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A Cure for a Sick Country?

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Peter Schneider/Keystore/AP Images
Thomas Friedman speaking at the Swiss Economic Forum, Thun, Switzerland, May 14, 2009

The subtitle of this important and eminently readable book, by a prolific journalist and a distinguished political scientist, is “How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.” Their criticism of the current condition of the United States is trenchant, but incomplete. In the last part of their book, the authors call for “rediscovering America” and they put forth what the publisher describes as “a rousing manifesto for American renewal.” But this proposal is more an act of faith than a realistic assessment of what such a renewal would require.

Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum tell us, rightly, that we are “getting only 50 percent of the potential benefits from our first-rate system,” whereas “China is getting 90 percent of the potential benefits from its second-rate political system.” Again, rightly, they argue that “our problem is us,” and that “while the end of the Cold War was certainly a victory, it also presented us with a huge new challenge,” but that this time there was no George Kennan to warn us about the need for modesty and realism in dealing with it.

The demise of the Soviet Union seemed to leave the United States as safely “number one,” but in fact, the authors write, it left us facing not one but four major challenges: first, the expansion of globalization, which has “put virtually every American job under pressure”; second, the information technology revolution, which “has changed the composition of work,” eliminated old jobs, made almost all work more complex, and “requires every American to be better educated than ever to secure and keep a well-paying job”; third, the rising national debt and annual deficits, resulting from “our habit of not raising enough money through taxation to pay for what the federal government spends, and then borrowing to bridge the gap”; and fourth, the threat of fossil fuels to the planet’s biosphere, a “direct result of the growth that has come about through globalization and the adoption (especially in Asia) of free-market economics.” Rightly again, the authors insist that these challenges “require a collective response.”

Friedman and Mandelbaum argue that the “American formula,” a set of practices for prosperity that began with our founding, needs to be renewed and refreshed after its erosion in almost every aspect over the last two decades. This, in their view, will be especially difficult because of the necessary cuts in public expenditure to reduce the deficits. And yet, they write, the “American formula” consists of five basic policies, or “pillars,” that, taken together, are America’s own version of a partnership between the public and private sectors to foster economic growth. These policies include providing public education for more and more Americans, building and modernizing our infrastructure, keeping America’s doors open for immigration, increasing government support for basic research and development, and improving necessary regulations on private economic and financial activity.

The authors are aware of the obstacles that stand in the way of building their five pillars. They mention in particular the “fundamental restructuring” of the workplace, which will leave many of those currently unemployed without jobs. They also mention that “our students are spending more time texting and gaming and less time than ever studying and doing homework.” They are justifiably disturbed by the “war on math and physics” declared by many Republicans, such as Senator Jon Kyl and the deniers of global warming:

Somewhere in the last 20 years of baby boomer rule, Americans decided to act as if we had a divine right to everything…all at a time when the country was waging wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and then Libya.

Friedman and Mandelbaum have a list of remedies for Americans. These will have to include cutting back entitlement programs, controlling health spending by basing reimbursements on cost-effective services rather than raising fees for specific procedures, and curing millions of Americans of obesity and smoking. They want to raise revenue through higher taxation and by reducing military expenditures. They lament the failure of attempts at producing clean-energy legislation, the decline of federal funding for research and development as a fraction of the GDP, and many other signs of decline noted in a remarkable report entitled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, produced jointly by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and members of the National Research Council.

The authors say close to nothing about the kind of education American students should get, especially in the humanities. Understanding the world of today still requires knowing the past that has shaped this world and how its different cultures have interpreted it. Nor can such historical experience be grasped without the kind of intensive reading that is becoming obsolete. Moreover, Friedman and Mandelbaum do not try to distinguish justified budget cuts from cuts that could add to unemployment troubles and to the defects of the educational system, as well as to the crumbling state of our infrastructure. These parts of the budget deserve much higher priority than others. As Paul Krugman keeps reminding us, there are good cuts and cuts disastrous for America’s future. But they are not clearly distinguished here.

