“America is the greatest country in the world.”
A line heard by every human capable of hearing. A rhetorical serum injected into the DNA of every American citizen at birth, fixated on by every third of every third culture kid child growing up, evoked in the aftermath of every self-inflicted crisis, and deployed in every political speech given over the past 100 years in the greater 50 states.
Greatest, is without question, a relative term. So much of America’s resume is deserving of this title: financial ingenuity, immigration integration, the gold rush, the second industrial revolution, the invention of the car, airplane, the internet, and frisbee golf to a name a few.
But what mystifies many around the globe is the heightened bravado of a modern day American, almost as if ingenuity, creativity, and pecuniary accomplishments were absent from the rest of the world.
While most countries have an astute gauge on their caliber and intellect, American citizens are exceptionally unglued from the reality of their actual utility.
In his book The Road to Character, David Brooks uncovers striking statistics about Americans’ perceptions of themselves. 95% of American born professors think they are premier college teachers. 96% of college students think they have above-average skills, 19% of Americans think they, economically, belong in the top 1%, and 89% of Americans overall think they are above average when it comes to intelligence (Unsurprisingly, white men were the most men to overstate their economic and intellectual worth).
Most Americans think their nation has the fairest (and most robust) economic system in the world. A recent poll from Yougov.com found an astounding 92% of Americans think their citizens are the grittiest and most resilient.
Seeking to exploit this pride, two years ago Nissan (a Japanese company) dropped a commercial, with the All-American looking actor Neal McDonough, self-pleasing himself over the notion of America’s vastly superior productivity levels.
Yet, overall macro figures paint a different picture. 35% of Nobel winners (the top prize in academics) are foreign born Americans. 83% of the finalists in the 2016 Intel Talent Search — often known as the Junior Nobel — are children of immigrants living in America. In overall intelligence, US citizens are categorically average when evaluating global IQ scores and rank poorly in other global education comparisons. And, according to the OECD, Americans are the 5th most productive nation (even with over 40% not taking any vacation days).
In short, the land of Jefferson and Washington in the 21st century carries itself with a sense of baseless bravado rooted in a mirage of economic prowess, illusory meritocratic fairness, and erroneously propped up prophecy of nuanced character resilience.
From a 10,000 ft. view, no one could dispute the might of America’s economy. A $19.6 Trillion GDP, a daily record-setting stock market, home to Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the US Dollar is the most common currency in the world, and a 4.1% unemployment rate that most economists consider full employment. America recovered more quickly than any other industrialized nation from the great 2008 recession.
Yet, there’s a larger tale to tell. America is no longer is the largest economy (China), or the fastest growing (Ethiopia), and one cannot factually dub it is as the freest market (Hong Kong, Singapore, New Zealand, Switzerland, and Australia round out the top five). China, India, the EU, and many parts of Africa have now usurped America as the ideal spot for foreign direct investment.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio once proclaimed, “America is the only place in the world where you can write a business plan on the back of a napkin and make it a reality. America is unique to human history” In his defense, he is not the first, nor will he be the last civil servant, to indulge in this fantasy of American entrepreneurial exceptionalism.
But little Marco must have forgot that Cuba, a nation his family fled, has been home to some of the most innovative breakthrough in diabetes research. In East Africa and Southern parts of India, small farmers and fishers have revolutionized the utilization of mobile banking and technology. Recently, the British author J.K. Rowling revealed the idea of the houses in her Harry Potter books, an integral factor in the series, was originally written on a sick bag.
A global panoramic view on business creation further discredits this notion of entrepreneurial superiority. When it comes to small business creation, the United States ranked 10th in 2016 among advanced economies (a rate lower than Italy). Even the number of new technology start-ups being created, America falls behind Sweden and Israel. In reality, the number of companies less than a year old declined as a share of all businesses by nearly 44 percent between 1978 and 2012, including tech. Meanwhile, the number of new businesses are down across the country and more businesses are vanishing than are being born.
Another avenue that America has historically expressed a sense of heightened bravado has been in its strong and steady agriculture and manufacturing sectors. This, too, is a notion divorced from reality.
