November 27, 2011
BOOK OF THE WEEK: WEEK FORTY-EIGHT, 2011
Thomas L. Friedman & Michael Mandebaum, That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011) ("When America failed to see what a profound challenge the end of the Cold War posed, this could be chalked up to ignorance or inattention. We simply didn't understand the world in which we were living. But when we decided to go to war on math and physics, we did so with eyes wide open. And when we did all these things at once, we made a radical departure from the norms of American history. That is why we call this initial decade of the twenty-first century the 'Terrible Twos'." "This term comes originally from child psychology. It refers to the developmental stage, beginning sometime after the child turns two, when the child becomes cranky, moody, and willful about almost everything. Pediatricians reassure anxious parents of such cantankerous toddlers that the behavior pattern is normal. They'll grow out of it. American behavior in the Terrible Twos, by contrast, was anything but normal, and we have not yet grown out of it." "As a country, we lost the plot. We forgot who we were, how we had become the richest and most powerful country in the history of the world, where we wanted to go and what we needed to do to get there. We failed to update our five-part formula for greatness--education, infrastructure, immigration, research and development, and appropriate regulation--just at a time when changes in the world, especially the expansion of globalization and the IT revolution, made adapting that formula to new circumstances as important as it had ever been, Then we fell into the pit of the Great Rescission, while fighting two wars in the Middle East and being the first generation of Americans not only to fail to raise taxes to pay for a war but actually to cut them." "In short, we were the generation of Americans that threw out its umbrella just before the storm. . . ." Id. at 217-218. Friedman and Mandlebaum do not really say anything new here, nothing that one could not come to know by simply opening one's eyes, ears, and paying attention. Unfortunately, we Americans are very adept at only seeing and hearing what we want to see and hear, and of simply not paying attention. As someone both involved in education (legal education) and an interest in corporate (or organizational) governance, I wish Friedman's and Mandelbaum's discussion of innovation. You would think that educational institutions would be hotbeds of innovation. Yet very few are--especially those that have become more corporate in their governance structure, moving governance away from the faculty to administrative staff and adopting more a more top down authoritative decision-making structure. This may fuel the decreasing innovation in even the area of education. From the top will come dumb innovation, stifling out smart innovation from below. "Given the rising innovative power and knowledge that can so easily more from the bottom up now--the power to invent, design, manufacture, improve, and sell products--and not just from the top down, Carlson sees the following mega-trend barrelling down the highway: 'More and more, innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb. Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart.' Therefore, 'the sweet spot for innovation today is moving down.' " "We call this Carlson's Law: Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb. Innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. This makes it all more important for every worker to be a creative creator or creative server and for every boss to understand that the boss's job is to take advantage of Carlson's Law--to find ways to inspire, enable, and unleash innovation from the bottom up, and then to edit, manage, and merge that innovation from the top down to produce goods, services, and concepts." Id. at 97-98. Anyway, I do not share whatever optimism Friedman and Mandelbaum have about America's future. The American Century is over, and the American people need to get over themselves and thinking of themselves and the country as being exceptional. We have read our own press releases and slef-advertisements so long that we have forgotten that we made it up and that it has little basis in reality.).