by Thomas L. Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011, 400 pp., $28
That Used to Be Us is a co-production by a pundit and a professor, an unusual combination. Journalists write the first draft of history, say, on the Arab Spring. Taking a snapshot, they bet that the picture will reveal the pattern, and the particular the larger truth. Academics write the second and third drafts. They have the advantage of hindsight and a much wider dataset. So a reporter enthusing about Bastille Day in 1789 could not have known that the democratic revolution would throw up a Napoleon ten years later; a historian does. How, then, shall the twain ever meet? In Friedman and Mandelbaum’s venture, they do.
Journalist Thomas Friedman presumably took on the reportage and the rewrite in this book. It has the same fast-paced tempo and bubbly tone as did his Hot, Flat and Crowded. Michael Mandelbaum, a political scientist with a wide historical range, must have been in charge of the broader analytical perspective. This division of labor works quite nicely. On the one hand, there is the journalist’s instant insight, feeding on anecdote and atmosphere. So: “At the worst point of the subprime crisis, Tom asked his friend…” On the other, we get the academic’s “yes, but” that is steeped in “we’ve been there before.” (Truth in reviewing: I have known the authors for ages, ever since I met Mandelbaum at Harvard.)
The United States now faces its fifth wave of Declinism, that sinking feeling that the country’s best days are over. The first wave rolled across America with the “Sputnik Shock” of 1957, when Little Johnny was said to have fallen behind Little Ivan in the Three Rs. That wave crested in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign against Richard Nixon. JFK rode all the way to the White House on a non-existent “missile gap” that supposedly presaged America’s demise at the hands of the Soviet Union.
The second angst attack came with the quagmire in Vietnam, as the 1960s turned into the 1970s. Cities burned, students revolted: This was America’s “suicide attempt”, as one Jeremiah put it. Yet when Richard Nixon ended the draft, the students went back to their libraries, and when the war ended, the “dominoes” did not fall all over Asia.
“Decline 3.0” was marked by Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”, exploding inflation and the dollar shrinking to half its former size. The theme, all the way into the early 1990s, was Nippon’s Revenge. Having grown at 10 percent per year, Japan would wrest back commercially what it had lost after Pearl Harbor militarily. (Re-read books like Ezra Vogel’s Japan as Number One, substituting “China” for “Japan”, and it is back to the future in 2012—for the fourth wave.)
Yet soon, Ronald Reagan’s most famous campaign ad proclaimed, “It’s morning again in America.” Japan fell into endless stagnation, and the Soviet Union simply disappeared. Europe’s share of world GDP also shrank by almost 10 percentage points. So in the past fifty years, the tide never announced the deluge; it receded as regularly as it advanced.
But from Babylon on down, empires did succumb to terminal disease. As their subtitle indicates, Friedman and Mandelbaum hope the reassuring pattern of the past half-century will repeat itself. Their message is the same as that of all prophets since Jeremiah: “Thou shalt perish, unless….” All prophecy is pedagogical: You have sinned, but if you repent and reform, you shall be saved.
The prophet wants to be wrong, and so, of course, do Friedman and Mandelbaum. Their tropes may be familiar to mavens of American Declinism, but their book is the most thoughtful (and least hysterical) of the “Good-bye, America” kind of output, which no doubt could fill a small library by now. That Used to Be Us is a sophisticated effort to distinguish itself from pop sociology and instant history and instead become a serious analysis of factors that suggests structural debility.
Sure, there are lots of statistical tidbits and reportorial vignettes—and no footnotes. The text is sprinkled with chatty asides, such as: “In February 2004, Tom went to Bangalore….” Well, this is just what journalists do to liven up the story and to keep the general reader in thrall. But the anecdotes also serve a Talmudic purpose: Here is the example, and there is the moral that makes a larger point. Even if, as the historian insists, we have been here before, there are nevertheless some enduring trends that have structural and not just cyclical causes.
For instance, in none of the past four Declinist waves did the nation face bankruptcy. Why does it now? And here is a modern-day sage, Princeton economist Alan Blinder, with a brief take that spins a larger narrative in a way any layman can grasp:
The nation took leave of its fiscal senses and simply stopped paying for anything during President Bush 43’s term. Not for huge tax cuts. . . . Not for the Medicare drug benefits. . . . Not for two wars. That spree was followed by the financial crisis . . . and the policy responses thereto—all of which blew up the deficit massively under President Obama.
