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Thomas Friedman On 'How America Fell Behind'

Thomas Friedman is the author of five best-selling books, including <em>From Beirut to Jerusalem</em> and <em>The World Is Flat.</em>
Fred Conrad
Thomas Friedman is the author of five best-selling books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem and The World Is Flat.

Back in March, Paul Otellini — president and CEO of Intel Corp. — compared the situation of present-day America to that of the U.K. at the turn of the last century.

"I imagine sitting in Britain 110 years ago, looking at the rising giant of the United States — the buildings going up and the new factories and the schools and the universities — and they must have been saying, 'Oh my god,' " he told NPR's Michele Norris. "And in fact, the U.S. eclipsed the U.K. and most of Europe. Well, we're sitting here today looking over the next ocean — the Pacific this time — and the infrastructure being built out in Asia ... and we should be appropriately saying, 'Oh my god.' "

"Oh my god" could have been the title of the new book by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and author Michael Mandelbaum. It's called That Used To Be Us and in it, Friedman and Mandelbaum describe a country that used to be industrially advanced, exceptionally inventive, unusually educated, politically pragmatic and relatively egalitarian.

"There's no question we've lost our way," Friedman tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "This problem started at the end of the Cold War. We made the biggest mistake a country and species can make: We misread our environment. We thought the Cold War was a victory and we could put our feet up. In fact, we had just unleashed ... 2 billion people just like us; people with our same aspirations, same capabilities. And just when we needed to be lacing up our shoes and running faster, we put our feet up."

The New American Generation

So what happened? What changed? For one thing, Friedman says, the end of the Cold War saw the rise of a new American generation.

"We shifted from [the] greatest generation that really operated on what we call in the book 'sustainable values' — saving and investing — and we handed power over to the baby boomer generation who really lived by 'situational values' — borrow and consume," Friedman says. "The baby boomers, I believe, have a lot to answer for. They have not followed in the path of their parents in terms of making the hard decisions, making the long-term investments."

The end of the Cold War also led to a world that was not only connected, but hyperconnected. Friedman notes that the global connectivity he focused on in his book The World Is Flat has already grown by leaps and bounds since 2004, when he sat down to write it.

"Facebook didn't exist; Twitter was a sound; the cloud was in the sky; 4G was a parking place; LinkedIn was a prison; applications were what you sent to college; and Skype for most people was typo," he says. "All of that changed in just the last six years."

Searching For Solutions

Globalization has meant that even wealthy, American-based businesses aren't contributing what they used to. American businesses used to actually be in the U.S., but today Friedman says, "they hover over America."

"We are missing the voices of those CEOs in our discussions — national discussions on education and infrastructure — because if they can't get the workers, the infrastructure, the opportunities that they need here, they can just go somewhere else," he says. "And that's a huge problem."

Friedman has ideas for solutions, but they all start by addressing one thing — the current political gridlock in Washington.

"We're having an economic crisis and the politicians are having an election and it's like they don't even overlap in many ways. The incentives of politics today — money, cable television, gerrymandered districts — are so misaligned with the needs of the country that they become like a closed circle, operating on their own," he says. "What we argue for is an independent, third party that actually can show that there is a huge middle in this country that demands different politics."

In other words, he wants to change today's political incentives.

"Move the cheese; move the mouse. Don't move the cheese; mouse doesn't move," Friedman says. "So right now, all the incentives of these two parties are to behave in really bad ways for the country. The only way to change that is to show them the [voter] — the cheese — is over here."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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