Tag Archives: america

Kids Say Hey: The Casualization of America

Here is something interesting I’ve noticed over the last year or so. The generations younger than mine – let’s say everyone under the age of 25 or so – use the word “hey” the same way my generation used “hello” and “dear” and “to whom it may concern.” When I get a cold email from a recent college grad who wants an informational interview, she starts it “Hey Thoughtbasket.” When I was in her shoes, I started such letters “Dear Thoughtbasket.” When my nephew sends me an email, he uses ‘hey” instead of “hi” or “hello” or just “Thoughtbasket.” When there are notes in the common areas of my building, they begin with “hey fellow tenants.”

I don’t love “hey” as a word; it’s too vague for me; I prefer more precision in my language. However, the real point of this post is to use “hey” as an example of the casualization of our society. Rather than a formal structure, in which the younger generation uses respectful language toward their elders, our society has eased into a more casual stance, in which we’re all pals who can say “hey” and then high-five each other. I’m not saying this is a bad thing….I am generally in favor of breaking down barriers, whether they are class-based or age-based. But it does seem kind of coarse. Like when there was that controversy a few years ago because a women’s athletic team wore flip-flops to the White House. There are situations where a little respect can go a long way, and respect is not conveyed by the word “hey.”

And of course, regular Thoughtbasket readers know how I feel about flip-flops; they were the topic of my first blog posting ever.

Go casual! Flip flops at the White House.

Go casual! Flip-flops at the White House.


Multinational Corporations and the American Commons

Harvard Business School recently launched what it’s calling the US Competitiveness Project, which is “a research-led effort to understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States.” To publicize this effort, Harvard Magazine just published a series of interviews with some of the professors involved. I don’t normally like reading interviews, because they tend to have a ridiculously high length to content ratio, but these were quite dense in content, and I recommend the whole set of interviews as important reading for anyone interested in the state of US business or multinational corporations operate.

The interviews ran to almost 20 magazine pages, so I won’t even try to summarize them. But I will note a recurring theme, which was about American companies investing in America. The professors called this America’s “business commons,” which they defined as “a skilled workforce, an educated populace, vibrant local suppliers, basic rule of law, and so on.” They pointed out that “historically, American businesses invested in these resources deeply, and that helped to build many of America’s strengths.”

Copyright 2012 Thoughtbasket

Interestingly, the professors went back and forth between reasons to support America’s business commons, from what I call “hard” reasons (those that drive profitability) to “soft” reasons (patriotic calls to support America).

Hard reasons included:

  • Outsourcing calculations often overestimate cost savings
  • Local manufacturing can drive product and process improvements
  • For most multinationals, the US still makes up the majority of their business

Soft reasons were more vague, with a desire of “many in the business community to roll up their sleeves and do things in their communities” being a typical statement. Michael Porter (a giant in the strategy and competition fields) and Jan Rivkin define US competitiveness as including “raising the living standards of the average American.”

This all raises an interesting dilemma. If the role of corporate executives is to maximize returns to shareholders (this is how most US managers operate, although there is in fact disagreement regarding shareholder v. stakeholder approaches: read relevant articles here, here, here and here) then they shouldn’t care whether they build America’s business commons or China’s business commons or any other business commons, except to the extent that any given commons supports their business. In other words, if Jeff Immelt at GE thinks that investing in China’s educational system will generate higher returns than investing in America’s, that is what he should do.

However, I suspect that most executives at big US companies would feel uncomfortable with that. Since most of them were born in the US, raised in the US, and live in the US, there is probably some part of them that feels a loyalty to the US, that wants to build America’s commons even if building China’s commons has a higher ROI. How do these CEOs reconcile their duties to shareholders with their inherent patriotism? I don’t know. The professors in the US Competitiveness Project would suggest that the disconnect is not as great as many think; that building the US commons DOES have a high ROI. But based on my reading, it sounds like they would also give executives permission to foreground their patriotism over pure shareholder analysis, at least on borderline cases.

In addition to Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, other professors interviewed included Willy Shih, Rossbeth Kanter and Thomas Kochan (who actually teaches at MIT, not Harvard).

Time for America to Dig In

I have mostly given up on Thomas Friedman at the NY Times, since he generally seems hopelessly out of touch.  But he recently published a column talking about how America’s fiscal difficulties will force us to retrench in our foreign policy. We won’t be able to afford to be the world’s policeman going forward.  Unless, of course, we bear down and make the tough decisions necessary to get our economy growing again. You know, entitlement reform, tax reform, etc. All the stuff our politicians seem unable to do. So let’s encourage them to start making the hard decisions that will enable America to keep kicking ass.

Slate Magazine vs. Sarah Palin

I had pretty much forgotten about Sarah Palin, or started to ignore the news items about her, and I had assumed that maybe she was holed up learning about policy or facts. But then Slate runs an article trying to analyze how she might come up with some of the wacky stuff  she says.  I read a quote like the one below, and it’s hard to see the issue as one of policy differences:

“Oil and coal? Of course, it’s a fungible commodity and they don’t flag, you know, the molecules, where it’s going and where it’s not. … So, I believe that what Congress is going to do, also, is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it’s Americans that get stuck to holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here.”

