Saturday, November 12, 2016

Surfing a Tidal Wave of Stuff

The Trump election puts a fine point on the urgency of re-directing our economy. We will fail unless we develop a deep understanding of the human factors in the economy we've arrived at.

Mr. Do-it-yourself: paintbrush, Ikea furniture, and thou ...
As I try to comprehend the fact that Donald Trump was elected US president, my mind keeps turning to all the states that voted red.

I currently live in California. For 20 years I lived in Illinois. My early years were spent on the East Coast -- the metro New York City area, then Boston, then Philadelphia.

But I haven't forgotten the other parts of the country that I learned about along the way. In particular, during the '80s I traveled a lot as a importer/exporter. I had clients in Wooster, Ohio ... Atlanta, Georgia ... Johnson City, Tennessee ... Tampa, Florida ... Milwaukee, Wisconsin ... St. Louis, Missouri . . . Charlotte, North Carolina ... Greenville, South Carolina ... Fort Worth, Texas .... I made a second foray into the world of manufacturing in the early 2000's, and that took me to places like Omaha, Nebraska ... Waterloo, Iowa ... Detroit, Michigan ... Chattanooga, Tennessee ....

It looks to me as if Donald Trump was elected president by people in places like those, and principally by people asking, "Where did my job go?" (and, ultimately, "How am I going to survive and prosper?").

This has been a wake-up call to me. I have to confess that I had felt relieved to have moved beyond the part of my career that involved touring factories and sitting in purchasing agents' offices and telexing orders and scouting competitors' products at the shopping center. It was clear to me that the US economy faced a painful restructuring, but trying to figure it out was wearing me out.

I preferred to think about peace and social justice.

It's clear to me now that we will all have to be part of figuring out this economic change. (Together with peace and social justice.) (Or . . . maybe that is peace and justice.)

So . . . herewith I begin the painful process of remembering what I've seen, and trying to make sense of it. What follows are not answers; they're not even quite questions. They are the beginnings of impressions of how the economy has been changing underneath us, and perhaps what we need to think about to get to the best next step. The thread that ties them together is: it's not just a question of creating more manufacturing jobs of the old type. We need to better understand all the ways people can contribute value in this new evolving economy - not just in the factory, but also in stores, as service providers, as designers and crasftspeople, in transport, as business people and inventors . . . and more . . . .

(1) True Value - My years in business coincided with the rise of "discount merchandising" - a.k.a. "big box retailers."  People abandoned the dinky Main Street retailers (think: the local hardware store) for mega-stores that you drive to a mall to shop at (think: Home Depot).

At the time, it seemed like that had only one important implication: more stuff! But it's worth doing the mental exercise: name ten implications of the rise discount merchandising on life in the US . . . .

(Future installment: "on wheels" and "haven't you ever heard of a buyback?")

(2) DIY - It amused me to visit suppliers in Taiwan and South Korea who referred to the "DIY" trend in the US. (You know, "do it yourself.") As someone who had grown up in a family that could not afford to hire outside help to do things like repaint the living room (and kitchen and bathroom and dining room and . . . . ), it had never occurred to me that there was anything but "doing it yourself."

Now . . . I know that the US was built on self-reliance, and I continue to love the odd weekend project as much as the next person. But is it possible that we've missed a huge point about the value of having really skilled people do work?

(Future installment: the story of the time my friend Bob and I built a deck behind his and Wendy's home in Annandale, Virginia.)

(3) Style - I had a few mini-tutorials along the way from suppliers I visited in Italy. They demonstrated that they would only take on a project if that, in doing so, they would be able to make the quality noticeably better than it was last time. They also attested to the fact that they knew where their home was and that their community's success was important to them.

It is embarrassing to think about how novel those two attitudes seemed to me, considering that, at the time, I was spending a lot of time with manufacturers and other business people all around the US.

(Future installment: lunch in the Citte Alta of Bergamo.)

Google Earth image of Omaha, Nebraska - showing Walmart locations

(4) Malcolm MacLean - If you're not familiar with that name, it's time for a Google search. MacLean was the person who figured out that the way to move stuff was not box by box, but truck by truck (i.e. via "containerization). (Cue Season 2 of The Wire.)

I came of age during a decade that revolutionized international trade, and in which we "destroyed distance."

At the time, our only concern was whether we were going to run out of oil to power our cars and trucks and ships and airplanes.

Then somebody told us the problem we needed to worry about was the one we couldn't even see: CO2 . . . .

(Future installment: mental image of Sam Walton flying his plane and identifying future store locations based on where interstates were being built.)

(5) The English Problem - When I was in middle school and high school, I took French. I was a terrible French student. My only consolation was that I wasn't taking Spanish, which I considered even more pointless.

(Luckily I lived in a very very very homogeneous town. I was completely insulated from anyone who wasn't just like me.)

When I went to college, I decided to turn over a new leaf and get serious. I studied Chinese. I took great pride in learning a lot of Chinese. And it turned out to be very useful in my business efforts.

But what I noticed along the way was that you don't have to be fluent in Chinese to gain a lot of benefits. Actually, an enormous number of doors are opened as soon as you know ten words. A hundred words practically make you a visiting prince.

The real limiting factor was not that languages are difficult, something different: was I willing to think that those people from other places and cultures might be worth talking with?

Now, about that Spanish (and French) (and . . . ).

(Future installment: the day we had a substitute teacher in my high school French class.)

(6) Electronics and stuff - An enormous part of the way our economy has changed has to do with electronics. (In fact, I imagine some people who have read this far may think everything I've talked about above is beside the point; "It's the smartphones, stupid!")

It seems to me that we are still in our infancy when it comes to deriving true benefit from the electronics revolution -- we're still swimming in noise. This, in turn, is suggestive of the degree to which we are behind the curve in dealing with the tidal wave of stuff that has come to overwhelm us, beginning in the second half of the 20th century.

What is the real lesson of electronics for our lives?

(Future installment: when I learned that "foundry" referred to semiconductor industry structure.)

To be continued . . . .

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