Thomas Friedman: That Used to Be Us

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Columnist to Discuss the Fall and Rise of the U.S.

Thomas Friedman sees his most recent book as "a road map for rising to the challenges and opportunities that will determine whether we remain a country that can continue to pass prosperity from one generation to the next, as we always have."

Thomas Friedman sees his most recent book as “a road map for rising to the challenges and opportunities that will determine whether we remain a country that can continue to pass prosperity from one generation to the next, as we always have.”

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has written best-selling books about many hot-button issues, including globalization, climate change, and population growth. In his most recent book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, Friedman and co-author Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign-policy professor at Johns Hopkins University, zero in on the United States, which they think has lost its way — politically, economically, and even spiritually.

Friedman and Mandelbaum intend That Used to Be Us, they write, as “a road map for rising to the challenges and opportunities that will determine whether we remain a country that can continue to pass prosperity from one generation to the next, as we always have, and can continue to play the role of global stabilizer, as we must.”

When three-time Pulitzer Prize winner Friedman delivers a General Session presentation today at 9 a.m. in Halls WA4/WB1, he won’t be entering a new environment. As That Used to Be Us shows, he attends a lot of meetings and conferences — and has experienced them as both an incubator of new ideas and an indicator of international competitiveness. Indeed, in one telling passage, Friedman sees a beautiful new convention center in China as a wake-up call to a complacent United States.

In September 2010, Friedman attended the World Economic Forum’s summer conference in Tianjin, China. Five years earlier, he and Mandelbaum write, it had taken him three-and-a-half hours in a car to get to Tianjin. On Friedman’s return trip, the newly opened Beijing South Railway Station offered a bullet-train ride to the city in 29 minutes. The conference took place in the massive Tianjin Mejiang Convention and Exhibition Center, which had been constructed in eight months — from September 2009 through May 2010.

Returning from the trip to his home in Maryland, he noticed two escalators at his subway stop had been out of service for months. From a local newspaper he learned that it would take 10 to 12 weeks to fix each escalator.

“A simple comparison made a startling point,” Friedman and Mandelbaum write. “It took China’s Teda Construction Group 32 weeks to build a world-class convention center from the ground up — including giant escalators in every corner — and it was taking the Washington Metro crew 24 weeks to repair two tiny escalators of 21 steps each.”