The book that our LBC group read and discussed last week may be one of the most important books anyone can read during the months before the next election. A joint effort between Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, the book is entitled “That Used To Be Us”. The subtitle is “How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.”
I have been slow sending this book review because the book is so jam-packed with solid, important information that I have been at a loss as to how I can possibly summarize it effectively. There is no substitute for reading it yourself, but I shall attempt to communicate some of the most important points. Early in the book, the authors send out their S.O.S.: “Our country is in a slow decline, just slow enough for us to be able to pretend–or believe–that a decline is not taking place”(p.8). Nevertheless, Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for The New York Times and author of The World Is Flat (another book that changed my whole world view), couples with Mendelbaum, Professor at John Hopkins University, to offer the views of two “frustrated optimists”, as they term themselves.
The book is refreshingly bi-partisan. Frustrated with the bitterness and paralysis that have come to define American government, the authors give kudos and blame to both parties equally, not only during the past twenty years, but going all the way back to Alexander Hamilton. As Americans, part of our heritage is to be afraid of government that is too powerful. Such caution is warranted, but can become counter-productive when it is taken to extremes by either side, whether one fears a descent into Communism or is paranoid about free religious expression over-stepping its bounds to become a theocracy. Friedman and Mendelbaum point out that Alexander Hamilton himself was the father of a public-private relationship that has served the country well. The authors point out the important roles of Theodore Roosevelt(Republican) and FDR in instituting regulations which were resisted by businesses and banking, but which benefited business and investors in the long run, probably even saving capitalism in the United States. With repeated examples, the authors demonstrate how intelligent regulations and standards have promoted innovation and investment. On the other side, they admit that regulations have become more complicated than may be good for the health of the economy, and they point out that even Obama admitted this in a Wall Street Journal article on January 18, 2011.
A chapter called “The War on Math (and the Future)”, opens with an Italian proverb: Arithmetic is not an opinion. In this chapter, the authors send the message nobody wants to hear: if we are going to get the deficit under control, then it is going to involve both drastic cutbacks in spending, and also raising taxes. Some surprises: Although Cheney is quoted as saying “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter,” the authors point out that “Reagan not only did not prove that deficits don’t matter; he did not believe that deficits don’t matter. This is a fiction that would be manufactured later by a new generation of conservatives either our of ignorance or for their own selfish or ideological reasons” (pp. 164-165).
The authors also quote former senator Bennett, the Utah Republican:
“Ronald Reagan never called them taxes. . .They were ‘revenue enhancements.’ (Senator) Pete Domenici described it to me once: he said, ‘We went down to the White House and said, “Mr. President, we can’t survive on this level of revenue.” And Reagan said, “Okay, maybe we ought to have some ‘revenue enhancements.’ ” ‘ And so the gas tax went up, which it should have, and should be going up now” (end of Bennett’s quote).
The authors also point out how the last President who was a member of the old guard, President George H. W. Bush, put his presidency in jeopardy to keep the deficit under control by breaking his famous promise: “Read my lips–no new taxes.” The authors call the baby boomer generation of Republicans “Reagan’s bad imitators”, saying that the new generation took as its hero an imaginary version of Reagan.
America has been able to live beyond its means as a nation for the past twenty years, financing huge government programs without raising the money to pay for them only because we have been living on borrowed money. China has been willing to lend us money on a previously unimaginable scale through the purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds, which we will have to pay back. In the same chapter, the authors point out that the Democrats waged a war on math of their own, particularly at the state and local levels. To quote the book, “Not simply bad math but also politics were involved. Plenty of governors and mayors, many of them Democrats, entered into mutual back-scratching arrangements with state and local unions. They granted generous pay and pension increases to the unions, and the unions turned around and made generous campaign contributions to local and state politicians, and to the Democratic Party.” Like most of us, Friedman and Mendelbaum recognize that both parties are too controlled by big money and by people’s beliefs in over-simplified campaign rhetoric to make the practical decisions that are desperately needed by the country.
If you don’t read all of this book, one of the most important chapters you can read is Chapter Ten, “The War on Physics and Other Good Things.” We baby-boomers form the largest population demographic, and therefore have the most power at the voting booth and in the marketplace. But science and technology have grown by leaps and bounds since most of us graduated from high school and college. Few people holding down jobs, taking care of families and getting in a little recreation make it a priority to study science independently to the degree that is needed for us to even vote intelligently nowadays.
Also, in the words of the authors, “scientists, who tend to focus on what they don’t know more than on what they do, also tend to be poor communicators and defenders of their positions”(p.192).
But while there is some doubt as to how much time we have to alter global warming to a degree that isn’t disasterous for us, global warming itself is solid science, ascertainable by the same scientists who have gotten us to the moon and invented computers. Isn’t it better to err on the side of caution? Take the time to read this clear, short presentation of the problem, and learn how not only nature but our economy depends on beginning the transition to new energy technology as quickly and efficiently as possible. Human enterprise cannot be entirely free even in a primarily capitalistic system. If it could, we wouldn’t have the right to prevent people from selling heroin to people in order to make a profit, or to have health codes in restaurants, or to insist people be licensed before they practice medicine. We have a right to require corporations to not destroy the ozone layer (yes, it really exists–this is not new science, and its effect on the climate of this planet has been known for a long time), to not pollute our groundwater, and to not pollute our air. It is myopic to prioritize in favor of short term profits when everyone, even the corporate CEO’s, lose in the long run.
Every bit of this book is important, but none more important than the chapter on education. Through taxpayer investment and through volunteerism, it is urgent that we revitalize our school systems. In the words of the authors, who use the words as the chapter title on education, “Average is over.” That is the theme of the entire book. We can no longer rest on our laurels presuming our superiority and entitlement as Americans. Our problems cannot be effectively addressed without collective action and collective sacrifice, both from the bottom up and the top down. We must act collectively as Americans to spend less, save more, and give more, both in taxes, time, compromised benefits, and worthwhile charitable contributions. We must pursue excellence, party a little less and raise the bar on our self-expectations a little more when it come to quality of public dialogue, civility and generosity. To quote Friedman and Mendelbaum one last time,
“We had better get into shape. It is the baby boomers’ Greatest Generation moment. The future of the country is in our hands, as it was for the GIs on the beaches of Normandy. We have to do something hard, we have to do it now, and we can only do it together”(p. 180).
If this inspires you, please send it to as many people as you can, and read the book. The authors tell it how it is so much better than I can.