Best-selling author and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman said the first decade of the 21st century was the worst in American history on Thursday at the Aspen Ideas Festival.
That’s the premise of his forthcoming book, “That Used to be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented, and How We Can Come Back.”
With his trademark brand of quotable trend analysis and pop prognostication, Friedman outlined his arguments in the book and gave a preview of it to the Ideas Fest crowd during a conversation with Aspen Institute president Walter Isaacson.
He’s co-written the book, scheduled for publication in September, with Johns Hopkins University Professor Michael Mandelbaum.
“Our point is that the biggest national security threat right now is in the health, vitality and vigor of America,” Friedman said. “The American dream is now in play.”
The title of the book came from a speech by President Barack Obama, following the Democratic Party’s losses in last year’s mid-term elections. The president noted that China was surpassing the U.S. by developing the world’s fastest super computer and the world’s most extensive system of light rail trains, saying, “That used to be us.”
Friedman contrasted China’s ascendancy and America’s decline in an anecdote about two escalators in a Maryland metro station. He noted that the escalator system in the train station of his hometown of Bethesda had been under construction for six months with little progress, while in roughly the same period the Chinese had built an entire cutting-edge conference hall where he went to give a speech.
“We’re sort of getting used to it,” Friedman said of America’s slacking vigor, “and that’s the problem. ... We’re in the worst decline of all and that’s a slow decline.”
He argued that America’s loss of exceptionalism has resulted from an inability to adapt to the tech revolution, to globalization, to debt and deficit issues, and to climate change initiatives.
Friedman traced the origin of these societal problems to the end of the Cold War, 20 years ago.
“We viewed the end of the Cold War as a great victory instead of a great challenge,” he said. “I would argue [it’s] the greatest competitive challenge this country has ever faced. ... We just created two billion people just like us, all wanting the American dream.”
The war on terror, he argued, led the country to lag yet farther behind.
“We decided to spend the whole second decade after the end of the Cold War chasing basically the losers of globalization, al-Qaeda, rather than chasing the winners,” he said.
To illustrate the rapid rate of change in the technological world, Friedman noted that his 2005 best-seller, “The World is Flat,” is already quite dated.
“If you open that book today and look in the index, Facebook is not in it,” he said. “When I wrote ‘The World is Flat,’ Facebook didn’t exist, Twitter was a sound, 4G was a parking space, applications were what you sent to college, and Skype, for most people, was a typo. That’s what’s happened since I wrote that book and I thought it was on the cutting edge.”
As in many conversations at this year’s Ideas Fest, Isaacson and Friedman also touched on the 2012 presidential election.
Friedman argued strongly for a third party to emerge and strike a sane centrist balance between the increasingly polarized views of Republicans and Democrats.
“Technology has flattened every hierarchy in the world,” he said, “except for the two-party system and that will fall too.”
He said he would vote for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg if he ran for president, and also endorsed a ticket of former Sen. Alan Simpson and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the co-chairmen of Obama’s commission on fiscal responsibility and reform.
“I think it would really shake up the system. And the system needs a shaking up,” he said.
Simpson, in a twist of Ideas Fest serendipity, also happened to be in the audience at Friedman’s presentation.