Jan 5 2012

Book Short: Fixing America

Book Short:  Fixing America

I usually only blog about business books, but since I occasionally comment on politics, I thought I would also post on That Used to be Us:  How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, by Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum (book, Kindle), which I just finished.

There is much that is good about America.  And yet, there is much that is broken and in need of serious repair.  I wrote about some thought on fixing our political system last year in The Beginnings of a Roadmap to Fix America’s Badly Broken Political System?, but fixing our political system can only do so much.  Tom Friedman, with whom I usually agree a lot, but only in part, nailed it in his latest book.  Instead of blaming one party or the other (he points the finger at both!), he blames our overall system, and our will as a people, for the country’s current problems.

The authors talk about the four challenges facing America today – globalization, the IT revolution, deficits and debt, and rising energy demand and climate change, and about how the interplay of those four challenges are more long term and less obvious than challenges we’ve faced as a country in the past, like World Wars or The Great Depression, or even The Great Recession.  The reason, according to the authors, that we have lost our way a bit in the last 20-40 years, is that we have strayed from the five-point formula that has made us successful for the bulk of our history:

  • Providing excellent public education for more and more Americans
  • Building and continually modernizing our infrastructure
  • Keeping America’s doors to immigration open
  • Government support for basic research and development
  • Implementation of necessary regulations on private economic activity

It’s hard not to be in violent agreement with the book as a normal person with common sense.  Even the last point of the five-point formula, which can rankle those on the right, makes sense when you read the specifics.  And the authors rail against excessive regulation enough in the book to give them credibility on this point.

The authors’ description of the labor market of the future and how we as a country can be competitive in it is quite well thought through.  And they have some other great arguments to make – for example, about how the prior decade of wars was, for the first time in American history, not accompanied by tax increases and non-essential program cuts; or about how we can’t let ourselves be held hostage to AARP and have “funding old age” trump “funding youth” at every turn.

The one thing I disagree with a bit is the authors’ assertion that “we cannot simply cut our way to fiscal sanity.”  I saw a table in the Wall Street Journal the same day I was reading this book that noted the federal budget has grown from $2.6T in 2007 to $3.6T today – 40% in four years!  Sure sounds to me like mostly a spending program, though I do support closing loopholes, eliminating subsidies, and potentially some kind of energy tax for other reasons.

I’ll save their solution for those who read the book.  It’s not as good as the meat of the book itself, but it’s solid, and it actually mirrors something my dad has been talking about for a while now.  If you care about where we are as a country and how we can do better, read this book!