NY Times Book Review - That Used To Be Us

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NY Times Book Review - That Used To Be Us

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NY Times – 10/2/2011
Savior of the World, Heal Thyself: Prescription for America’s Ailments
By WALTER RUSSELL MEAD -- the James Clarke Chace professor of foreign policy and humanities at Bard College and editor at large of The American Interest

In “That Used to Be Us” Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum join a growing number of foreign policy thinkers warning that America’s position abroad cannot endure without a renewal of the domestic sources of American prosperity and strength.

The concerns are justified. The United States faces the most profound set of challenges since the 1930s, when an economic depression and the breakdown of the British-led international order raised basic questions about our domestic politics and international strategy.

“That Used to Be Us” represents an effort by Mr. Mandelbaum, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the country’s leading public intellectuals, and Mr. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times whose three Pulitzer Prizes only hint at the global influence of his work, to describe the rocky conditions of the present day and prescribe a way forward. This may be an American crisis, but as Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum eloquently explain, it is not just an American concern. Nor is it simply a matter of improving the living standards of future generations in this country. Because of the unique — and at this point irreplaceable — American role in providing important public services across the globe, the world as a whole will become a much poorer and more dangerous place if Americans fail at the task of national renewal.

The authors provide a thoughtful and balanced corrective to critics on the left who believe that our present economic troubles demonstrate the fundamental failure of the liberal democratic capitalist ideas on which American society is built, and the critics on the right who believe that only a return to 19th-century small government policies can save us. The principles behind our society, they argue, are broadly correct, but without institutional reform we cannot apply them as fairly or as fully as we should.

When it comes to solutions the authors reach for a classic American approach that — at least in my judgment — is fundamentally sound though difficult to apply. A long tradition of American thinkers and statesmen — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to name a few — have argued that a strong and forward-looking federal government should promote a healthy domestic economy and a strong international presence.

This tradition is often called Hamiltonian because of Alexander Hamilton’s role in formulating its basic outlines while serving as Washington’s Treasury secretary. Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum’s blueprint for the next stage in American prosperity is essentially a revival of this Hamiltonian vision of a strong, pro-market national government that creates the most favorable possible conditions (and provides funds for the infrastructure) to promote private enterprise.

As Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum note, this Hamiltonian project cuts across the conventional wisdom in both political parties today. The Republican hostility to most forms of government activity recalls the stances of Hamilton’s opponents who argued that a powerful federal government would attack liberty and waste taxpayer money. Politicians like Representative Ron Paul and Gov. Rick Perry of Texas consciously draw on the anti-Hamiltonian ideas of thinkers like Thomas Jefferson to attack the idea of a powerful, economically interventionist federal government.

But the authors of this book also have uncomfortable words for Democrats. Hamiltonians historically believed in sound government finance and efficient administration. This is not the kind of talk that public sector labor unions and partisans of the entitlement state like to hear. “That Used to Be Us” unsparingly describes the causes and likely consequences of the recklessly unsustainable pension and entitlement promises that are among the gravest fiscal problems we now face. It also calls for smarter and less cumbersome forms of regulation, something that business is more likely to support than some traditional Democratic constituencies.

These are big truths, and the authors see them clearly and whole. As is usual in Mr. Friedman’s work the power of the core argument is buttressed by detailed reportage and blizzards of specific fact and detail, but the accumulation of anecdote and evidence never detracts from the book’s central thrust. “That Used to Be Us” is an important contribution to an intensifying debate, and it deserves the widest possible attention. But there are a couple of weak spots in the argument that could use shoring up.

One small example involves California. On the one hand the authors take that state to task for its fiscal irresponsibility, chaotic policy making and a generally incoherent approach to economic development and governance. Yet at other times they hail California as a model, citing its tough energy and construction codes. Many people argue that those energy regulations contribute to the gridlock that is driving California’s economy down. “That Used to Be Us” would present a stronger argument if it addressed problems like this more directly.

More broadly, the authors propose an essentially Hamiltonian approach to the country’s challenges but do not really take on the arguments that Jeffersonian critics make in response. For example, can subsidies and incentives really work when the technological uncertainties are so large and political lobbies so powerful?

The authors point to Chinese high-speed rail development and American government support for alternative energy generation as highly effective, but recent rail mishaps in China and the Solyndra bankruptcy here render these solutions more problematic. (Daniel Yergin’s new book, “The Quest,” also raises important questions about the value of alternative energy subsidies.) And what of the way lobbyists and private interests distorted Fannie Mae mortgage programs in ways that worsened the housing bubble? Even well-intentioned federal interventions often go awry.

Partly because small-government advocates are denigrated rather than engaged, many conservative thinkers will look at this book as more liberal sludge — calls for greater federal spending, tough energy policy to ward off climate change, more control over American life by credentialed “experts” — and dismiss “That Used to Be Us” as same-old, same-old boilerplate from the Eastern establishment.

That would be a mistake. The gaps opening between the arguments in this book and conventional Democratic politics run very deep. When talking about the cultural sources of American strength Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum can sound like staunch Tea Party members. When pointing to an institution where American values are still strong, they choose the military. They say the United States has been an exceptional nation, and they want it to remain one.

As American politics looks increasingly dysfunctional, Mr. Friedman and Mr. Mandelbaum show great courage in casting aside conventional assumptions. Few readers will agree with every observation and argument in this thoroughly researched and passionately argued book, but all of them should find “That Used to Be Us” compelling, engaging and enlightening.

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