Survival of the Fittest

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

—Evolutionary theory

Yes, the author names are larger than the book’s title, but that doesn’t mean they have to be completely discounted.
When Charles Darwin voyaged to the Galapagos Islands aboard the Beagle, he had little idea that it would lead to his 1845 conception of evolutionary theory. This theory has a renewed importance today according to Pulitzer-Prize win­ning columnist Thomas L. Friedman and Professor Michael Mandelbaum, authors of the September release, That Used to Be Us. Just as Darwin’s finches adapted to their environ­ment in order to survive, specifically in the size and shape of their beaks, Friedman and Mandelbaum call on Americans to adapt to a new environment that we created with the end of the Cold War.

While the end of the Cold War is celebrated today as one of America’s greatest triumphs of the 20th century, an epic battle between Soviet communism and American democracy in which we reigned victorious under the leadership of an auda­cious Reagan, it is important to consider it’s lasting impacts on our country and the world. With our destruction of communism as an alternative to democracy, America paved the way for two billion more people to live like us. That means two billion more people living as capitalists, trying to fulfill their own versions of the American dream. The two decades follow­ing the Cold War were productive, yet were also marked by complacency and overconfidence. Now, America is faced with four serious and time-sensitive issues – globalization, the revolution in information technology, the deficit, and excessive energy consumption – that will jeopardize our power in the world if they remain unaddressed and if we are unwilling to adapt. While we do not run the risk of extinction, the stakes are very high.

The first two of the four challenges we face as a nation today, globalization and the IT revolution, go hand in hand. The authors tell stories of a Nepali telecommunications firm offering 3G mobile network service at the summit of Mount Everest, and a revolution in Manama, Bahrain against the Sunni ruling family fueled by images on Google Earth, to illustrate the consequential marriage of globalization and technology. The world has become an ever-tightening web where col­laboration with a “virtual next-door neighbor” is easier than ever. Now a low-wage, low-skilled worker in America has to compete with a low-wage, high-skilled worker in China. With 4.6 billion cell phone users in the world and Facebook enabling individuals and companies to find anyone they want, “there is no job left not affected by globalization,” warns Michael Barber, former advisor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Outsourcing, which has already put many Americans out of work, requires that an employee think critically, tackle complex tasks, and work collaboratively in order to stay competitive. Creativity and innovation are also necessities. The only way America can produce the kinds of citizens that will be innovators is by improving the education system.

A 2009 PISA test that evaluated the knowledge of 15-year-olds in several dozen countries ranked Americans as “below average” in mathematics. Significantly improv­ing the quality of education American children are receiving should be a national priority, as “good education is also good economics – for everybody.” A May 2011 study by the De­troit Regional Workforce Fund paints a vivid picture of our educational shortfalls with this statistic: 47 percent of adult Detroit residents are functionally illiterate.

The authors specified that we should not educate our young people simply so that they can become better work­ers. Education should promote the formation of a holistic and virtuous human being. According to the book, students should, “put the interests of other ahead of self-interest,” bringing to mind the moral education I received at my Christian elementary school.

Along with globalization and the IT revolution, the authors detail two other major challenges our country faces: the deficit and energy consumption. According to Friedman and Mandelbaum, America has declared war on math and physics. While I agree that the deficit is out of control, and our consumption of oil is unsustainable, claiming page after page that we are “at war” is excessive.

What the authors do well in this section of the book is avoiding taking sides with either the Democrats or the Republicans. Instead they rightfully blame both parties for the current mess, the right for their stubbornness in rais­ing taxes in a distorted effort to mimic Ronald Reagan (he enacted five different tax increases while in office), and the left for granting pay and pension increases to public-employee unions. The authors emphasize the “need for seriousness” on Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle, if we want to give the next generation a shot at the American dream.

As for the section of the book regarding climate change and energy consumption, the authors are much more liberal with their attacks on Republicans and those who claim global warming is a hoax. While it is clear that our planet is warming, the authors’ explanation for why this is man’s fault is not convincing. Simply claiming, “there is no other scientifi­cally plausible explanation” does not do the job.

Friedman and Mandelbaum’s explanation of how our en­ergy consumption is draining the economy is more compelling. For example, the McKinsey consultancy found that if the Unit­ed States implemented energy-efficiency measures through­out the economy through 2020, it would yield gross energy savings of more than $1.2 tril­lion. With China building coal-fired power plants that use hot steam at the rate of one a month, and leading the world in nuclear power plant construction, it is time for America to catch on and catch up.

The reason for America’s failure to address the four challenges it faces is largely the paralysis of our political system. While important legislation in the past has been passed with solid majorities of each party – Social Security in 1935, the interstate highway system in 1954, authorized Medicare in 1965 — today almost every controversial vote is split between party lines. Democrats and Republicans in Congress look at each other as “hostile tribes” rather than trying to find common ground, while Americans in general skew closer to the center —meaning our elected officials do not actually represent us. The hyperpolarized media and special interest groups like the nasty AARP only worsen the broken system.

Friedman and Mandelbaum offer a detailed formula for success, “a hybrid of the best of both right and left,” that can foster economic growth and keep America in first place. The formula consists of five pillars: providing public education for more Americans, building and modernizing our infra­structure, keeping our doors open to immigration, increasing government support for basic research and development, and implementing necessary regulations on private economic activity. While this appears to be a broad amplification of the size and scope of our government, the authors argue that their formula is one in which, “the government creates the foundation for the risk-taking and innovation delivered by the private sector.”

The policy changes necessary to combat the challenges America faces are not going to be implemented overnight. Our slow moving political system is not functioning, so what is required is “shock therapy” to wake it up. This shock to the system could come from the market, Mother Nature, or a third-party presidential candidate, the authors explain. The last option is the most noteworthy and most relevant with the upcoming presidential election.

The authors fall off track with a four-page imitation of French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, but come back with a convincing argument for introducing a serious third party to our political system. They assure us that moderates need not be weak-willed people. With a formal platform and a promising leader, a third, moderate party could give our political system a proper restructuring.

Considerable examples are used to support the argument for a third party presidential candidate in 2012. It would be difficult to get a third party candidate on the ballot, and win­ning would be essentially impossible. This does not mean that a vote for a third party would be wasted, though.

While a third party would be unlikely to win the election, its presence could greatly affect the agenda of the winning party, Freidman and Mandelbaum articulate. If a third party received sizable support during the campaign run, then the Democrats and Republicans would mobilize to win over these supporters in their campaigns, adopting some of the stances of the third party. Examples include George Wallace in 1968, who won five Southern states, Ross Perot, who won 18.9 percent of the popular vote in 1992, and Theodore Roo­sevelt’s famous Bull Moose Party which largely influenced Wilson’s presidency.

Right now independents, the majority of Americans, do not have a strong leader, but if one were to emerge, he could give our political system the shock therapy it needs and steer our country in the right direction.

The authors bring the book to a close with sense of op­timism for America’s future. In the past, the United States has stayed strong during times of trouble, so why would now be any different? Friedman and Mandelbaum’s call for “continual reinvention” in our country is right on point, for if America does not continue to adapt, “survival of the fittest” will wipe us out.

–Elizabeth Reynolds