That Used To Be Us (Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum)

That used to be us ISBN: 9780374288907
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2011
Pages: 380
Links: WorldCatRead OnlineLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder

In what is a first here on Book Weyr, today’s review is a joint effort, fittingly enough since the book in question is also co-authored. Two of us were reading the same book at the same time, so we decided to share this review.

Maya’s Review

In That Used to Be US, two of the US’ most renowned economic commenters and academics – Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum – come together to diagnose America’s current problems, explain how the country got here, and offer some solutions to save the nation. First, the understanding of how the US got to be what it is right now – loss of focus and purpose (a weakening of American spirit, so to speak); failure to acknowledge and address obvious systemic issues; stepping away from America’s usual formula of invention and innovation; and finally, lack of bipartisan political will. These self proclaimed patriots and optimists are full of doom and gloom. They follow up these proclamations though, with their prescription for better times. “Learning, working, producing, relearning and innovating twice as hard, twice as fast, twice as often and twice as much”.

On the plus side, Friedman does what he does best (I’ve never read Mandelbaum before, unfortunately, so can’t comment on whether this is his usual literary style, or even clearly distinguish his style from Friedman’s) – take big economic ideas and discussions and explain them in easy-breezy layman’s language. The chapters are interspersed with fascinating little stories and anecdotes, collected from the authors’ myriad travels and global interactions. The authors also do a good job of tying together some fairly disparate entities – the Tea Party movement in America, mobile financial services innovation in India and educational curriculum in Singapore.

On the downside though, as in his prior books, I always feel like Friedman has a tendency to labour the point, making the same argument several times, in several different ways, when just one thesis would have sufficed. This often makes his books longer than I feel they need be. At the same time, I didn’t feel like what the authors were saying was profoundly path-breaking or new. The arguments they are propounding have all been in public domain for a few months now, articulated in other magazine features, analyses and speeches. What they seem to have done a good job of, however, is aggregate all these thoughts together into a cohesive discourse.

Overall, the authors succeed in taking a number of big, sometimes overwhelming issues and explaining them in very easy, readable language. At the same time, I felt like some of their solutions were sometimes facile, and not specifically new. That could probably be a failing of anyone who writes a book about a global issue that is evolving so rapidly everyday.

Samir’s Review

The ‘American Dream’, essentially the lifestyle the Western world has been enjoying over the past fifty years or so, is in terminal jeopardy. It doesn’t take a genius to know that, what people do need to know are the potential repercussions. Other reviews have argued that this book isn’t directly relevant to the rest of the world, just Americans. I’m not even sure about that. While Friedman is usually good at contextualization, and Mandelbaum at terse explanations of complex subjects, That Used To Be US is far too much on the wrong side of temerity, not to mention pretentiously pedantic. The quote at the end of the first paragraph of Maya’s review effectively illustrates that, I think. The solutions they propound just aren’t realistic. Perhaps it’ll be possible to convince middle-America that it’s in its own best interest to accept a down-gradation of their lifestyle in order to ensure that the economy that was jeopardized by the reckless actions of a minority elite of super-rich bankers and ,politicians (which to be fair, they went along with) survives in more-or-less its current form. Or to convince that elite to become more public-spirited. I seriously doubt that, though. A radical centrist agenda doesn’t seem likely under the current administration, at least. Who knows what might happen if the Tea Party-ists come into power in 2012, though. But that’s a thought for the future. Back to the book.

While the book is littered with anecdotes coupled with illustrative statistics, it doesn’t really indicate how change is possible. It mostly uses individual and occasionally institutional examples from the US, or whines about how China is fast surpassing the US (they have the best supercomputers, the biggest and fastest built dams and stadiums and stations, even their trains are faster than ours!) without ever mentioning the huge environmental and human cost such development took. More significantly, nowhere does it mention that the South American model – particularly post-2000 Argentina -, is a viable one. They faced much the same problem as certain Western European countries (Spain, Italy, Portugal, and most prominently Greece and Ireland) are facing today. Essentially Argentina was riddled with debt and the economy was on the verge of collapse, but instead of bailing it out using taxpayer money and accumulated public savings (which is essentially what the US did and the Eurozone is doing), they let it selectively collapse. After an admittedly tough year of rebuilding, they now have a steady growth rate of 8 to 9%, the currency is strong, and unemployment is at its lowest ever. But the West (the US and the Eurozone) won’t do that, it’s politically nonviable. Such is the shortsightedness of ‘The American Dream’, thanks largely to the rich elites and fat-cat academicians who make royalty money by writing about economic disasters without advocating the tough but right solutions staring them in the face.

That Used To Be US lacks so much. There’s no revolutionary innovation prescribed, like revamping the tax system by the selective nationalization of non-core prime industry, or kicking upper-tax-bracket Americans off certain forms of Social Security, both of which would significantly help reduce public debt. Or how about compulsory public service in a nonmilitary civilian corps and gap-years for wannabe graduates to gain experience of actual labour, which would significantly reduce unemployment. Instead, they suggest revamping the pension system in a way that would cause a great deal of hardship to those already badly hit by the sub-prime crash and more recently the economic repercussions of the debt ceiling crisis (see Chapter III). There’s no searing indictment of the deliberately orchestrated economic chaos that landed the US in its current predicament to begin with. Really, all this book does is tell middle-America that it’s time to pull up yer socks and work thine ass off just to keep things together. As if they didn’t already know that. That’s what I detest most about this inordinately sententious book. It’s unbelievably condescending and fatuously patronizing. I don’t always agree with Paul Krugmann, but his grasp of current economic realities compared to the ivory-tower academics who wrote this book is a lot more commonsensical. It’s this sort of attitude, exemplifying the worst of liberal democracy, that makes the Tea Party philosophy so appealing by contrast.

Over and above this are the potential repercussions for the rest of the world. Essentially what That Used To Be US says is something like “We got ours, but we don’t want you to get yours because it’ll drain our economy too much.” They say there’s a need for lateral, creative, out-of-the-box thinking, but there’s precious little in the way of that in this book beyond pointing out that it’s a good idea! Take their political analysis, for example, a field in which these two are considered true doyens. They advocate the need for a President who’s a “straight-shooter unshackled by partisan politics.” Well, duh! That’s like saying dig a well deep enough to ensure an unlimited water supply for the entire world. Great idea, but absolutely no practical suggestions on how to go about achieving remarkable innovation, and that is really the major failing of this book. It has some interesting ideas but totally lacks any indication of how to take them forward beyond insipid suggestions like the one outlined above. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean. That Used To Be US is more like an apologist text for the Federal Reserve’s policies and the economic shenanigans of Goldman Sachs and their ilk, instead of an indictment of it and a road-map of how to repair the damage done and move past it, which is what you’d expect from writers as illustrious as these. There’s no doubt that America is ready for revolutionary innovation. This book, however, doesn’t even begin to tell them how to get that going.


Samir Krishnamurti

Samir Krishnamurti

Research Director at Global Security Centre, India
"Bibliophilia, or more realistically Bookaholism runs in my genetic make-up. I've grown up being read to, reading, and surrounded by books."

From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at
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Maya Chandrasekaran

Maya Chandrasekaran

Director - Strategic Partnerships at
"I'm a confessed bookaholic, but haven't had the nerve (or ingenuity) to make a career out of that. So I do the next best thing - I spend my free time reading, buying, borrowing and discussing books... and books about books."

Maya always has three books going at the same time - a different book for every mood. She loves exploring new authors, but every now and then she sinks back into the comfort of old favourites like murder mysteries and Regency romances. A corporate butterfly, Maya lives and works in Bangalore, India.
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