Last summer I met Ted, a dairy farmer from Dayton, Nevada on a flight home. We spent the hour discussing the mechanics of his business where I discovered there was no real rebirth, but an automation-reformation in his operations. Ted, a 33-year veteran of the dairy business, noted that his farm is now run by four people (instead of 36 a couple years ago), and most of the farm is run off an iPad. Most of the engineering is German, the high tech dairy pumps are manufactured in Swedish, and the rest of the infrastructure is from Australia. He mentioned that if some part of the plant broke, it’d take him 2–3 weeks to replace it, because most all the parts had to be imported from overseas.
Make no mistake, this is certainly no exception. As family farming has dwindled (for several reasons), most agriculture in America is operated by foreign workers and upheld by foreign parts. This equation is largely the same for most newly-built manufacturing plants.
In my recent sustainable consulting stint with Gordon Biersch, I had the chance to chat with supply chain managers, large supply vendors, and financial engineers of one of America’s largest brewing companies. In their close corridor of manufacturing friends, most will tell you a dirty little secret about the recent uptick in domestic manufacturing.
Largely none of it is possible without the financial goodies states are throwing at large organizations to have some production in the United States (the recent utilization by many states to incorporate Alexa into their advertisements to attract Amazon makes you want to vomit). Despite the recent administration braggadocio about jobs coming home, most were lured by generous financial incentives. Carrier and Foxconn, two of the largest domesticated manufacturing companies repatriating resources, would have not done so without tremendous tax breaks (Note: Carrier is still downsizing).
Even if you grant the new surge in manufacturing is genuine, there is a hiring problem. As most companies are finding out, most American individuals no longer carry the frontier mentality of forging their own destiny by any means. GE, BMW, and Quickbooks found out that people wouldn’t move from their home, to a new office location, even when they are offered over $10,000 in incentives.
Economist Tyler Cowen notes in his latest book, The Complacent Class, that over the last two to three decades America’s have stopped seizing on the idea of self-sufficiency and risk taking. More than ever before most Americans don’t work for themselves nor do they find a job through their own volition or background.
Today, more than 80% of Americans gain employment through someone they know. Half of those come from a family member or spouse. Of those Americans in the top 5 percent of income earners, a whopping 85 percent of their offspring end up in their organization for some period.
Even troubling those who attempt to find gainful employment on their own accord, have trouble doing so on their own merits. As Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook notes in Lean In, females as equally or more qualified than men still lose out on the same job at a higher rate than in the past ten years. Asian Americans experience the same, if not worse, anti-meritocratic frustrations. Additionally, a new study by researchers at Northwestern University, Harvard, and Norway’s Institute for Social Research looked at every field experiment over the last 30 years and found that anti-black racism in hiring is unchanged since 1989.
In finance, an industry that employs 8% of the workforce but is responsible for 24% of our nation’s GDP, embodies this type of faux-meritocracy. Despite a recent massive influx of Asian-American and female interest in the space, over 90% of employees in finance are hired through connections — i.e. white males knowing other white males.
I could not tell you how many times I’ve been at a conference and run into a former potential employer lightly admitting that my race had a factor in not hiring me. One C-Suite employee awkwardly jested at me, “We just went with the guy we were comfortable with from the start. Could you imagine us having to pronounce and say your name every day?”
I wanted to reply, “Yes, that’s the least of what I expected.”
This common exchange underscores our shift in attitude. A once resilient and gritty bunch — that gave rise to the 19th century Industrial Revolution and united together to fight two world wars, has now largely repulsed any sense of adaptation and modernization. This isn’t a nation of individuals of buoyant characters forging their own professional trail and overcoming all odds.
As Mr. Cowen argues, we’ve become ever more complacent. We don’t shift to new jobs as much; cross-state migration has dropped 50 percent since its 1948–71 average. We increasingly cluster with people “like us” — in class, educational background — by marrying them and living in the same neighborhoods. That is why once vibrant metros such as Brooklyn and San Francisco are so monolithic they make Cleveland look (somewhat) interesting.