I’m sorry, but regardless of where you are on the political spectrum, that makes no sense. Take Newt Gingrich: he is deeply conservative and I deeply disagree with him, but that guy could talk for a week straight and he would never say anything as idiotic as the Palin quote above. I want to be generous and assume that Palin isn’t stupid; that she just uses folksy idioms and is slightly misinformed. But I read what she says, I hear about the “refudiates”  and that generosity is hard to find. Can someone help me solve this conundrum?

Soccer Is Too Random for America

Like many Americans, I have been watching a lot of soccer during the World Cup. Also like many Americans, I won’t watch soccer again until the next World Cup in four years. Despite the popularity of youth soccer across the US, the game has just never really caught on as a spectator sport here.

A number of theories exists as to why soccer isn’t more popular in America — no timeouts for commercial breaks, not enough scoring, ridiculous faking of injuries, generally boring*, too European, etc. — all of which are probably true (I am drinking my own explanation Kool-Aid here). And there are, I’m sure, plenty of other good reasons, including my personal uber-theory of sports, which I will save for a later post, after I have trademarked its awesome parts.

But watching this World Cup I came up with a new idea. Relative to the big American sports, soccer is way more random; players don’t have as much control as they do in our sports. The players thus lack agency, which I use here in the philosophical sense: “human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices and to impose those choices on the world.” Americans like sports with heroes, and heroes require agency. All the great American sports narratives are abut players who took control (Babe Ruth calling his homer, Michael Jordan in the clutch) of their game. Randomness gets in the way of this control.

When I say that soccer players are not in control, I don’t mean this as a criticism. The guys in the World Cup are the best at what they do. But using your feet to move a ball is simply less precise than using your hands, as you do in football, basketball and baseball. Shots and passes regularly go awry in soccer; this is the randomness of which I speak.

For example, in Sunday’s game between England and Germany, at around 59 minutes a German player was breaking away. Although English defenders were closing in fast, the German had an open shot at the goal. He took the shot from not far outside the penalty area (ie. from 54 feet…pretty close) and yet he missed the goal by three feet. Why? Because kicking is not hugely accurate. Compare that to an NFL quarterback, who, even with giant players rushing in to clobber him, will rarely miss a 19 yard pass by three feet. Why? Because throwing is accurate. Note: I am watching the Uruguay vs. Netherlands game as I post this, and the same thing just happened.

True soccer fans probably like this randomness. And over time, the randomness will be evened out: even if players only make a fraction of their shots, the better team will likely take more shots, and thus score more by the end of the game. But Americans are far more Newtonian. We want action, then result. We prefer a narrative of consistent forward progress, not random fits and starts. We want our action heroes not to follow the flow of Brownian motion but to seize the day and execute, whether they are Peyton Manning or John McLane.

* I tried to find the brilliant bit from the Simpsons where the ball just gets kicked back and forth for about two minutes, fully encapsulating the American view of soccer, but the internet failed me.

THIS JUST IN: Check out this set of Get Fuzzy comics for a classic take on the American view of soccer as boring.

Is Ireland Tougher Than America?

The Wall Street Journal wrote an article yesterday about the austerity measures Ireland has imposed to deal with its burgeoning deficit in the wake of its massive housing bust. Ireland’s current deficit is 12% of GDP, just behind Greece’s 12.7%, and not that far from our 10.6%. So what did Ireland do to address its budget deficit? Cut teacher and police salaries 15%. Reduced civil servant pay. Increased taxes across the board. People are having to skimp and make do as a consequence, but Ireland was also able to issue debt with a yield 150 basis points below Greece’s recent issuance. Ireland did what needed to be done.

Contrast that with the US, which also has yawning deficits, at the federal, state and local levels. Can you imagine what would happen here if a politician suggested cutting police pay by 15%? The police unions would raise a shitstorm of fear about rising crime rates. Politicians would elbow each other out of the way to say who was “toughest on crime.” Hell, the police would probably end up with a raise. I’m not saying that cutting police pay is a panacea; what I’m saying is that spending is going to have to go down, and taxes are going to have to go up. And instead of posturing about being tough on crime, we need to do what is really tough: admit that the party is over and it’s time to cut back. If Ireland can do it, so can we.

Is Twitter Destroying Civilization?

Vanity Fair recently ran an article about “tweethearts,” who are women leveraging their popularity on Twitter (and their looks) into more popularity, and potentially business opportunities. Apparently the article is somewhat controversial, since it makes the women appear to be twits more than twilebrities, but given how the women posed for the article photo (see below), I’m not sure they can complain.

But I want to focus on how these women emphasis the speed and brevity of Twitter. Read these two quotes:

  • “Facebook is just way too slow,” says Stefanie Michaels, a twilebrity from Brentwood, California. “I can’t deal with that kind of deep engagement.”
  • “Sometimes,” says Julia Roy, a 26-year-old New York social strategist turned twilebrity, scrunching her face, “when you’re Twittering all the time, you even start to think in 140 characters.”

Um, hello? Facebook is too deep? You think in 140 characters? That sounds like the brain of a Golden Retriever, not a businessperson. So using Twitter makes you shallow and unable to think complex thoughts? If constant Tweeting turns people into vapid soundbites, making us a nation of Tila Tequilas instead of George Wills, then we are on the road to ruin. There are serious challenges facing this country, and they won’t be solved through discussions made up of 140 character Tweets. We need more depth, not less.

Tweethearts, courtesy of Vanity Fair