Friday, January 29, 2010

Narrowing the Gap Between the Industrial Age and the Information Age

During the State of the Union address, President Obama noted what a slew of other previous Presidents have noted--that the United States of America needs to start exporting goods again. Few people can disagree with a statement like this, but what Obama, nor any of his predecessors have ever discovered is precisely what one would need to trade with other countries and in what form this new invention would take. If were wise enough to know, I'd probably be well on my way to being a very wealthy man, so I don't underestimate the challenge in front of us. However, though I believe that the capitalist system caters more to the selfish side of us more than the altruistic one, with selfishness does come innovation for the sake of maximum material gain, and in that regard, perhaps our basest instincts might come to everyone's aid, at least for a time.

Careworn phrases like "good old fashioned American ingenuity" have been utilized over and over again for at least a century, insinuating strongly that there was no problem beyond our grasp which would not eventually render a solution. And, honestly, I don't think that this mode of thought nor of rhetorical framing has ever really gone away altogether. But what I do think is that we don't often look for these signs so much for where they are so much as where we think they ought to be. Everyone can drive by and see the looming, titanic mass of buildings that house a paper processing plant or a textile mill, but the more subtle evidence of, say, a software design firm is much less visible to our senses and our psyches. Even though we may be headed towards a purely service-based economy, other developing nations are only now in the process of beginning their industrial phase of growth. Though our example might be the means by which they set their sights and chart their course, one must also crawl before one walks.

If we were all more or less on the same page the whole world round regarding economic parity, then exporting commodities would be a much easier task. Right now we do retain some residual elements of an earlier day, but often our products can't compete globally because they cost more to produce and thus they cost more to purchase. I honestly believe that we can be indebted to one of two stances in this instance, but not both. Either we pay people more in line of a fair wage, granting them adequate benefits--- recognizing that this will ensure that many countries can always buy what they need at a cheaper price from another source, or we slash costs to the bone and with them salaries and benefits. It goes without saying that I would never advocate the second position, but for the future going forward that model might be the only option that makes our products look attractive and compelling to another country or region's buyer, based on the current state of affairs as they exist today.

Speaking specifically about food, for example, I note that our own cultural attitudes are often to blame for much of the disparity. The more affluent among us can afford to be socially conscious by means of pocketbook and pay two times as much for products at a Whole Foods or a locally-grown produce Farmer's Market. The poorest, of course, simply aren't afforded this option. Americans might cut corners or scrimp to buy a wide screen television or to save up to take a vacation, but never towards food. Food is always supposed to be readily available, unquestionably cheap, and supremely varied. Organic food is a kind of innovation of sorts, since though its stated purpose is to use older methods of cultivation, it still combines elements of more modern technological strategies with the tried-and-true methods of a different time. Though it would never willfully adopt this label, organic food is itself a hybrid concept---one that seeks the middle ground between old and new.

These, of course, are previously established channels and instances. As for what product or products would find favor among the consumers of the globe, one assumes upon first thought that the most likely innovation would come in the form of some new technological breakthrough, one perhaps tied closely to the computer or the internet. However, like organic food, perhaps it would be best to seek for something with a foot in old ways and a foot in newer formulations. The most enterprising soul would be wise to recognize that products can be designed purely with the intention of always having a reliably steady stream of buyers and demand, or that they can be modified in the hopes of both making money and pulling in less developed countries and regions more economically in line with ours. Straddling the gap between the way it has always been and they way it needs to be is partially why we are at the impasse in which we find ourselves. While I do believe that the phrase "ethical capitalism" is a complete oxymoron, I do also recognize that if we are left with a system unable to be discarded for quite some time, it would be much easier if we limited as many disparities and points of difference between people as we could, since then it would be able for us to better address the remaining and still quite numerous problems left over.

We are still in the middle of a shift between an industrial economy and an information-based one, but at times our benchmarks and guideposts are indebted to a by-gone epoch. Nostalgia is strong and so is the resistance to the way things were always supposed to be. For instance, I grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, a city which was forced to completely reinvent itself after the collapse of its native steel industry in the 1970's. In so doing, it embraced banking and a world-class health care center based around a university, both of which are the two largest employers in the metro area. We might be wise to emulate their example, which is far from the only instance that a city teetered on a knife's edge between survival and disaster and managed to righted itself.

It is a short-sighted, short-term gain over long-term ultimate resolution means of thinking that got us into our current mess. American must learn that delayed gratification provides temporarily discomfort but eventual, eternal satisfaction. Greed drives humans to go for the quick cash-in and the gravy train, instead of a more modest, but still very satisfying profit. I don't ascribe to a theory of American exceptionalism because I am too aware of the times at which we fall short, though I also recognize that we are far from the only country, society, or culture which has a tendency to opt for the quick fix rather than engaging in the soul-searching and introspection which leads towards true resolution. Lasting success is based on hard work and research, not the accidental score.

Neither do I count myself among the numbers of those who adopt a cynical tact towards American identity and greater purpose that seeks fault first and rarely gives room for success. Somewhere between those who believe that our best days are yet to come and those who assert that we are soon going the way of the UK into second-tier country status is something close to the reality of the situation. Still, what we require right now is a new kind of skill set, one willing to work with existing trends, rather than fight them, build up native industry without seeking salvation in the form of a foreign company with an open checkbook, pay a bit more than usual for household staples with the understanding that increased cost doesn't always mean money wasted, and recognize that in a truly fair world, it shouldn't matter who is number 1 or number 500. If money is what makes the world go round, we can't begin to get any other unfair construct in check until we ensure that monetary policy levels the playing field. Real equality does not trickle-down and it never will.

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