That Used to Be Us

How can the U.S. can catch up with China?

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. By Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York. 380 pp.

Taking their title from a speech by President Barack Obama, Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum express worry about the rise of China at the outset of their book. “It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us,” Obama said in an address in 2010. “And we just learned that China now has the fastest supercomputer on Earth. That used to be us.” But the authors quickly make it clear that the main source of their concern is their own country, the United States. They wonder not only how America could fall behind in technology, but, worse, why American society is so complacent about it.

“People have sort of gotten used to it,” they explain. But Friedman and Mandelbaum, prolific writers on global policy issues, steadfastly refuse to accept that China will inevitably dominate global affairs in the twenty-first century. “[We need to] become more like ourselves,” they argue. “Our problem is not China. Our problem is us—what we are doing and not doing.” As they see it, four challenges face Americans: adapting to non-polar globalization; moving beyond the IT revolution; achieving fiscal sustainability; and combating climate change. They believe these challenges require a collective response, one that, alas, is not forthcoming in America’s divisive politics.

The authors contend that the key to American success is innovation, rather than mere critical thinking, which has been America’s comparative advantage in science and education in the past. They hail what they term Carlson’s Law, a bow to Curtis Carlson, CEO of SRI International, which serves as an innovation factory for companies and governments alike. In accordance with Carlson’s Law, Americans must assemble not just a good team, but the best team in the world. Such thinking should govern American education, including college entrance tests. Only such shock therapy can keep America on top. “Average is over,” the authors insist.

Friedman and Mandelbaum want Americans to rediscover their values. They decry the behavior of the titans of American finance that helped trigger the economic meltdown of 2008; they quote the chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission describing how a practice of creating, then betting against, certain subprime mortgage-backed securities was being compared to “selling a car with faulty brakes and then buying an insurance policy on the buyer.” They argue that Americans must embrace a discipline of delayed gratification, accept healthy skepticism of American institutions, and collaborate together for positive collective action. “We don’t need to imitate China,” they say. “What we need is not novel or foreign. What we need instead is to understand our own history.”

The Middle East can borrow some of these ideas. After its revolution, Egypt needs a collective culture, shared vision, sustainable advantage within multi-polar globalization, country branding, a radical reshape of its education system, an innovation spirit in the younger generation, and environmental compliance. Egypt must adapt its future society by positioning itself well and using shock therapy and transformational change, albeit without losing too much of its traditional values and identity. Longer term innovative thinking, good governance with healthy skepticism, and collaborative change must be addressed in Egypt as in America. The mindset of “people have sort of gotten used to it” must change.

Tarek Selim is professor of economics at the American University in Cairo. He has served as a senior economic advisor for the Egyptian Competition Authority and is a founding member of the Alfred P. Sloan Industry Studies Association at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Egypt, Energy and the Environment: Critical Sustainability Perspectives.