Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote a book with Michael Mandelbaum called, heartbreakingly, That Used to Be Us.

“I will be honest with you,” he stated. “It is our view that the American dream is now in peril.” And he made his case in a recent speech: “America is the tent pole that holds up the world. If that tent pole buckles or fractures, your kids won’t just grow up in a different America — they will grow up in a very different world.”

The subtitle of the book adds a note of hope: “How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.”

Friedman frames his argument around the Homeland Security motto, “If you see something, say something.” His main message is that we need to apply that exhortation to the country as a whole. We need to call out the dangerous actions we see everywhere, especially in the area of education, which is so vital to our democracy and our economy. If we see something wrong, we have to say so. It’s almost as though our country has suddenly become paralyzed. Political gridlock, always a worrisome occurrence, has risen to a point where it has stopped us dead in our tracks.

Friedman cites China as one example of this reality. In 2005, he said, getting to Tianjin, China, involved a 3½-hour car ride from Beijing to a polluted, crowded Chinese version of Detroit. Five years later in 2010, when Friedman attended a conference in Tianjin, he boarded a world-class, high-speed Chinese bullet train that covered 72 miles in 29 minutes. The convention center was a massive, beautifully appointed structure with a total floor area of 230,000 square meters. Construction of this began Sept. 15, 2009, and was completed in May 2010. Eight months. Right now, that couldn’t happen in the United States.

When Friedman wrote his previous book in 2004, Facebook didn’t exist.

Twitter was a sound, the cloud was in the sky, and 4G was a parking place,” he said. “Applications were what you sent to college. LinkedIn was a prison and Skype, for most people, was a typo.”

The world has changed, and the labor market has changed with it.

Friedman quoted John Jazwiec, who has headed a variety of technology companies and startups, and who also teaches MBA courses. Jazwiec blogged, “I’m in the business of killing jobs. … All of the companies I’ve been CEO of through best-in-practice services and software, eliminate jobs … by automation, outsourcing and efficiencies of process. I have eliminated over 100,000 jobs in the worldwide economy from the software and services my companies sell. I am a serial job killer.”

What is a sustainable job? “As a job killer — that’s me — a sustainable job is a job I can’t kill, and I can’t kill creative people,” Jazwiec wrote. “There is no productivity solution or outsourcing that I can sell to eliminate a creative person. I can’t kill unique value creators.”

The people who do nonroutine work — journalists, dentists, doctors, physicists, computer scientists — for them the world works better than ever, Friedman said. And that’s where education comes in.

“What it means is that we have two educational challenges today. We need more education and we need better education,” he said. Average is over. In a world where so many machines and available foreign workers can now do average or better, the curve everyone is being graded on is moving upward, he said. Average work will not return average wages anymore.

Friedman says to talk about education you must ask employers what they’re looking for. He and his co-writer interviewed employers in four categories: high-end white-collar jobs, low-end white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs and green-collar jobs — the Army. All four said the same thing: They are looking for people who have critical reasoning and technical skills, who can adapt, invent and reinvent the job they are doing. One CEO told them, “We want every worker, starting with the line worker, to be present, to be paying attention, because that worker may have an insight that can drive enormous productivity or new products.”

That means, Friedman said, that everyone has to find his own unique value proposition. To become a creative lawyer, a creative columnist, a creative factory worker, a creative service worker, everyone is going to have to justify his or her value added. For some it will be inventing a new product or service or reinventing an old one. For others it will be reinventing themselves to do a routine task in a new or better way.

Mark Rosenberg, president of Florida International University, said it is imperative that we become much better at educating students not just to take good jobs, but to create good jobs.

Friedman has strong feelings about the current debates that are raging in Congress. “We have to cut, we have to raise revenue and we have to invest,” he said. “But let’s start the conversation with what world we’re in, not who can throw the biggest number on the table, and be the most stubborn about saving something or cutting something.

“It’s an idiotic debate we are having, and it is unworthy of our country right now and the responsibility we have to the future. For all our ailments as a country and as a society, we are still the most open in the world. Individuals with a spark of an idea, the gumption to protest or the passion to succeed can still get up and walk out the door and chase a rainbow, lead a crusade, start a school or open a business.”

He’s absolutely right about that. We need to support what is great about our country, including its educational backbone. We need to draw lines in the sand and protect what we cherish.

If you see something, say something.

— Bill Cirone is Santa Barbara County’s superintendent of schools.