A Cure for a Sick Country?

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…

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