Road Signs of Our Times
The Ugly American, it would seem, is being replaced by the Introspective American. Many forget that in 1958 too, the year Eugene Burdick and William Lederer wrote their bestselling novel that spoke of the brashness of the American abroad, the US was suffering a recession of the same order as it did in 2008 (Av -3.2per cent growth for 8 months). It was the biggest downturn since the Great Depression of 1929, and was accompanied by a worldwide market drop.
Fifty years and more later, New York Times columnist Thomas 'Tom' Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum are analyzing not so much the problem with the American abroad, but with what's gone wrong with the American at home. In "That Used to Be Us", Friedman and Mandelbaum take a long and very hard look at why America has fallen behind in the world of innovation, entrepreneurship and economic leadership. Right at the start, the authors speak of a high-speed railway line in China from Beijing to Tianjin that took just 8 months to build from scratch.
In contrast, they point to their nearby downtown-Washington subway station where 2 escalators have been out of service for more than 8 months, without being fixed! They marvel at a garage-based banking business in South Delhi that caters to poor migrant labour, building a database of 180,000 users in just18 months with minimum infrastructure.
Next, Friedman goes to the White House to meet President Obama, and he is horrified when a door handle comes off in his hand. What strikes him harder is the coolness of the security guard escorting him, who doesn't call the maintenance department, but just jams the handle back in with a nonchalant "it does that all the time" reply.
The message from all the anecdotes is clear- the US has failed to imbibe the eastern spirit of 'Jugaad' or Zizhu chuangxin (Hindi and Chinese for 'indigenous innovation'), while succumbing to our attitude of 'Chalta Hai' or 'anything goes'. Friedman and Mandelbaum's thesis is that the US has also forgotten its own historical strengths in the process: intense R&D funding, open immigration policies and deep focus on public education and infrastructure. As a result of that, the book points out that while in 1970s, about 80 percent of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) graduates moved to the US for research and further studies, in 2009, only 16 percent did.
'That Used to be Us' has many examples of success from Friedman's visits to India-and genuinely believes India will be a more successful model for the world than China despite its high growth. But then, one must remember that Friedman has been a self-proclaimed admirer of India, long before it was even fashionable. During an interview for CNN-IBN's show WorldView this week, in fact, he got visibly agitated when confronted with India's poor development figures, and inconsistent economic reforms. "If you can't get excited by the India growth story," he exclaimed, "I can. Without any apologies." While acknowledging China's miraculous development story however, the authors are not so gushy. "China is not the problem, nor is it the solution", they contend simply.
Perhaps the most brutally frank part of the book is the criticism of the US's wars post 9/11- terming the hunt for Al-Qaeda, a futile exercise in "chasing the losers of globalization". Few in the US have so far analysed the economic consequences of the Wars on terror- Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which will end up costing the US economy $ 4 trillion. Friedman and Mandelbaum go one step further, asking if there was a need for the US, with its fragile economy to intervene in Libya as well.
"That Used to be Us: What went wrong with America and how it can come back" is a fitting sequel to Friedman's previous two works: 'The World is Flat', and 'Hot, Flat and Crowded' and Mandelbaum's 'Ideas that Conquered the World'. Friedman describes America's precarious position after the 2008 recession as 'driving around without a bumper or a spare tyre. We just can't afford to crash into anything right now'. This book articulates what ails the America on the road so far quite perceptively. Where it perhaps misses out is on a clear road map for the future, as also the specifics of what the world's single superpower must do, if it does, indeed 'crash into anything right now'.
Book: That Used to Be Us: What went wrong with America and how it can come back; Author: Thomas L. Friedman & Michael Mandelbaum; Publisher: Little,Brown 2011