It should be of central concern to any book on American dilemmas that the poverty rate is above 15 percent, and there are more than 46 million poor. The authors spend only two pages on the growth of inequality, which they see not so much as a moral issue but as the cause of America’s increasing incapacity for collective action: “the rich,” they argue, “don’t need the benefits of collective action,” because they can create their own “subsociety,” as has been pointed out by Professor Joseph Stiglitz. Notwithstanding rising inequality, the poor are hardly ever mentioned in the mass media. It is as if the United States population included only the rich and the “middle classes.” Many of the poor are invisible because, especially among blacks, they are part of the huge prison population.1

The growth of the national debt, which severely restricts our capacity to deal with our problems, has, of course, been partly fostered by our foreign policy. The authors mention American exaggeration of the challenges posed by September 11. They find that national attention and resources have wrongly focused on “losers from globalization”—such as Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan—rather than on the winners. They now regret their earlier support of the irrational war in Iraq, largely paid for with borrowed money.

When they come to an appraisal of the American political system they recognize its present paralysis, which blocks “precisely the kind of initiatives we need,” and they remind their readers of the important legislation passed since the New Deal by “a solid majority of each party” in both the House and the Senate. From 1955 to 1961 a vote to end a filibuster had to be called only once. In 2009 and 2010 this happened eighty-four times. This polarization of the politicians is not a reflection of the “broader” public but raises the question of why the gap between American politicians and American society has to be so large. Friedman and Mandelbaum describe, and lament, the influence of lobbyists who, as they put it, mainly help the rich rather than the poor, and the old rather than the young. They mention the “hyper-fragmented, hyper- energized media environment” that has “turned the war between the parties into a much more intense form of entertainment and blood sport than ever before.”

This leads the authors to a chapter called “devaluation,” which deals with the decline in values—the triumph of short-term gratification, the loss of confidence in our institutions and leaders, and a weakening of “our sense of shared national values.” The “outsourced sacrifice”—the failure of most Americans to make any sacrifice (such as an increase in taxes or surcharge on gasoline) for the soldiers fighting mainly in Asia—is another example of this devaluation.

After three hundred pages of often sharp and justified criticism of American institutions, the book takes a sudden, edifying turn. Some of what its authors tell us is important. They describe the difficulties many employers have in finding quality workers; and the need for a job creation strategy that would involve more government investment than Republicans tend to favor, and for more public assistance to corporations—for research and job creation—than the Democrats have traditionally supported. But Friedman and Mandelbaum do not go far enough in their analysis, and their vision of a rejuvenated American polity is, I think, defective.

The first reason for this is their incomplete assessment of the political obstacles that face Americans and limit their capacities. Reading this book, I was often reminded of the deficiencies of the French Fourth Republic, between the liberation of France from German occupation and the collapse of the regime during the war in Algeria—which led to the establishment of the current Fifth Republic. The one invaluable merit of the French Constitution, shaped by General de Gaulle in 1958 in a country that had a history of deep and multiple divisions, is that it made governing possible. It is not at all evident that the American Constitution does so: it was largely aimed at preventing the newly independent US from falling back into monarchical or quasi-monarchical modes of governance. Hence the complete separation between Congress and the executive, unlike in parliamentary systems.

The irony, or paradox, here is that in those systems, the powers of an executive branch assured of the support of a majority party or a solid majority coalition are, in effect, greater than those of the parliament from which it emanates and that has, on paper, the power to dismiss the executive. If we reflect on the relations between the US executive and Congress in the twentieth century we see that the predominance of the executive has occurred either in periods of war, hot or cold, or when profound domestic shock was skillfully exploited by the president (FDR in the 1930s, LBJ after the assassination of JFK).

What has created or affected all the conditions of paralysis Friedman and Mandelbaum denounce has been, first of all, a number of practices that are not in the Constitution, such as the frequent need for a supermajority in the Senate to overcome the threat of filibuster. Secondly, we have a distorted system of private financing of elections that submits the candidates for legislative office to the subtle and seductive tyrannies of private money, a system recently boosted by a 5–4 decision of the Supreme Court. Thirdly, rigid constraints on the individual states, almost all of which are required to balance their budgets, hamper their actions in bad times and put a major burden on the autonomy they are so proud of.

These institutional obstacles assume the preponderance of the wealthy in the political system. Parliamentary systems with public financing for elections can often function as a counterweight to the privileges of fortune; and such public financing can also counter the ability of entrenched minorities in Congress to delay and block reformist schemes conceived by the executive. One of the temptations this state of affairs fosters in presidents is that of finding in patriotic wars a way of overcoming the obstacles the institutional machinery erects.

  1. 1

    See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (New Press, 2010). 

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