Tuesday, October 4, 2011

That Used to Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come BackThat Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back is a new searching book by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum.  While I may not always agree with Friedman's views, he is an engaging and thoughtful writer worth listening to.  This book is an honest, searching look at where America is in the world and what we are not doing right.  

The authors claim that they are optimistic about the future of America but they paint a pretty bleak picture of where we are today.  They assert that we are not tackling the difficult questions of the day and are merely deferring them, which will result in dire consequences.  The authors fill in their arguments with upsetting statistics and anecdotes:
  • 25% of ninth graders don't graduate high school within four years.  Only Mexico, Spain, Turkey and New Zealand have higher dropout rates.
  • Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California’s general revenue fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education.
  • 75% of Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.
The statistics keep coming at you page after page and make the strong argument that we have fallen behind.  What happened?  The authors argue that after the Cold War we enjoyed the peace dividend and then spent billions after 9/11 to beat back the losers of globalization.  And, as a result, we borrow and spend and have fallen behind.

So, what do the authors suggest?  
  • Reforming our education system to attract and keep good teachers.
  • Changing the nature of teacher tenure so that performance (and not merely seniority) matters.
  • Teaching real life skills to students in the internet, hyper-connected age.
  • Making it easier for immigrants to come into the country, which has always been a source of strength and renewal for the workforce.
  • Balancing the budgets through meaningful reform and revised tax policies.
  • Investing real money into green technology.
  • Spending money on infrastructure. 
A thoughtful read of the author's proposals will show that these are progressive (but not really liberal/democratic) views.  As we delve into the 2012 election cycle, they are advocating a smart, long term approach.  The question is whether we are prepared to make the sacrifices and changes that are demanded to put America back on top.

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