A few weeks ago, I seriously considered buying a Kindle. After much research on the web, I realized the task was futile. I live in Europe at the moment, so the Whispernet function would be useless here. As I am Canadian, with no US address nor credit card, purchasing the device and subsequent ebooks would be impossible. On a desperate whim, I called up a cousin of mine in Massachusetts, and asked if I could use her card and address to order. She told me there’s a backorder of those anyway, so why not wait till they get stock?
Then a few days ago, my boyfriend showed me an article from Fast Company that promised a newer and cooler Kindle that might be available worldwide this coming December. So I abandoned my previous wild goose chase and decided to wait.
Which brings me to this. The US economy is in disarray and worse news keep coming. But there is something to be said about the level of innovation that continuously springs out of the country regardless of the wider macro-economic picture. Think of some of the best inventions and brands around that provide real value to people everywhere. Most of them are proudly American creations. It might not be apparent to those of you living there, but for us outsiders, we always have to wait! The latest services, tech toys, ideas, sometimes they take weeks, if not months, to flow out to the rest of the world.
It’s easy to condemn excessive greed, risk-taking and the resulting hubris at a dire and troubling time like this. But we should not forget that without some degree of speculation, risk-taking, and ambition, we might not have, say, Amazon. As a side note, I’m not championing the speculation of paper and inflatable “assets” that so many have resorted to in this crisis, but tangible products or services that provide real value. Now, this is the very Amazon that some ridiculed for years on end, for not turning a profit. Ten years ago, amidst our general lament over the disappearance of printed pages, which analyst could have possibly said, yep, Amazon the online book retailer is gonna make reading sexy again?
Now back to the present. An article in the New York Times on the crisis of Japan from yesterday really resonated with me. On the current state of the Japanese economy, the author said:
But what most people don’t recognize is that our crisis is not political, but psychological. After our aggression — and subsequent defeat — in World War II, safety and predictability became society’s goals. Bureaucrats rose to control the details of everyday life. We became a nation with lifetime employment, a corporate system based on stable cross-holdings of shares, and a large middle-class population in which people are equal and alike.
This psychological burden afflict not only Japan, but much of post-war Europe. Americans, along with the UK and allies, will probably never fully appreciate the permanent psychological damage of hosting (and for some the losing end of) two devastating wars. The egalitarianism, the exchange of personal freedom for security, are traits ingrained in just as much of European politics and everyday lives as Japan.
The trick is to see through the tranquility of much of Japan and western Europe’s beauty and feel the shaky grounds they are built upon. The harmonious societies with little social tension (not true) achieved partially with homogeneity, orderliness (achieved through much invasion of personal freedom), and so on. Poke a little deeper, many problems arise with few solutions offered. Both regions suffered greatly through the war, thus social equalization became the guiding principle behind much economic policies: high taxation, plushy welfare, and an intervening government. Both regions are also highly averse to immigration, making economic sustainability difficult given the social welfare promises and a rapidly aging population. That is, unless the Japanese have made a breakthrough in their robotics technology. Have they? The limited land mass and already densely populated cities also make the idea of immigration and high(er) birth rates unpalatable. Combine the lack of competitiveness, stagnant and aging populations, cocooned and sheltered by an ever-more-fragile welfare system, to me, this is not sustainable. This is a fruit that has already begun to rot on the inside.
In comparison, the UK and the US are rough at the edges, but the idealogical foundations are solid (and yes, the economic ones need a lot of work at the moment). We cannot discount the psychological boost of winning wars, of standing on a slightly higher moral ground, long ago as it was. The lack of blemish alone makes the societies confident in their choices. And despite many flaws, the idea of America and her numerous brethrens still symbolize optimism, ambition, and the risk-taking frontier-mentality that is sorely lacking in certain other parts of the world.
Yes, I am aware of the various questionable and highly controversial military undertakings that the US/UK has jointed initiated and still participate in. This is a recent event, and will no doubt have historical significance in the near future. I am also aware of the broken social welfare and health care issues in the US. Clearly, moderation is the key and the market does not have all the answers. I am duly reminded of the many flaws of the American system, least of when I tune into CNN and relish the state of its media. But for now …
For what America has abundant of, and sometimes becomes victim of, is freedom. Free to eat unhealthy food, to buy ugly clothes, to run up credit card debts and sign on to mortgages one cannot afford. Those are not good, and some call for government regulation to curb perpetrators of fraud, to regulate the food industry, and so on. Those are good initiatives, no doubt, although the safety net is probably still way narrower than most other developed countries. To demonstrate that financial catastrophe can be a direct result in the “omission” of government intervention, Iceland serves a nice example that Europeans, even the northern variety, when “free” to act, are by no means immune to greed and stupidity.
That’s when I laugh whenever people call Americans naive. Americans cannot afford to be naive, because to be naive and stupid in America, you get taken to the cleaner! In a society where the government does not babysit its citizens, where every choice you make needs to be seriously scrutinized, to be successfully, one needs to sit up and pay attention. This is a society where higher education is not taken for granted (I’m comparing this to much of western Europe, which I will discuss in detail in a later post), retirement and pension is not taken for granted, health care is not taken for granted (I know this is contentious), and safe investment outcomes are not guaranteed (read Madoff). Thus, to make it, so to speak, takes a lot of hard work (get educated, find work), persistency and constant striving (to keep, move up, or maneuver around in one’s career), and a healthy level of skepticism and shrewdness (to safeguard your money, to safeguard your health).
I’m not writing this to inflate the American ego, God knows she doesn’t need help in that department. But I will say this. As much havoc as the dark side of an entrepreneurial and ambitious America may have unleashed onto the world, we have much more to be thankful for. That is a distinctly American phenomenon, a culture that amplifies all that make us human – even when the celebrated ambition and optimism give away to greed and fear. To the rest of the world, America offers a multi-faceted look of our most triumphant and basest selves. And for that, we should be grateful.
picture source: nightmaregk13