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Our Place in the World
How much should we worry about America’s global status?
I'm an optimist who’s always looking for ways to make things better. So while I takes issue with the anxious tone of That Used to Be Us, by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, I mostly agree with their message that the answers to America’s economic challenges are to be found in its past.
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That Used to Be Us is a fantastic book, and I really encourage people to read it. You’ll definitely like it if you’ve liked Tom Friedman’s column in The New York Times or if you’ve liked his previous books. This one continues his theme of how the world is changing rapidly and in fundamental ways, but this one is a bit different in that it focuses specifically on the challenges that these changes pose for the United States and on how the U.S. should respond.

Friedman is most famous for his bestseller The World is Flat, which is the best articulation of the paradigm shift that’s occurred over the past couple of decades as the world economy has become more globalized and competitive. That Used to Be Us, which Friedman wrote with Michael Mandelbaum, points out that the causes of this paradigm shift—the digital and Internet revolutions—were ideas and technologies that the U.S. pioneered. Now, though, the changes the U.S. helped bring about could be viewed as threatening our unique position in the world.

How the U.S. should deal with global challenges is an interesting and important topic. That Used to Be Us explains these challenges very well and has good suggestions on what the U.S. needs to do. The book has a valuable message and I recommend it, although there are some things I wish the authors had clarified.

The basic message is that other countries, the ones that are now competing with us and kind of scaring us, are not doing anything different from what we did in our past. We have a difficult time responding to them, however, because they’re copying the way we used to be, and meanwhile, we’ve changed. As our society has gotten richer, we’ve become more careful about protecting people’s rights and not harming the environment, for example. It’s good that we care about these things, but it slows us down compared with other countries that are at an earlier stage of development. And we’re not always very good at balancing rights and environmental concerns, on the one hand, with our interest in creating jobs and growing the economy. That’s very hard to do.

Friedman and Mandelbaum are almost saying, “Hey, let's set the clock back to the good old days when there was a bias towards action.” I wish they gave more guidance on how to do that while preserving the good changes we’ve made, including some of our increased focus on rights and the environment. Getting a sense of where the costs of our new approaches outweigh the benefits is hard.

The authors do have one clever suggestion on how to improve the political dialogue: start a third party. Maybe that would change the hyper-partisan atmosphere that prevents compromise and serious discussion of tradeoffs. A couple of decades ago, when partisan divisions were not as strong, some politicians carved out niches for themselves by becoming experts in particular policy areas. They assembled excellent staff and really mastered their subject. That helped them balance tradeoffs and come up with smart, technocratic solutions. Maybe a third party could help encourage that kind of specialization and expertise again.

There’s one question in particular that I wish the book answered more clearly: If other countries are growing and prospering and people in other countries are finding ways out of poverty, is that a bad thing for America? I don’t think so. How would the authors feel if the United States has to give up some of its leadership positions as the world improves overall? To focus attention on actions needed to renew America’s economic vitality, the authors tap into the anxiety that a lot of Americans feel about how well the U.S. is doing compared with other countries. I wish they had made it clear that America can still do well as other countries catch up with us. In fact, their prosperity can help us.

Our unique position relative to other countries largely resulted from the huge mistakes they made in the past. For decades, China ran its economy without market incentives. It stayed very poor. When China opened up in 1979, it began copying good ideas from us. It began pricing goods based on market demand. It began building infrastructure and good universities. It had a lot of catching up to do, but it could move quickly, partly because it didn’t have as much complexity to deal with as we do in the West. Today the Chinese are more like we were in the 1950s. But some Americans feel threatened by that.

I understand why people feel threatened. The economy has been slow to get back on its feet, and jobs are still scarce. Global competition is bringing changes in the economy. People are forced to adapt. Our whole economy needs to adapt. Friedman and Mandelbaum have good ideas for making the U.S. economy stronger and more competitive.

But they never really answer the question: Should 5% of humanity hope the other 95% messes up, just so the 5% can still call themselves exceptional? Isn’t it better for the whole world to become richer and healthier? Doesn’t that create new customers for U.S. goods and services, and make for a more stable world overall?

I sympathize with the anxiety that some Americans feel about the country’s relative position in the world, but I think a lot of it is misplaced. I’ve seen polls showing that a majority of Americans believe their children will live less well than they do. I believe Americans lives will continue to get better. Our current economic challenges aside, do people think the Internet will get slower? That cancer drugs will stop working and that we won’t invent new ones? That cars of the future will have manual brakes and steering? That women will lose their rights? That we’ll go back to watching VHS tapes again?

Anxiety about our place in the world shouldn’t lead us to ignore all the improvements happening as a result of innovation and other progress. We shouldn’t worry so much about whether other countries are catching up with us. Instead we should renew our own economic vitality by doing what we’ve done before: investing for the long term in education, science, infrastructure and stable government.

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