That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How We Can Come Back by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, 2011

September 2012

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World it Invented and How Can Come Back – Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2011

Who we were, who we are, and who we can become as America is the premise of this book. If you had an opportunity to read The World is Flat by Friedman you are accustom to his provocations. The authors analyze the four challenges we face—globalization, the revolution in information technology, the nation’s chronic deficits, and our pattern of excessive energy consumption—and spell out what we need to do now to sustain the American dream and preserve American power in the world. If we do not change, then we will be outpaced by other countries and our jobs will become outsourced, digitized, or automated. Often as you read this book, you will feel an overwhelming sense of calamity, but the authors also provide advice on what we should be doing. They believe that the recovery of American greatness is within reach. They show how America’s history, when properly understood, offers a five-part formula for prosperity that will enable us to cope successfully with the challenges we face. They offer vivid profiles of individuals who have not lost sight of the American habits of bold thought and dramatic action. They propose a clear way out of the trap into which the country has fallen, a way that includes the rediscovery of some of our most vital traditions and the creation of a new third party movement to galvanize the country. To better understand this book, I listed below some of the many quotes that took me on a reflective journey.

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America currently spends $1 billion a day abroad to purchase both crude oil and refined petroleum products from around the world (p. 198).
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It took us Americans sometime to appreciate that while many of our competitors were low-wage, low-skilled workers, for the first time a growing number of them, especially in Asia, were low-wage, high-skilled workers. We all new about cheap labor, but we had never had to deal with cheap genius – at scale (p.17).
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The country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow (p.100).
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Attention: Just because you are doing a non-routine job – as say, a doctor, lawyer, journalist, accountant doesn’t mean you are safe. If you do a high-skilled non-routine job in a routine way – if you are what we call a routine creator – you will be vulnerable to outsourcing, automation, digitization, or you will be the first to be fired in the economic squeeze. And just because you are a server doing some face-to-face job, doesn’t mean you are safe. You, too, will be vulnerable to automation, outsourcing to foreign labor, or digitization. No one is safe unless the person is adding value by doing something unique and irreplaceable. Are you putting some extra chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cherry on top of everything you do (.p 79)?
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Employers are looking for workers who can think critically, who can tackle non-routine, complex tasks, and who can work collaboratively with teams located in the workplace or globally – and that’s just a the interview level (p.81).
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A dollar wisely invested in early childhood education can do far more to meet the challenges of the world we are living in than a dollar spent on a senior citizen. Our entitlement programs represent the past, not the future (p. 263).
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We must use the entire global crowd to invent, design, manufacture, improve, and sell our products. If we don’t our competitors will. In the hyper-connected world, whatever can be done will be done. The only question is will it be done by us or to us (p. 97)?
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We now have the data to identify teachers who are making three years gains in the classroom in one year’s time. But we don’t have a pipeline from college, to school placement, to teacher evaluations, to pay and promotion systems that delivers anything like the number of good teachers we need (p. 111).
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Teacher education programs prepare flowers that have willed their way up through concrete, rather than flowers grown in abundance in hothouses designed to produce them at scale (p. 114).
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Say you are applying to college next year and you like to go to a liberal arts college in central Iowa – say, for instance, Grinnell College. Well, at Grinnell, with 1600 students in rural Iowa, nearly 1 in 10 applicants considered for the class of 2015 are from China. At Grinnell, how do they choose only 15 students out 200 when half of the Grinnell applicants from China have a perfect score of 800 on the math portion of the SAT? This is just one reason that whatever your extra is – inventing a new product, reinventing an old one, or reinventing yourself to do a routine task in a better way – you need to fine-tune it, hone, and promote it, to become a creative creator or creative server and keep your job from becoming an interchangeable commodity (p.134).
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We can opt for living with the vicious energy-climate cycles set off in 1979 and 2010 that are making us less secure, less healthy, less wealthy, and more exposed than ever to the whims of the two most brutal forces on the planet – the market and Mother Nature. Or we can set in motion our own virtuous cycle that makes us healthier, more prosperous, more secure, and more resilient in today’s hyper-connected world (p. 211).
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Just as baseball players in the 1990s injected themselves with steroids to build muscle artificially for the purpose of building more homeruns, our government injected steroids into the economy in the forms of cheap credit so that Wall Street could do more gambling and Main Street could do more home-buying and unskilled worker could do more home-building (p. 217).