That Used to Be Us

Summary Written by Carolyn B. Thompson
"We have risen to challenges more formidable than these."

- That Used to Be Us, Preface

The Big Idea

A collective response is the only way

"Our problem is us – we’ve stopped trying to form a more perfect union."- That Used to Be Us, Preface

The idea is not to become something else to fix this (be like China or whomever is doing well), but to go back to our roots. “To be like us”.

This will take a public awakening, establishment of political will, resetting priorities, sacrificing for the future, an alliance of government, business and citizens. It will take truth telling, sensible investment, rebirth of civility, cessation of political and business leaders’ pandering. It will take engineering, science, technology and education.

The authors portray a profound sense of optimism that the people of the United States can work together because of our history of rising to great challenges. They point out that we won our independence through a daring, violent break with the richest country in world, settled a vast and wild continent, waged a bloody civil war from which we recovered so rapidly that we built the largest economy on the planet in a few decades, had armed forces that tipped the balance in Europe in WW1 and our tanks, aircraft and ships were central to the defeat of Germany and Japan in WW2. The challenges of the past were so much more in-your-face than globalization, energy consumption, technology, growing budget deficits. It’s hard to look up from our smart phones to do something about these.

Insight #1

A lethal combination of cockiness and complacency

"The American people are starved for 3 things – truth, leadership and solutions."- That Used to Be Us, Preface

The United States had been king of the world and we keep retelling our wonderful story because the present is so overwhelming we have to live in the past. Again with the complacency you say. I know but that’s what’s stopping us. The authors have an answer – a five part formula for success:

  1. Access to post-secondary education for more.
  2. Upgrade the infrastructure.
  3. Admit more talented immigrants.
  4. Create regulations to encourage risk taking without recklessness.
  5. Spend more on research and development to expand behaviors of physics, biology, chemistry, energy, material sciences.

Our ability to work together to make these changes is just as important to other countries as to the United States. If we’re not strong economically, robust socially, cohesive politically we can’t be the stabilizing force for things taking shape in the world.

Yet three years after this book was researched and written, none of the five appear to me to have been implemented.

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Insight #2

We are frustrated optimists

"….what keeps us optimistic about America is the seemingly endless number of people who come here or live here who just didn’t get the word."- That Use to Be Us, chapter 14

Wave after wave of people still come to the US eager to try something new. So while the media and politicians may be bad-mouthing the United States, people are still seeing the underlying American character, still seeing and wanting the American Dream.

I loved the whole chapter with examples of people “who just didn’t get the word” – college drop outs who started the four biggest companies in the world, soldiers who were “just too dumb to quit” when they should have surrendered and so who won instead, teachers, inventors, civil servants, etc.

This caused me to think about a person reading this book 100 years from now. I’ve read many writings from 100 and 200 years ago and have been amazed that the writers complain of immorality, loss of the values the United States was founded on (some within 25 years of the signing of the Constitution), etc. We think it’s just now. So, will people in 100 years read this book and be amazed that an era they thought of as more stable than theirs wasn’t?

This book was written to help us not resign ourselves to a future that looks like the present, or worse, for the United States. The authors obviously intend it to be a call to action, as reading it made me feel great instead of depressed at the magnitude of what has to change. We as Americans, and in fact all developed nations, are called to adapt to a new environment. They remind us that adaptation has been found to be particularly urgent when a species’ environment changes and ours has. If we don’t adapt soon we run the risk of becoming dinosaurs (and you know what happened to them).

Read the book

Get That Used to Be Us on Amazon.

Michael Mandelbaum

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. and is the director of the American Foreign Policy Program there. He has also held teaching posts at Harvard and Columbia Universities, and at the United States Naval Academy.

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