Transcript for Thomas Friedman on How the US Fell Behind

Jim Fleming: Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize winner author for The New York Times.  He says that as a player on the world stage the US is in decline, failing to compete with other countries in areas like education, economics and infrastructure.  Friedman writes about the problem in the book, That Used to Be Us, with coauthor Michael Mandelbaum.  He tells Steve Paulson how the US was so successful in the past.

Thomas Friedman: Going back to the founding of the United States we actually had a formula for success, and that formula had basically five pillars:

1) We educated people up to and beyond whatever the level of technology was.  So whether it was the cotton gin or the laptop computer, they could get the most out of it.

2) We had the best infrastructure.  Airports, roads, you know, canals, telecommunications, so our people could really get the most out of their towns.

3) We had the world's, over time, most open immigration policy that attracted the most energetic and talented immigrants from around the world where they would come to Silicon Valley and places like it and start, you know, 25% of new companies every year.

4) We had the best rules for capital formation and investing to both incentivize risk taking and prevent recklessness; and

5) Lastly, we had the most government funded research to push out the boundaries of science and technology so our venture capitalists could pluck the best flowers and turn them into new companies. 

That was our formula for success.  We didn't get here by accident.  We had this great private partnership, but the reason we're in a dip here, I don't wanna say a, we're not in a terminal decline, but the arrows are pointing down, is Steve, if you look at all five of those key pillars of our formula for success, the arrows are actually pointing down on all five; on education, on infrastructure, on immigration, on rules for capital investing (how'd you like that subprime crisis), and lastly, on government funded research.  So that's what I'm worried about.  That's what we're worried about.

Steve Paulson: Of course, the great irony here is that when the Cold War ended many people assumed that America's great enemy, last great enemy, had been vanquished.  There was even talk about the end of history as if liberal democracy had triumphed once and for all.  You're saying that was myth making.

Friedman: Well, it misread what was going on.  Think about you know, back in the '80s, Steve, when people said "Remember Japan?"  Everyone said Japan was gonna steamroll us and we were gonna be left behind, but now, now you say it's China, no, no, you don't understand.  Japan threatened one American town and two American industries; the town was called Detroit and the industries were called consumer electronics and cars.  Globalization of which China is just one manifestation challenges every American town and every American industry.  By the way, it has enormous upsides as well.  It creates opportunities for every American town and every American industry, provided we have the people, the infrastructure, the skills and the inspiration to get the most out of it and cushion the worst.  This is not your grandfather's economic crisis.  This is something different.

Paulson: Well, and to take one example, you were talking about the need to build up infrastructure.  China has spent vast amounts of money doing just that.  I mean high speed rails and all kinds of things, and the United States, well given the fractious nature of our politics right now, it's hard to get anything big done.

Friedman: Well, when you fly from Zurich say, Zurich, Switzerland to JFK.  You arrive at the Delta air terminal in JFK, truly it is like flying from the Jetsons to the Flintstones.  And you have that feeling more and more now, not just from China, but from other places as well.  According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we quote this statistic in the book, we have over a two trillion dollar deficit in infrastructure.  And all you have to do is travel around this country to see it.  I take the train often, you know, from Washington, DC, the Acela high speed train, from Washington, DC to New York's Penn Station.  First of all, whenever I get on the train, I have a joke with a friend of mine, my friend says whenever he gets on the train and he's making cellphone calls, he tells the person on the other end he's really calling from El Salvador so the phone may go out several times--Juan, keep it down over there in the other seat, you know.  He's too embarrassed to say he's on our high speed train in our biggest business corridor, you know, in the country from Washington to New York.

Paulson: Is this the liberal agenda you're pushing here, I mean more government spending to buildup all kinds of industries around the country?

Friedman: Well, you know, as many of our viewers of our book have noted, particularly conservatives, this is not a liberal book.  It's also not a conservative book.  We really believe that, Steve, you didn't get here by accident and I didn't get here by accident.  We both got to where we are thanks to the greatest public-private partnership in the history of the world.  Where we are at our best is when we've combined government at the right size and role, creating this enabling infrastructure, and then standing back and letting the private sector with its initiative and energy, take it as far as we can.  And where we get out of balance is when one smothers the other, either the private smothers the public, hello, 2008 subprime prices, or the public smothers the private at different times, especially in the cities now where governments have gotten so large and taken on such pension obligations that you can't actually build the infrastructure anymore.