Aside from cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Reno, seldom do you see metropolises re-calibrating their area’s DNA to survive. South Bend Mayor (a potential 2020 President Candidate) Pete Buttigieg, openly cautioned recent locals at the State of the City address from expecting a transformation of his town’s economy due to the lack of interest from his constituents re-learning skills. (Mayor Buttigieg does want to turn his city into a “smart” city)
America’s greatest deviation from bravado can be seen in how lethargic we’ve become daily. While Americans are working 35 minutes longer than in 2013, they spend less time exercising, on community activities, volunteering and exponentially more time watching TV.
This is all further encapsulated in the decline in Appalachia’s prosperity and those “attempting” to rectify the region’s financial calamity. One’s heart breaks by the enormity of the economic fallout in that region. But beyond the shifts to natural gas and rise of automation, the demise of Appalachia can be further understood in shifts in Appalachian attitudes.
A quick understanding of Appalachia history shows that once the mining rush occurred, millions of families migrated to the area for greater opportunity. Many uprooted their families from their home, took a risk, acquired new skills, and endured a physical toll of their body to be financially rewarded (Note: no one is advocating for a return to a work environment that saw employees get black lung, early age arthritis, and herniated discs).
Yet, things have changed. Long gone are the ideas of adjusting and bravely charting into unfamiliar territory. Most Appalachians will not move, take new jobs, and have rejected re-training (largely due to an unsubstantiated belief that coal mining jobs are coming back). The Appalachian Regional Commission, a public agency dedicated to assisting former coal workers learn new skills such as coding, have seen their government funding slashed on a local and federal level.
In isolation, none of these trends can deemed consequential (The solar industry and Arby’s employs more workers than at the peek of coal mining). But, viewed in conjunction, there are far reaching consequences that reverberate through the fabric of America.
When a democracy attempts to cloak itself it up in the imagination of a greater sense of boldness they will prop up a flimsy white-knight, full of bullshit bravado, one who deceitfully personifies this trait, and someone that resembles a banana republic authoritarian.
Which was a crucial component in the election in of our Commander-In-Chief. A foul mouth, over-weight blowhard, six-time bankrupt, nepotistic aficionado, and intellectual lightweight, yet, is seen by many as a 21st century John Wayne. No politician typifies baseless bravado more than POTUS 45. Despite being a man who impishly avoided a war due to two imaginary bone spurs or sheepishly skirted away when asked to explain the rationale behind his own tweets, DJT’s tough guy renegade act has lured many into an exaggerated sense of superiority.
As former football coach Rob Ryan (a fellow loud-mouth, unsuccessful, asinine alpha) perfectly explains, “I, and many people I know, didn’t agree with a lot of things he said, or like his background, but I liked that he talked tough and that made me feel good, it made me feel good about being American.” (Mr. Ryan later withdrew his support of the President’s after his comments on football players kneeling during the national anthem)
Moreover, there are greater economic implications as well. One of the first rules of AA is admitting you have a problem, and until America admits its own hubris we’ll be unable to tackle our nation’s addiction to unsupported boasting. You can’t help the 40% of children in poverty, tame rising income inequality (the worst in the industrialized world), or remove roadblocks for individuals to create their own business if you think our current economic ecosystem is a financial juggernaut devoid of these challenges.
Nor can you continue to buy into the bootstrap mentality if a substantial portion of the workforce lack the metaphorical boots or are judged unfairly for having shoes too dark for your liking. Because if there is an ability to exploit these false narratives by politicians, they will certainly be exploited.
Most importantly, the first part of resiliency is being resilient. There is no human deity capable of deploying quick fix solutions without us understanding we must make bold steps, challenge ourselves to get better, try to acclimate to our current conditions, and attempt to take care of ourselves first.
In the words of Pogo, the comic strip character by Walt Kelly, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
America’s over-inflated aura of excellence is understandable. We’ve been fed this false prophecy for decades — from FDR’s speech of reassurance claiming our organic greatness will help us overcome economic calamity to Ronald Reagan’s shining on a city image. Certain points in our history have justified an injection of confidence into the American psyche. But that temporary sense of assurance has now morphed into a permanent state of arrogance.
We must pivot out of this mindset. The days of imperious patriotism bear no benefits. For far too long we’ve enamored ourselves with the facade of infallible excellence. It’s time we get back to hustling with humility. Because if we don’t reckon with our over-hyped bravado this will become a ruse that is not only unsustainable, but a demeanor that will continually be manipulated at our peril.