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Vol. LXIV, No. 14
July 6, 2012

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Columnist Friedman Offers Prescription for Pre-eminence

On the front page...

Thomas L. Friedman
New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman thinks the United States is in danger of growing weak on the international stage and offered a prescription for a return to pre-eminence at the J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture on May 24.

The Bethesda resident, doing what he called “a neighborhood concert” at NIH, has just published a book with his neighbor and fellow “foreign policy geek” Michael Mandelbaum that formed the substance of his talk: That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.


“We are two frustrated optimists” who have observed the U.S. “in the worst sort of decline, a slow decline,” said Friedman, whose opening vignette contrasted the lazy pace of Metro escalator repair at the Bethesda station with the construction of a fabulous convention center in urban China in only 8½ months.

As Americans stand blinking at evidence that many things in society are becoming “discombobulated,” other nations are doing a better job of educating their children, building infrastructure and becoming competitive in the world economy, he argued.

Friedman described a handful of “grand challenges” facing the world. “The most important trend is the merger of globalization and the IT revolution,” he said. Next come the problems of debt, deficit and entitlement programs, followed by energy and climate issues.

The pace at which different points on the globe respond to these challenges has caught the authors’ attention.

“The world went from being connected to being hyper-connected—that’s the biggest thing happening in the world today,” said Friedman, whose breakout book The World Is Flat (2005) has been rendered obsolete, he said, by the technological leaps of the past half-decade.

“The central socioeconomic fact of our time is that average is officially over,” he reported, as the curve of achievement has been set higher than at any time in history. In a world where you can get cell phone service at the summit of Everest and Indian engineers can build a stripped-down iPad for only $40, old standards of success no longer apply.

Dr. Joan Teno and her team examined factors associated with higher feeding tube insertion rates and found three main culprits: for-profit institutions, large hospitals and hospitals with more aggressive care.

At a post-lecture reception in the NIH Library, Friedman (r) chats with guests.

Photos: Ernie Branson

The effect in the workplace is that top earners—those typically doing specialized, non-routine work—must work harder than ever to innovate and distinguish themselves while those doing routine jobs—which used to form a substantial middle class in the U.S.—“are getting crushed.

“The demands of non-routine work are ratcheting up,” Friedman observed. “Everybody has to learn to bring something extra to the table, some value added.” Or, as he explained, when he was young he had to find a job; today’s youth have to invent a job. “You have to constantly justify the unique value that you add.”

In Flat World 2.0, the speed of change is blinding. In interviews for his book at various economic strata, he and Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University, discovered that the team leaders who create video games are evaluated not annually or bi-annually but quarterly, lest one or two bum projects drag a company’s annual earnings down. Companies now hire for a position called Chief Innovation Officer. Army captains in the remote provinces of Afghanistan now have more firepower and tactical intelligence at their disposal than did top military brass at the fall of Baghdad.

How to educate youth in times like this? Friedman says “the bottom must be raised to average,” largely through the three R’s: reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic, and “average must be raised to global heights,” through an emphasis on creativity, collaboration and communication.

He had four bits of advice for kids today: think like an immigrant, think like an artisan, think like founder Jeff Bezos and think like the waitress at his beloved Perkins Restaurant on the outskirts of Minneapolis.

An immigrant survives by surveying his new surroundings accurately for opportunity and outworking the competition. An artisan’s every creation is a one-off and often includes the maker’s initials, a sign of pride of authorship. Bezos, says Friedman, is the ultimate starter-upper. Adopting his habits of mind involves “always thinking in beta-mode, engineering, learning, re-engineering and re-learning for the rest of your life. If you ever think you’re finished, you’re truly finished.”

The waitress can’t control much in her world, but on Sunday morning at 9 when she brings Friedman and his best friend an extra helping of fruit, she has done what she can within her constraints to add quality to the experience. She has thought entrepreneurially.

In a Q&A session that followed his talk, Friedman added the value of another sub-lecture. “What about people who are below average?” a woman asked. “Everyone is above average at something,” Friedman said. “I think everyone has a skill, even in mundane tasks.” For example, he said he would gladly have paid more to the caregiver who took care of his ailing mother if that worker had the gift of making his mom smile.

Friedman accepted the Rall lectureship plaque from NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (l) and Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research.
Friedman accepted the Rall lectureship plaque from NIH director Dr. Francis Collins (l) and Dr. Michael Gottesman, NIH deputy director for intramural research.

How did America become the once-great nation we now see withering around us? Friedman said the U.S. adopted a largely unwritten industrial policy with 5 key features: educate up to and beyond our technical needs; commit to having the world’s best infrastructure; establish the world’s most open immigration policy; create the best rules and institutions; support the most government-funded research, to push out the boundaries of knowledge (here a nascent hooray could be felt throughout Masur Auditorium).

On each of those 5 points, Friedman delivered punch-line report cards: We are now 25th in the world in high school science and math test scores, we treat immigrants abominably, our infrastructure is crumbling (“Flying from China into LAX [Los Angeles] is like going from the Jetsons to the Flintstones,” he quipped.), our financial institutions are poorly regulated and the funding curve for government-sponsored research “looks like an EKG headed for a heart attack,” he said.

“Either we get back to [the halcyon days],” he warned, “or we may turn out to be the first generation that does not pass on a higher standard of living to our kids.”

Friedman rejected the notion that the world can be divided into developed vs. nondeveloped nations. Rather, there are countries that are “high imagination-enabling” and low imagination- enabling. He envisions an America that is the world’s launching pad for innovation.

His prescription for education reform was born, he said, within his own household; both his wife and daughter are teachers.

“The biggest educational philanthropists in the country today are public school teachers,” he declared. He said America ought to emulate Korea and Singapore, where teachers are recruited from the top third of their classes. He also suggested that public school teachers pay no federal income tax as a way of redressing their chronic underpayment.

He concluded with a call for collective action that forms the theme of his book; our problems are too broad for address by a single group. “We need better parents and neighbors and business leaders, better students and better politicians… We cannot outsource our problems. It’s a national challenge we all have to be enlisted in.”

The entire talk is archived at http://videocast.

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