Paulson: Okay, so how do we get out of it then?

Friedman: You know, our whole point is we got here through a formula for success that we built up over many years.  We got out of here because we got away from that formula.  We only get back here when we get back to that formula.  You know, everyone is looking for some razzamatazz kind of quick fix.  It's about education, infrastructure, immigration, the right rules to incentivize risk taking and recklessness and government funded research.  And so there is no quick fix.  We didn't get in here the long way, we're not gonna get out of here the long way, and that's why we have been arguing that we basically have a choice as a country now.  We can have a hard decade or a bad century.  We can actually take this decade, stand back, roll up our sleeves, get back to doing what made us great, all right, or we're gonna have a bad century.  We're gonna limp into the 21st century.

Paulson: Okay, so you're saying that we have to take our medicine and kind of grit it out for a while.  What is the medicine here?

Friedman: Well, the medicine is first of all, it starts with education and it's not just about you know, rebuilding the worst schools in the country.  It's about collective action.  It's about collaborative efforts basically to attract the best teachers to public education, to incentivize people to go in that direction, and to also with teachers work out systems to enable and enrich the best teachers and weed out the worst.  That's the first thing.

Paulson: Okay, so, so just to break this down for a moment. 

Friedman: Please.

Paulson: Pay teachers more, at least the good teachers, and have some capacity to get rid of the bad teachers.

Friedman: Yeah, number one, but that's just the first part of the education challenge because we believe that we cannot do to America's teachers what we did to America's soldiers, which is outsource the whole problem to them.  We kinda outsourced the war on terrorism you know, to one half of one percent that went off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan; the rest of us went on our way.  We believe the education problem in this country is a collective problem.  Yes, we need better teachers.  My wife's a schoolteacher, my daughter is a schoolteacher, so I'm a little sensitive on this issue.  We need better teachers, but you know what we also need, Steve?  We need better parents, parents more involved every day in their kids' education.  We also need better neighbors, neighbors who care about their public schools, whether they have kids in them or not.  We need better politicians, politicians who make clear that your kid is not just competing against the school down the street, but he's now competing against the kids at PS21 in Shanghai.  We need better business leaders who care about the schools and our country and don't just say well, if I can't get the teachers here I'll just outsource it somewhere else.  And lastly, we need better students, students who come to school ready to learn, not just to text.

Paulson: Okay.

Friedman: So this is a collective action education problem and it isn't just gonna come by blaming and fixating on teachers.  We all need to roll up our sleeves.

Paulson: What's the evidence that our students really are falling behind, that our standard of education are not as good as some of the other countries out there?

Friedman: Well, if you take the PISA test, which is the best kind of international comparative test on writing, math and science for 15-year-olds, we're right there in the middle of the pack with Slovenia.  We are not leaders in these math and science competitions or in the writing competitions.  We quote the latest sort of statistic, there's an annual kind of you know, math genius competition for college students.  And I think we have one school in the top ten, in Michigan.  And you know, you look at any international comparison test and we're now in the middle of the pack.  And a lot of people say well, that's because we have more diverse populations--no, they factor in all of that, okay.  I'm tired of having to explain like why we're in the middle of the pack.  How about we just come out number one and not have to explain anything anymore.

Paulson: I want to followup on this question of math and science education, and the implication for jobs because of course, jobs is the mantra for every national politician these days, that we need more jobs.  Are you saying that's the ticket?  To create more jobs in this country is this basic knowledge in technology and science literacy?