Friedman and Mandelbaum underline the broader ramifications of this debt run-up. This millstone will hang on the neck of the United States for decades, unless… To drive the depressing point home, and to relate America’s astronomic debt to its shrinking power abroad, Mandelbaum and Friedman offer one of the funniest lines in the book. It comes from a member of President Obama’s Simpson-Bowles deficit commission, who quips that China had better not invade Taiwan because, if the United States rode to the rescue, “we would now have to borrow the money from China to do it.”
The domestic implications of the U.S. plight are just as stark. Back in the Eisenhower days, Little Johnny couldn’t read so well, but so what? He could still take his place in the country’s humming industrial machine. Today, he can’t get a job because (a) net job-growth has been zero for the past decade and (b) low-skill, high-wage jobs are disappearing forever. Nor is this just Johnny’s problem. Behind him lurks an education system that isn’t equipping children with the intellectual capital in demand in the new knowledge economy. Though the United States boasts the world’s best research universities (17 of the Top Twenty), grades K–12 are struggling. In international comparisons such as the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment study, American students come out in the middle in reading skills but way down in math.
There is no quick fix here, given the country’s dysfunctional political system. The Sputnik Shock swept billions into education and research. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon soon after. But now the Shuttle has been grounded. Who would call the nation to arms now, as Messrs. Kennedy and Reagan did?
Not the Congress, not Mr. Obama, who seems not to believe in America’s exceptionalism and mission, while musing that the nation “has gone a little soft.” His rhetoric may echo JFK’s cadences, but not his spunk. Recall Kennedy’s First Inaugural Address: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden….”
So what’s wrong with American politics in this fifth wave of Declinism? To their credit, the authors don’t fall for buzzwords about how America is “polarized as never before.” Polarization has been as American as apple pie since the Jeffersonians had it out with John Adams’s minions. Remember, too, Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, who make Nancy Pelosi and Michelle Bachmann look like choir girls. The good news today is an electorate where the center holds as always, shifting from election to election to check the radicals. Why, then, the triumph of party (as opposed to voter) extremism that eats away at sensible governance?
Unfortunately, these trends, as those of the economy, are not fleeting phenomena; they reflect long-term changes. The Democratic Party, which used to harness Dixiecrats and FDR-type Big Spenders, has “homogenized” and veered way to the left. Same on the other side of the aisle: The GOP, where “Rockefeller Republicans”, “Main Street” and God-fearing cultural conservatives used to coexist under a big tent, has swerved way to the right. Between the two parties, the national interest and the vast center of the electorate are being held hostage as never before. “If we don’t save the store”, the authors quote an old Republican hand, “we will all be working at TGI Friday’s in Beijing.” A Democratic old-timer would say “Amen.”
In the 1958 film Touch of Evil, the authors relate, the bad guy played by Orson Welles stumbles into a brothel where Marlene Dietrich works as a fortuneteller. “Read my future for me”, Welles asks. She replies: “You haven’t got any. Your future is all used up.” Shall this be the fate of Lincoln’s “last best hope on Earth?”
Recall the Jeremiah technique: It’s damnation first and salvation later, but only if… The United States can become “us” again if it harkens to the authors’ five-pronged prescription: Address the deficit, cut entitlements, raise taxes, invest in educational and infrastructural programs that feed economic excellence, and reduce America’s oil addiction. Who but doctrinaire Dems and Reps would disagree with this agenda? The issue in politics is always: How do we get from insight to reform—especially when neither party has the guts to tell it as it is?
Naturally, diagnosis is easier than therapy. So what do Friedman and Mandelbaum counsel? They think that a third party, representing the “radical center”, will do the trick. But they are far too savvy to pin their hopes on a third-party President. This is not how the system works. Remember William Jennings Bryan, or Teddy Roosevelt and his Bull Moose insurgency; recall George Wallace, John Anderson and Ross Perot. Like bees, third parties die after they sting.
Our duo thinks that even these moribund bees can actually heal the body politic. How so, if an independent candidate is doomed from the start? By hammering home the right questions and proffering precise and gutsy answers. Thus would such a candidate force those demented Donkeys and Elephants to sober up and think for the nation. The pre-ordained loser will “have a greater impact on the course of American history” than the winner, Friedman and Mandelbaum aver. Would that they were right.
Until this savior comes, read this book, for never has the cruel truth been so entertaining as well as edifying. This reviewer is as bullish on America as the authors. He would be even more bullish if That Used to Be Us were to galvanize a national debate that is so strangely absent amidst this fifth wave of Declinism. In the past, doom always came with “do!” How is this night different from all other nights? The fifth wave comes with an out-of-character lassitude, if not resignation, that is, well, un-American.