Bringing America Back
I experienced something unsettling a few weeks ago that still churns in my mind. It occurred as the Thunderbird School of Global Management held a homecoming dinner in the beautiful outdoor evening air that defines the Phoenix area this time of year. The African drumming and dancing in the background was as wonderful as the Ethiopian and Indian food served by student club members.
Thunderbird is recognized consistently as the best international business management school in the U.S. and one of the best in the world. Its students come from around the world and its alumni spread similarly, like seeds in the wind… which defined the impact of what happened.
At a table of world-travelers, the conversation evolved from interesting travel tales to the current economic woes and hostile political conditions here at home (eg: reloading guns and almost absolute gridlock in Washington). I brought up the question as to whether the U.S. was in a decline as the dominant economic and political force in the world. It was half intended to get feedback and half intended to fire people up to get our act together. But instead of debate or angry response, the response was… acceptance. Matter of fact resignation, with a hint of sorrow, … almost like I was reporting on an old news story that had already passed through the dinner table conversations around the world.
TBirds come from, are exposed to, and are reinforced through their education to be open-minded and to adapt to new, many times unusual, and sometimes unsettling conditions. The alumni at the table seemed to have each already come to their own conclusion from what they had seen at home and abroad that our star as a nation had peaked. One conveyed that on a recent trip to China, her Chinese host demanded two nights in a row to pick up the tab for dinner, stating “You don’t have any money. We have all your money.” Years earlier, she had been advised by a Brit that she should enjoy America’s time in the sun while it lasted. If America really is soon to be dethroned as the world leader, it will have been a brief run compared to the era of British domination and this Brit understood what it was like to be living in a former world leader whose glory days were fond memories.
So what is the problem?! I am not ready to throw in the towel! My experience abroad is peppered with memories of foreigners enamored with America as sort of a young, unruly star athlete; exhibiting extreme creativity and an ability to break both molds and the choking stagnation in other societies structured around class and birthright, all at the same time being loud, wasteful and misbehaved. Are we now drowning in our own self-indulgence? Has the keg party led to alcohol poisoning?
My belief is that our largest problem is that the critical mass of our society at some point made a generational shift away from leading lives centered around being productive members of society to leading lives dominated by the pursuit of money… immediate money. The majority motivation is now weighted on instant gratification without contemplation of the medium and long term consequences of our actions. We have been stuck in adolescent development: perceiving ourselves invincible and thinking of ourselves rather than others or even, heaven forbid, our connection to a larger society and natural ecosystem. With the Great Recession, we have just experienced our first major car accident since getting our license, and it has temporarily (or, hopefully, permanently) jarred our perception of invincibility.
I can still hear my mother’s voice when she thought her kids were being lazy: “Why don’t you make yourself useful?” And my father lecturing me for two hours in my bedroom on how difficult it is to know who is in the wrong when one or both parties are not telling the truth and that, therefore, punishment goes to all. It sure rings familiar in thinking about a financial industry in which “liar loans” was an accepted industry term.
How can we keep our nation from sliding into the land of has-been world powers? Our society is built on complex webs of local, regional, national and international economic, political, environmental and social systems, many of which need repair. Fundamentally, however, everything comes down to our individual actions and interactions. So, even the changes in macro structures come from humans interacting with each other. As an individual, I cannot change the entire system. But the system cannot change if we, as individuals, don’t change.
I would suggest changing what we can in our individual relationships and through what we do control with both our wallet (through our daily purchasing decisions) and our jobs. I suggest the following considerations whenever making a decision about a course of action at home, with friends, at the store, and in our work:
1) Will my grandchildren be proud of what I am about to do?
2) Would my parents and ancestors approve?
3) Is the world going to be a better place with this action?
4) Does this action benefit me by causing harm or perpetuating harm to someone else or the planet?
The answers are not always clear cut but many times, we simply don’t even take the time to get information, or we simply ignore it. How many more people in Juarez, Mexico need to die by gun massacre because someone in the U.S. wants to party with pot or cocaine? Or something seemingly much more benign: the $0.99 kids plastic jewelry pack that we grab as a party favor for our kid’s birthday party attendees. Does it contain lead? Was child labor or slave labor involved in making it? How much pollution was emitted by the dirty diesel ship that carried it halfway across the planet? Who’s ending up with my money and what are they going to do with it? Is this going to end up in a landfill tomorrow, like its packaging? Is the shopping bag going to end up in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?
Many more decisions are clearer and more obvious and simply involve listening to our own conscience and also voting responsibly with our wallets. We need quite a few system fixes but we can do a lot to bring back our country’s strength and leadership by respecting each other, being honest with each other and “making ourselves useful”.