Synopses & Reviews
A New York Times Book Review
A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2011 In That Used to Be Us, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum analyze the four major challenges we face as a country---globalization, the revolution in information technology, chronic deficits, and our pattern of energy consumption---and spell out what we need to do now to preserve American power in the world. The end of the Cold War blinded the nation to the need to address these issues seriously, and Chinas educational successes, industrial might, and technological prowess in many ways remind us of a time when “that used to be us.” But Friedman and Mandelbaum show how Americas history, when properly understood, offers a five-part formula for prosperity that will enable us to cope successfully with the challenges we face. That Used to Be Us is both a searching exploration of the American condition today and a rousing manifesto for American renewal.
About the Author
Thomas L. Friedman
is an internationally renowned author, reporter, and columnist—the recipient of three Pulitzer Prizes and the author of five bestselling books, among them From Beirut to Jerusalem
and The World Is Flat
. He was born in Minneapolis in 1953, and grew up in the middle-class Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. He graduated from Brandeis University in 1975 with a degree in Mediterranean studies, attended St. Antony's College, Oxford, on a Marshall Scholarship, and received an M.Phil. degree in modern Middle East studies from Oxford. After three years with United Press International, he joined The New York Times
, where he has worked ever since as a reporter, correspondent, bureau chief, and columnist. At the Times
, he has won three Pulitzer Prizes: in 1983 for international reporting (from Lebanon), in 1988 for international reporting (from Israel), and in 2002 for his columns after the September 11th attacks. Friedmans first book, From Beirut to Jerusalem
, won the National Book Award in 1989. His second book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization
(1999), won the Overseas Press Club Award for best book on foreign policy in 2000. In 2002 FSG published a collection of his Pulitzer Prize-winning columns, along with a diary he kept after 9/11, as Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11
. His fourth book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
(2005) became a #1 New York Times
bestseller and received the inaugural Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award in November 2005. A revised and expanded edition was published in hardcover in 2006 and in 2007. The World Is Flat
has sold more than 4 million copies in thirty-seven languages. In 2008 he brought out Hot, Flat, and Crowded
, which was published in a revised edition a year later. His sixth book, That Used to Be Us: How American Fell Behind in the World We Invented and How We Can Come Back
, co-written with Michael Mandelbaum, will be published in September 2011.
Michael Mandelbaum, the Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, is the author or coauthor of twelve books, including The Ideas That Conquered the World.
Reading Group Guide
1. The authors begin with recollections of their youth, capturing the economic and political climate of the 1950s and 60s. What does “that used to be us” look like in your familys memories?
2. The books title comes from remarks President Obama delivered at the time of the 2010 midterm elections, when Republican victories changed the balance of power in Washington. Do you think the typical American voter realizes the importance of global competitiveness, particularly in the realms of technology and infrastructure described in the presidents quote?
3. When the authors describe the long-delayed escalator repair in their Washington Metrorail station, what bigger problems do they illustrate? If their story is symbolic, what does it say about the cause of the nations woes?
4. In chapter 3, “Ignoring Our History,” the authors identify five pillars that have supported Americas prosperity for more than 230 years: public education, renewal of infrastructure, keeping our doors open to high-aspiring immigrants, federal funding for research and development, and regulatory safeguards on private economic activity. How have these pillars benefited you? How would their erosion harm you?
5. Addressing the unemployment/underemployment crisis, the book emphasizes the need for an adaptable workforce that delivers nothing less than excellence—in which every worker is above average. In your field, what are the greatest challenges in keeping American workers continually trained in new skills and inspired to surpass average expectations?
6. In your opinion, what are the most powerful forces shaping the values of youth culture today? What would it take to reverse the widespread aversion to math and science? What is your twenty-first-century version of Sputnik?
7. When the authors describe the war on math and physics, they capture a society that tried to defy prudent economic principles and ignored the “gravity” that would send the Clinton-era surplus tumbling down into deficit. Do you predict that the nations “Terrible Twos” are over? Where should federal spending priorities lie?
8. The authors point out that Chinas recent achievements occurred despite the republics corruption, noxious pollution, and lack of political freedom. What does this say about global competition? Has democracy become an economic liability?
9. Chapter 14, “They Just Didnt Get the Word,” describes such figures as Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America; Robert Stevenson, who found a way to keep Eastman Machine Company based in Buffalo; and scores of college students, military personnel, and other Americans who ignore naysayers and bring enlightenment to the world. What are the common threads in the books success stories? How could these peoples methods help you bring one of your ideas to life?
10. On the flip side, the authors admit that many of the achievements described in chapter 14 came from workers who care more about making a difference than making money. Is that a bad thing? Do low wages matter, as long as meaningful jobs are being created?
11. The authors remind us that tax-rate increases helped build the federal budget surplus, which began to grow in the late 1990s, while Bush tax cuts contributed to the current deficit. Property taxes and state income tax rates have also become a visible part of the equation as local governments try to cope with deficits. How has your tax bill fluctuated throughout your career? Would you be willing to pay higher taxes now, and if so, what would your top priority be in how that additional tax revenue is spent?
12. Discuss the third-party option, particularly a centrist third party that emphasizes moderate solutions. Have you ever voted for a third-party candidate? Is it possible to have a viable party in the twenty-first century that takes no extreme positions?
13. Discuss the books take on exceptionalism—the idea that America has an exceptional history and therefore an exceptional identity—described in chapter 16, “Rediscovering America.” Does exceptionalism help or hinder our success?
14. Revisit the Tocqueville letter that appears in chapter 15, “Shock Therapy.” If you were to envision a happy ending that defies Tocquevilles dire observations, what would it look like? What would the ideal American future hold for the next generation?
15. Discuss That Used to Be Us in comparison to other books by Thomas L. Friedman or Michael Mandelbaum that youve read. How has their role as “frustrated optimists” evolved over the last decade?
Guide written by Amy Clements / The Wordshop, Inc.