Sunday, October 9, 2011

That Used To Be Us

The other day I began reading Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum's That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. The book's aim is to be a wake-up call to re-capture the qualities that made America great in the first place, a clunk in the head to say, "Don't give up. As pervasive as our problems are, we can still fix them." Whether we will or will not waits to be seen, but for sure our nation is sliding down a slippery slope.

The authors begin by pointing out how our total focus on winning the Cold War blinded us to the the way globalization, information technology, deficit spending, and excessive energy consumption would eventually come back to bite us. The world was changing in ways we did not pay attention to.

Like many such books he uses specific anecdotal details to draw us in and make us aware of the problem. The title itself comes from an experience in which one of the authors was blown away by the sweeping modernization of China. The cities were expanding and ultra-modern buildings were being created as if overnight. The thought entered his head that "that used to be us." America used to be the country whose cities were thriving, whose construction limitations were unbounded.

Friedman zeroes in on one of these Chinese mega-buildings, something like a Grand Central Station for the Bullet Train, and shares how it was built from scratch in eight months. By way of contrast, two broken escalators in the Washington D.C. equivalent have taken more than six months to repair. Whazzup?

Do you ever notice those large cranes that you see at building construction sites? Every once in a while you will see one here in Duluth. It means jobs. It means commerce. A friend of mine was in China and the city he visited had between fifty and a hundred of those cranes at work. Everywhere he looked there was activity. That used to be us.

The title of the book is written with typical American optimism. It contains the phrase, "And How We Can Come Back." But will we? Can we?

Friday while flying home from Ohio I sat next to a man who pointed out to me the nine leaders of China are very different from our own. Eight of their leaders are engineers and the ninth a geologist. At least a third of our Congressmen are lawyers. Law is good, but the way it's being implemented today turns common sense on its head.

I wish I could be as optimistic about America's future as Friedman and Mandelbaum. Our politicians tend to avoid frank talk so that the real problems can never be addressed. Votes have become more important than truth. (Yes, these are generalizations.)

One of my favorite activities when it comes to movies and books is to read the reviews by others. Many reviewers are quite insightful. In this particular instance I recommend the lengthy critique titled Important Topic, Confused and Misleading Analysis which can be found at Amazon.com.

As much as I like advice like Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," I find myself more often leaning on Intel founder Andy Grove's notable observation which became the title of his book, Only the Paranoid Survive.

Photo: Cover of this week's The Economist

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