article

09.09.11

America Needs a Makeover

In their new book, ‘That Used to Be Us,’ Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum argue that American greatness is tarnished. In a conversation with The Daily Beast’s Tony Dokoupil, they propose solutions.

America is stumbling. Badly. It grew complacent after the Cold War, and now the swan dive has really begun, according to Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, authors of That Used to Be Us. Friedman built a career on Pulitzer-Prize-winning overseas reporting and Mandelbaum is head of the American foreign policy program at Johns Hopkins University. But the long-time friends took a domestic turn when they realized could scarcely talk about anything else.

“America’s future—and the future of the world beyond America—depends on how well we deal with” four issues, they argue: globalization, the information technology revolution, the deficit that almost shut down Washington this summer, and runaway energy consumption (plus the rising climate threats that come with it). They recommend we “study harder, save more, spend less, invest wisely, and get back to the formula that made us successful”—namely, nation-polishing public education, modern infrastructure, open borders, federal money for innovation, and, in the form of smart regulations, Uncle Sam’s reliable hand on the wheel. All of which is easier said than done, of course. So as a companion to the “Just Fix It” package in this week’s Newsweek, we sought out the authors in search of a pep talk. In response, they waxed nostalgic about patriotism, American excellence, and why it’s good to be “Fourth of July guys.”

In writing this book, what emerged as your priority fix, the one thing you would reform or pass if you could do nothing else?

Thomas Friedman: I would push through the grand compromise that Obama put on the table with Boehner this summer: $3 in spending cuts and $1 in tax increases. It would have a double effect. It would signal to the market that we are actually getting our fiscal house in order. And it would signal to the wider American public and business community that we don’t have a dysfunctional political system, which I think has been a huge source of concern for people, and one of the things holding back investment.

Michael Mandelbaum: I would invest in our infrastructure, which the American Society of Civil Engineers gave a D in 2009. It will create jobs. It could avoid some big disasters—like a water system failure. And our economic growth depends on it—in fact, growth has depended on modern infrastructure since the Erie Canal. But we have fallen behind. 

What went wrong?

TF: An accretion of things in politics. Gerrymandering of political districts, the huge injection of money in politics and special interests, which has basically turned Congress into a forum for legalized bribery. There’s much more, of course. We didn’t just get into this in 2008. It’s two decades that we have dug this hole.

MM: Basically, we made the worst mistake an individual or a country can make. We misread our environment. We stopped asking ourselves the fundamental question: what world are we living in?

But you write about generation shifts, as well. What did we lose?

MM: One thing we lost was the sense that we’re all in this together. We sometimes go to ball games together, Tom and I, and the active duty military stand up and everybody claps, which is nice. But we detect in that a certain sense of guilt that military personnel are the only one’s being asked to make any sacrifices for the country, which means that we have outsourced patriotism. And that’s a bad thing.

You call yourselves “Fourth of July guys.” What do you mean by that?

TF: We mean that we unabashedly believe that Americans play a really important role in the world. That we provide certain public goods, whether it’s keeping the sea lanes open in Asia or providing the backbone of the NATO security structure in Europe.

MM: We are unabashed patriots. We believe that America has been a great country, can be a great country, should be a great country, and indeed must be a great country. The world needs a strong America. 

If we falter, won’t another country just take our place?

TF: Someone might say China. But China doesn’t have the assets. It doesn’t have the ability to project its power globally. And, personally, I would be uncomfortable with a world ordered by China as opposed to a world ordered by the United States. It’s not that America’s perfect. We’re so far from perfect we can’t even see it. But American democratic capitalism has been a really important example in the world. 

Is China’s authoritarian capitalism just plain better in some economic situations?

TF: It may be at certain stages of development—for allocating resources, for example. But China needs to get rich before it gets old. It’s got to go from a copying, manufacturing economy to a service, innovation, and knowledge economy. I fundamentally don’t think you can do that in an authoritarian society where you’re censoring Google.

Domestically, what’s so bad about a second-tier America?

MM: It wouldn’t be as vibrant, as tolerant a society as the America we have come to know. It would degrade the American spirit. It would degrade the American political system. And it would be bad for the world. If America were to discontinue its role, it would mean a less stable, poorer, more dangerous world, and no one would be happy about that.

Are our politics up to the challenge?

TF: Right now it’s like the public is having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election. There’s almost no overlap between the two groups. It’s like they’re in a circle and we’re in a circle. What that tells you is that the incentives—financial and political—don’t correspond to the themes of the country.

Which is why you say the system needs a shock, perhaps from an independent third candidate.

MM: It’s not going to correct itself with its own routine procedure. We think an independent candidate probably would not win, but would reveal the existence of a large constituency up for grabs between the Republicans and Democrats, and that would create incentives for each party to try to co-opt those voters by adopting some of those programs.

TF: The most obvious candidate is Michael Bloomberg. But I think Barack Obama could play a third-party type role well. What I try to tell people is that we don’t have a candidate; we have an agenda. 

"Right now it’s like the public is having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election. There’s almost no overlap between the two groups."

Does this story have a happy ending?

MM: We are hopeful. We are optimists. The values, the programs, the formula, the determination, and the patriotism responsible for America’s past success are still here to be tapped.

TF: Cynicism just isn’t part of my makeup. I’m from Minnesota.

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)