Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum’s new book isn’t going to change America’s political reality, but it probably should. “That Used To Be Us” is a collection of anecdotes, progressive philosophies, warnings about America’s dire straits, and ideas for how we should move forward. Like Franzen’s fiction, Friedman and Mandelbaum’s non-fiction serves as an eerie funhouse mirror of truth about who we are today. I think this is an important book, but if you read it, you have to accept the style of the book can also be slightly annoying. All of Friedman’s books, including this one, are preachy and feel like a quilt stitched together from the theories of people who write for the New York Times and speak at Davos. But I’ll get past all that, because I highlighted the hell out of this book, and because I believe the authors are mostly right about what ails us.

In short, the point of “That Used to Be Us” is that we have serious problems as a country, and we are not at all prepared for what we must do to ensure we don’t go the way of Rome. The authors note we have no coherent strategy to improve education, infrastructure, immigration, research, and regulations, which they call the “five pillars.” Eighty-plus percent of this book is depressing. The authors have litanies of examples describing how we are falling behind, how China is outperforming us, and how our political system is entirely broken. At the end of the book, they try to pick the reader back up, but it’s just a sample dose of Zoloft. It only works for a few minutes and then you remember who is in charge. No one.

At the time I was reading this, it was the early weeks of the Occupy Wall Street protests. What a contrast. Here’s this book, outlining very serious and specific problems that we face, and there’s this crowd of anarchic protestors proudly proclaiming they have no organized agenda. Looking for solutions, Friedman and Mandelbaum correctly observe that “we need a hybrid of the best of both right and left…just bouncing back and forth between the two extreme party positions is not going to solve our problems.” Yet what I see from the OWS protestors—and for that matter, the extremists from the tea party—is merely the “no compromise, tear it all down” philosophy. Just as Republicans shouldn’t have let the tea party hijack their platform, Democrats shouldn’t rush to adopt the OWSers as an antidote; it will only polarize America further.

What is undeniable is these political extremist groups are not interested in compromise. I can’t foresee a situation where tea party protestors and occupiers sit down to negotiate a balanced infrastructure or education plan for the U.S. The real cause for concern is that as our elected officials rush to embrace the extremists on both sides, our country becomes even less likely to unite around a strategy that alters our current and alarming course.

I don’t want to make this entire blog about extremists. At times in history they have stimulated our leaders to rise to the occasion. But I firmly believe that what we need right now is moderation, cooperation, and a willingness to sacrifice party for Country. I’ll stop there.

I said I highlighted many passages in this book. Here are a few I thought noteworthy:

  • The authors cite a statistic that says children growing up in homes with many books get on average three years more schooling. Need I say more?
  • The authors suggest that many business leaders, especially those in a place to help us prosper, have “dropped out of the national debate.” I liked this quote: “The standard approach of the American business community toward Washington today is, as medieval maps put it, ‘Here Be Dragons.’ You go there, you lobby for your particular tax break, and then you leave—quickly.”  I don’t agree with their implication that all businesses favor their own needs over common purpose. From my seat at the show, I see more often where business leaders get so frustrated with the pace and activity coming out of Washington that they just throw their hands up and say “I’ll do anything I can to get out of dealing with D.C.”
  • The authors encourage people to find jobs that “can’t be killed.” Look for careers where you are a subject matter expert or where you can exercise creativity. I wholeheartedly agree. They also cite one employer who says that the number one thing she looks for in a new hire is “presence…people who can think and interact and collaborate.” They must be “engaged and paying attention—they have to be present.” I love that sentiment. It’s superb, free advice if you happen to be looking for a job.
  • Read this book and you’ll be frightened by sobering statistics like this one: 25% of our high schoolers drop out or fail to graduate on time. And nearly half of the adult population of Detroit is functionally illiterate. The Lions may be 5-0, but we’re a long way from the Super Bowl.
  • The authors repeatedly put focus, and blame, on baby boomers. As I’ve said on these pages before, I think that this is a unique moment for boomers to accept some responsibility for the situation we are in and then make sacrifices to fix it. Friedman and Mandelbaum agree, saying that “the conduct of [their] own generation, in contrast to that of [their] parents, has been more than a little selfish, pampered, and at times, reckless and irresponsible.”  They suggest that a stereotypical boomer mentality has driven us further away from three core values that are critical to our culture—long-term investment and delayed gratification, confidence in our institutions, and sense of shared purpose. Without question, boomers are firmly in charge of our government and institutions. Whether they are solely responsible for this mess is debatable. That they are in a position to fix it is not.

I’ll conclude with this. The authors relay a story by Mike Murphy, a brilliant GOP operative. A mentor was telling Murphy that negative ads work, but the mentor added a caveat:

“Do you know why McDonald’s never ran a negative ad against Burger King, saying their burgers were all full of maggots? It might have worked for a year or two but then no one would have ever eaten another hamburger. Never destroy the category.”

Murphy concludes that what has happened in the American political system is that “we’ve destroyed the category.” I love that lesson.

I don’t think we’ll see a viable third-party anytime soon, though we should be encouraging one. So maybe there’s another way to reinvent the category. What if we were to create an entirely new Congress to compete with the existing one? Competition helps everything, right? What would happen if we went out and instead of electing one set of 100 Senators and 435 members of Congress, we elected two sets? We would build an entirely new government, still composed of partisan and principled leaders, but this time they’ll be compared to something else. At the end of two years, the American public would pick, with one vote, Congress A or Congress B. Stick with the original gang or replace the entire government with the newer model. The two Congresses would be forced to compete against one another to see who could be more effective and solve more problems. Instead of internal partisan warfare where the winner is a political party, the conflict would be between two productive Congresses where the winner is the American people. Progress would certainly be made. At the end of two years, 535 people would be judged together, solely on their ability to get things done. Today, we incentivize conflict and partisanship. Breakup the Congressional monopoly and add competition—reinvent the category—and suddenly we’ve incentivized cooperation and effectiveness.

A kid can dream, right?  Thanks for reading.