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Opinion: Jetsons vs. Flintstones, a visit with Thomas Friedman

by Susan Freudenheim

October 26, 2011 | 7:11 pm

Last weekend, I was talking to a friend in New York who is a top IT manager for an advertising firm. My friend is in the process of remaking the Web presence for a hair-products conglomerate, and his staff is divided among the firm’s offices in New York, Argentina, Singapore and London. On one level, he told me, it’s not a problem: The work can be shared via the Internet, and group conversations can take place on Skype. But here’s the catch: In order to manage people on three other continents, my friend is working at 2 a.m., 5 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. — around the clock. This isn’t “Mad Men,” with time for two-martini lunches, it’s insanity.

The reason is, there aren’t enough skilled people available in the United States to do the high-tech jobs he needs done. Which is a good part of what Thomas L. Friedman, The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and best-selling author, came to Los Angeles to talk about last week. Friedman’s blockbuster tome, “The World Is Flat,” which first appeared in 2005, opened our eyes to the growing interconnectedness of the world my friend is experiencing.

Audio clip from Thomas Friedman’s
“That Used to Be Us”

Duration: 5:04

Friedman’s just-issued book, “That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28), which he co-authored with foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum, addresses my friend’s problem: America is falling behind, not just because places like China can make things cheaper, but also because we need a bigger highly trained labor force to do 21st century work.

After taping “Real Time With Bill Maher,” Friedman came to a Shabbat dinner for the newly formed California council of Brandeis University at the Westside home of Corie and Michael Koss. There, he spoke to the group in an interview conducted by Brandeis’ new president, Fred Lawrence. Queried by Lawrence on how America is doing, Friedman, a Brandeis graduate and trustee, painted a picture that is mighty dreary, despite his professed optimism.

His new book’s thesis is that America’s history of success — what has enabled the American Dream — is built on five essential pillars: superior public education, high-level infrastructure, government support for research and development, an open immigration policy, and regulation and oversight of our private sector. And the foundation for all that has been a long-valued partnership of the private and public spheres. But now, Friedman said, that partnership is disintegrating, and we’re falling behind on every one of those pillars.

“In education, we’re somewhere between Slovenia and Argentina,” he said — nowhere near Singapore or China. As for our infrastructure, Friedman laughed ruefully as he described leaving Hong Kong International Airport and arriving at LAX: “It was like flying from ‘The Jetsons’ to ‘The Flintstones.’ ”

In our immigration debate, we’re talking about building fences, when we should be worrying about how to attract new, ambitious immigrants, like our own ancestors who came to build new lives and along the way added to America’s overall prosperity. He also mentioned persistent denials of climate change, which are holding back our government’s intervention in a very risky manner, as well as an unwillingness from both political parties to fully regulate our banking industry.

For America to turn around, Friedman said, our national conversation has to change. And this could happen, he believes, if a third-party candidate would enter the current presidential race, to make both the Republican candidates and President Obama address the urgency of those five declining pillars. His model: Ross Perot, who with those crazy charts back in the early 1990s, made clear to enough voters, and thereby Bill Clinton, that this country was over-borrowing and over-spending. Clinton, during his presidency, in part to recapture those Perot voters, erased this nation’s deficit. But doing that required both the sacrifice of tax hikes and an investment in essential needs, and that’s what Friedman wants to see happen again.

He would like someone like Perot to enter the race, someone who doesn’t expect to win but who wants to participate. He cited New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as his best, and only, possibility. But here’s the glitch: Bloomberg’s not running. And nobody else on the horizon has the private resources and savvy to take on the established political parties.

There’s another glitch in this third-party solution, too. Remember Ralph Nader and the votes he captured in Florida? Not all third-party candidates are from the center. Sometimes they come out of left — or possibly right — field. And instead of changing the conversation, they drain essential votes from better candidates.

Yet, despite all his gloomy diagnoses, Friedman still describes himself as an optimist, a man from Minnesota who grew up watching politicians who crossed aisles to work together and make this country great. In his travels throughout this country, Friedman said he hears daily from people about their new inventions and start-ups. He’s especially excited by the continuing tech revolution in Silicon Valley — and that’s in America, remember — that will bring life to new visions the rest of us can’t begin to imagine.

But to actually realize those visions here, it’s true what he says: We need to recreate an America that can provide the manpower and support for such innovation and bring more opportunities back to our land. We need better public schools, good airports, smooth roads — and we need banks that work for us. We also need a population with above-average ambition who share loyalty to their country’s welfare. So we can hire our own skilled laborers in our own cities and towns, not just in Asia, Latin America or Europe. So my New York IT friend can, just maybe, get some sleep.

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