Tom Friedman: That Used To Be Us
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:
(1) an IT revolution, (2) globalization, (3) entitlements and deficit spending, and (4) energy and climate change. None of these is peculiar to the US, and American creativity still leads in IT, but no matter. The biggest challenge seems to be Washington’s inability to focus on real problems and agree upon sensible solutions.
According to Friedman, America’s past success was rooted in a public/private partnership with sensible policies around education, immigration, infrastructure, risk/capital management, and scientific research. Each of these five pillars now seems to be crumbling. Further, the US has “declared war on math and physics” by turning a blind eye to financial legerdemain and climate change. Markets and Mother Nature will correct us, if we don’t correct ourselves, and it won’t be pretty.
This was a great interview that got better as it went on, in my opinion. The tail end of the talk touched on education and some research that Friedman had conducted on what employers want. Across a spectrum of high/low wage, white/blue collar firms, one common theme was critical thinking and problem solving skills. Companies don’t just want people who can do their jobs; they want people who can reinvent their jobs, or indeed any job they are given.
Friedman’s book will be published in eight weeks. When asked why he didn’t self-publish, he cited the value of the editorial process. He also admitted that he does not use social media: “I like my news tartare.” He certainly continues to be on the front lines of social and economic thought.
Watch the full session here.
Peter Jackson is chief scientist and vice president of Thomson Reuters, where he’s been since 1995. He has built a group of 40 research staff with expertise in the areas of document search, text and data mining, and machine learning. Jackson is also responsible for university collaboration with respect to joint research projects. His most recent book, Natural Language Processing for Online Applications, came out in a second edition in 2007. From 1992 to 1995, Jackson taught post-graduate classes in artificial intelligence and parallel computing at Clarkson University in New York and was a visiting professor at Singapore Polytechnic. In 1988, he moved to the US and became a principal scientist at McDonnell Douglas Research Laboratories. Before coming to the US, he taught in the Department of Artificial Intelligence at Edinburgh University from 1983 to 1988 and wrote the textbook Introduction to Expert Systems.