Friedman: No, I think it's one ticket for one part of the population.  And it's great, you wish everyone could be like you know, the late great Steve Jobs, but they can't.  But everyone can do something.  Everyone's got some extra in them.  You know, how many of us, I'm 58, you know.  I've been through mother in a nursing home.  How many of us would pay extra for that one nursing home employee who engaged our elderly parent and didn't just feed them and do their job, but actually brought a smile on their face every day?  And so what we argue in the book is everyone's gotta think about their extra, and a very helpful way to do it is to think of yourself today.  Think of the way you approach your job in two ways -- one the way a new immigrant would approach their job, and the other the way an artisan would approach their job.  What do I mean?  So what does the new immigrant say to a country?  He or she says you know what, there's no legacy place waiting for me here at the University of Wisconsin, okay, or at Harvard.  I better earn whatever I am gonna eat and that means I better understand what's going on in this society, where the opportunities are, and outwork, all right, everybody else.  That's how the new immigrant leans into the world.  Well, we are all new immigrants today into the hyper connected world.  That's number one.  And number two, think like an artisan.  Here's an idea we got from Lawrence Katz up at Harvard.  You know, Larry says that basically everyone's gotta be an artisan today.  Who is the artisan?  The artisan is that person in the Middle Ages before mass manufacturing who made every item individually -- every purse, every wallet, every saddle, every pair of shoes, every utensil, every tool they made individually.  They brought their special passion to it and the best artisans were so proud of their work they what?  They carved their initials into it.  Well, I say do your job every day as if you would want to carve your initials into it at the end of the day because every employer now is saying to himself I only want to hire someone if I have to because everyone today has to be a unique value creator, because if they're not, you know, I'm not going to be able to stay in business.  And that is a new work challenge.  I'm an old fuddy-duddy, I'm 58.  I had the pleasure of finding a job when I graduated from college.  I am very aware that my kids will increasingly have to invent a job.  We got to find jobs, they'll have to invent jobs.

Paulson: Now, there's another way to look at some of these issue.  Maybe it's time for the United States to give up its role as the lone super power that the global policeman, and I'm guess I'm wondering if America would be better off if we just tried to get its own house in order.  For instance, imagine if we weren't paying for these very expensive wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Should our countries pull back?

Friedman: Well, you know, it's a good question and in general I would say no.  Think about this, when Britain went into decline you know, in the middle of the 20th century, America was right there to pick up the kind of leadership role.  What is that leadership role, I mean today?  It's really being the balancer, the stabilizer of the global system.  We make all kinds of mistakes and we are hardly perfect, but I think we do a lot more good than bad in the world, okay, whether it's the you know, the aids programs we fund in Africa or whether it's the ceilings we keep open in the Asia Pacific that benefit us and benefit the world.  And so we really believe that America is the tent pole that holds up the world and you see that tent pole buckle or fray, our kids won't just grow up in a different America, they'll grow up in a different world because there is no benign super power to pick up the world from us.  Would you like a world ruled by China?  I wouldn't.  Would you like a world ordered by Putin, czar president for life, forever?  I wouldn't.  So this is a core argument of the book.  It's why we are, feel so important that America get its groove back because it won't just be a different America, it'll be a different world.

Fleming: Thomas Friedman is the foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times.  He's the author of That Used to Be Us.  Steve Paulson spoke with him.


Comments for this interview

That Used to Be Us: How the US Fell Behind in the World It Inven (I-Kuan Lin, 10/23/2011 - 3:49pm)

Mr. Friedman's talk kept me from falling asleep well. I am an immigrant from Taiwan back in the 1960s. I have the civil rights movement, witnessed the anti-war movement, the women movement, the Water-gate hearings, the Reagan administration, the Persian Gulf war, 911, the Iraq war, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, and the financial meltdown of 2008. I think the U. S. is failing in its global position now because we, the people, have lost our reign over the parties. How did that happen? Mr. Friedman's prescription for how we can come back is misheaded. We don't need to be the world's police; instead, we should use the U. N. and other global organizations well. Our public education, indeed, needs strengthening by weeding out unqualified teachers and rewarding good teachers by giving them more influence opportunities ( leadership ), more than aiming at higher test scores. Our infrastructure is dilapidating; we should prioritize our needs according to public safety. What makes this country great is our faith in certain values and collective energy, not permanent material wealth. Material fortunes go up and down, but as long as we live within our means and keep our faith, we will be alright. (I say this even more for China; Mr. Friedman seems to think that they are overtaking us unless we remain the "world power".)

Thomas Friedman remarks (Paul McCarthy, 10/23/2011 - 3:37pm)

Friedman answered Paulson's question about whether the US would be better off by not squandering our money through wars in Iraq and Afghanistan indirectly, in fact he did not answer it at all. Instead he asked a rhetorical question ("who would you rather have in charge of the world: the US or China?") and offered neither evidence nor a persuasive argument for why it is better for either the US or the world for the US to play global policeman (that's his position...feh). That concluded the broadcast segment, so we could not hear Paulson press him on the issue as I hope and imagine he would have.