By David Frum, New York Times, September 8, 2011, reviewing the book "That Used to be Us" by Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum
Failure after failure after failure. Bubbles that end in busts. Wars that aren’t won. Stimuli that don’t stimulate. All together plunging the United States into the worst economic slump since the 1930s. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, America faces a geopolitical rival that is also an effective economic competitor — a combination not seen since the kaiser’s Germany.....
Friedman and Mandelbaum also point out things like this: New military recruits arrive much less physically fit than previous generations because of a lack of exercise, and they come in with what Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls “a mixed bag of values.” Dempsey goes on: “I am not suggesting they have bad values, but among all the values that define our profession, first and most important is trust. If we could do only one thing with new soldiers, it would be to instill in them trust for one another, for the chain of command and for the nation.” O.K., so that’s alarming.
And so is this point from Arne Duncan, the secretary of education: “Currently about one-fourth of ninth graders fail to graduate high school within four years. Among the O.E.C.D. countries, only Mexico, Spain, Turkey and New Zealand have higher dropout rates than the United States.”
How about this statistic from Friedman and Mandelbaum: “Thirty years ago, 10 percent of California’s general revenue fund went to higher education and 3 percent to prisons. Today nearly 11 percent goes to prisons and 8 percent to higher education.”
Or this, which comes from the Nobelist Joseph Stiglitz: “The top 1 percent of Americans now take in roughly one-fourth of America’s total income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, . . . the top 1 percent now controls 40 percent of the total. This is new. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent.”
Or this, from the Pentagon via Arne Duncan: “Seventy-five percent of young Americans, between the ages of 17 to 24, are unable to enlist in the military today because they have failed to graduate from high school, have a criminal record or are physically unfit.” ...
Together they offer a range of examples of how America can do better than it has done in the recent past. Despite its slightly misleading subtitle, “That Used to Be Us” is not really a “how to” book, not really a policy book. Friedman and Mandelbaum go very light on the programmatic details. Instead, they emphasize the power of good examples: instance after instance of forward-looking C.E.O.’s, effective military commanders, tough educational administrators, responsible politicians who have made things work. The book is more a demonstration than an argument: The situation isn’t hopeless! Success is possible! See here and here and here and here.
It is hard to get people to buy, read, discuss or even acknowledge the many details of the failure of so many social institutions, not to mention the failure of governments. Wrapping the ugly details of the fine print with examples of enlightened, socially committed and aspirational leadership neither blurs their import nor colours them in pretty colours.
However, it is as if the Paul Simon song, "My Little Town," has a wider application today. As Simon reminisced about riding his bike past factories spewing soot into the fresh laundry, and after the rain comes a rainbow, and "all the colours are black...it's not that the colours aren't there, it's just imagination they lack"....could easily descibe Friedman's and Mandelbaum's picture of the U.S.
Updating the Simon lyrics, one might add, its courage and hope they lack....
Islands of success in a sea of multiplying and magnifying and seemingly intractable problems that seem to have their grip on many of the developed countries of the world, including the U.S., will have some trouble forming a continent, especially with rising global temperatures leading to rising tidal waves.
Good examples are needed, but if they don't inspire the public leaders whose responsibility it is to work together, they will serve only those generating them and their colleagues, and not move the public culture forward.
Are the problems too many and too complex and too intractable for any group to resolve?
One is left wondering.