter. That was before he became a pundit and suffered from brain death. I will skip this one.

  • Richard F. Miller

    Dr. Mead:

    Like WigWag, I also was puzzled by your review’s description of American politics as “dysfunctional.”

    Current politics are not only not dysfunctional, they happen to be working precisely as the Founders’ intended: check and balance. Until a small d democratic consensus develops on the future of the blue model, politics should remain gridlocked.

    In these columns (and in the review) you have criticized the blue model while avoiding too many specifics about remedies or what may be its successor. Fair enough. I doubt whether many of your readers expect prophecy.

    However, you may wish to credit the electorate (and their representatives) with the same wise hesitancy. At the moment, neither leader nor platform has emerged to light the way.

    In the absence of a genuine program, our system was designed to tread water. That is how it should be–we have now suffered through almost three years of a president who has lacked a genuine political consensus for his programs.

    The amount of damage that must be undone by the next administration–assuming that Obama will lose–is staggering. So permit a medical analogy here: before the wound can be treated, shredded clothing must be removed and the lesion debrided; then we can have a conversation about remedies.

  • Jim.

    Apologies to anyone who’s seen me post this before, but it’s important in any discussion of Big vs. Small Government to remember the following historical facts.

    – Government can fund and send Lewis and Clark; it cannot fund and drive all the original 49’ers across the plains.

    – Government in the post-Civil War era could provide grants of undeveloped land to railroads (though this could be and was abused) but it cannot fully fund and establish an interstate rail system, as some are currently proposing.

    – Government can support electronics miniaturization research, as it did for satellites in embryonic Silicon Valley; it cannot create Apple, IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Dell, and the rest.

    – Government can develop DARPAnet; it cannot create the content / applications that make up the Internet.

    – Government can fund promising areas of research; it cannot demand that a particular area of research (e.g., “green” energy) bear better fruit than other competitors for political reasons. Nature doesn’t work that way.

    The difference in costs here, between what government can do and what it shouldn’t try to do, is at least one order of magnitude. Small government can work affordably; Big Government can’t.

    Even good ideas must be limited by our capacity to pay for them, and good ideas must also sometimes be discarded because of the drag they cause on the robust course of business activity.

    In all these cases, government CAN get in the way. Its tendency to do so, even unintentionally, is what makes people so suspicious of government in general. They’re right to be suspicious.

    Right now, our government is without a doubt TOO BIG. It is attempting to stand in for millions of fathers even as it discourages fatherhood; it is attempting to stand in for churches even as it despises religion; it is attempting to stand in for hundreds of billions (soon, trillions) in savings that people should have socked away, even as it goes trillions of dollars in debt.

    Something has to change.

    Small government can work; big government can’t. So I believe that we’re going to see government shrink in the near, medium, and long term.

  • Duncan Frissell

    Couldn’t we at least return to a 1950’s level of federal government?

  • WigWag

    I would like to add a reason why nobody should buy the Friedman/Mandelbaum book; at least for the moment. The publisher, “Farrar, Straus and Giroux” is trying to rip consumers off when they purchase “That Used to Be Us.” They are charging $15.22 for a hardcover copy of the book and $12.99 for the E-book through the Kindle.

    When E-Books first came out, Amazon charged at least 30 percent less for E-books than hardcover books and frequently E-books were sold at an even bigger discount than that. The greedy publishing business screamed like stuck pigs that Amazon was charging so little and demanded that the price be increased.

    The cost to publish an E-book is only a tiny fraction of what it cost to print, distribute and sell hard cover books through typical bookstores. Publishers like “Farrar, Straus and Giroux” are doing everything they can to insure that E-book prices approach the prices for hardcover editions. If they succeed their profits will increase dramatically and the book-buying public will pay the price.

    If book buyers don’t stand together and tell the publishers (who are, after all, the most regressive and socially useless type of intermediaries) that they refuse to be ripped off, the publishers will end up with an enormous windfall and book purchasers will end up spending far more than they should for years and perhaps decades.

    Until “Farrar, Straus and Giroux” lowers the price of the E-book version of “That Used To Be Us” to a level far below what they are charging for the hardcover version, no one should buy it.

    It’s not just “Farrar, Straus and Giroux” which is engaging in this slimy game; all the book publishers are trying to acclimate the book buying public to paying prices for E-books that are far higher than they should be.

    Another good example is provided by the publishers of Daniel Yergin’s new book, “The Quest.” Published by Penguin, an imprint of the British multinational company, Peasorn PLC, the hardcover version of the book sells on Amazon for $21.08 and they are demanding that Amazon sell the E-book version for $19.99. This is outrageous considering how much less it costs to produce and distribute the hardcover version of the book versus the E-book version.

    If publishers like “Farrar, Straus and Giroux” and “Penguin” see they can get away with it, they will be laughing all the way to the bank and the book buying public will suffer for years. If they see that readers won’t tolerate getting ripped off and the demand for these E-books declines, then they will have no choice but to lower the prices to more reasonable levels.

    In fairness to Professor Mead, we can’t expect him to concern himself with this; after all, he probably gets most of these books for free. For the rest of us; the costs can add up.

    By all means, read, “That Used to Be Us” and “The Quest” but don’t buy the E-books or the hardcover versions; take the books out of the library.

    It’s time for the publishing companies to go the way of the travel agent. Publishing companies need to be disintermediated to oblivion.

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