The full title of this session with Thomas Friedman (and his latest book) is “That Used To Be Us: How America Lost Its Way in the World It Invented and How We Come Back.” The leading phrase is taken from a speech by President Obama concerning economic progress in China (better rail system and the fastest supercomputer). The interview was conducted by Walter Isaacson of president and CEO of The Aspen Institute.
Friedman began by talking about the American Dream, and how “its future is now in play.” Americans can no longer assume that each generation will be better off than the one before, while our deteriorating infrastructure suggests things may actually get worse. He sees the possibility of a slow decline, and worries that Americans are getting used to second best.
Friedman then declared that the health of America is important to the stability of the world, in that it provides global governance. (“We are the tent pole that holds up the world.”) To my mind, this veers dangerously close to American Exceptionalism, although Friedman explicitly said later in the talk: “I am not an exceptionalist or a declinist, I am a frustrated optimist.” (As a British citizen of a certain age, I am familiar with exceptionalism and the blinkered world view that goes with it.)
No one can deny that America has made exceptional contributions on a global scale, but one wonders if the world would come to an end if the US became the second or third best economy.
Friedman stated that the US now faces four significant challenges: