Nation of 'wusses' gets wake-up call
By Benjamin A Shobert
In the midst of a particularly cold, unusually blustery winter blizzard, Governor Ed Rendell (Democrat-Pennsylvania) decided to make a particularly interesting, unusually candid comment on local radio.
Obviously frustrated at the National Football League's decision to cancel a Philadelphia Eagles game due to weather, Rendell suggested this was part of America becoming a "nation of wusses". The reaction to this momentary lapse of honesty on the part of a modern politician was immediate and appeared to be the sort one remembers from sibling "you just crossed my side of the bedroom" fights, full of symbolism and short on substance.
Rendell's comments resonated with the American public in part because Rendell's stream of consciousness ably connected a canceled national football game to a shortage of national fortitude, and to why those pesky Chinese are beating the US at a game it invented - national economics.
One need not rely on inference to make the connection as the governor made the job fairly easy: "My biggest beef is that this is part of what's happened in this country. I think we've become wussies. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down."
While Rendell might pay a price come next election for this sort of atypical truth telling from a national political figure, his comments expressed in raw form what many Americans are beginning to wonder themselves: Are we in economic trouble partially because we've gone soft?
Asked more directly, the governor's assertion suggests that our economic doldrums are less because of other countries' comparative advantages through lower labor costs and rather because our global competitors work harder for longer, anticipate more setbacks and absorb more sacrifice than we are willing to accept in the US. Calling Americans "wusses" may be playground talk, but it has struck a nerve.
On more occasions that most of us would like to admit, Americans have sheepishly exited the bathroom having stood one moment too long at the faucet, waiting and wondering at why the water has not been triggered by the sensor only to realize that it is an "old-fashioned" manual sink, or sporting a bruised nose (and ego to match) at having walked into what one assumed was an automatically opening door.
True enough then Rendell: American living standards are hardly Spartan, and for most of the people, what constitutes struggle and sacrifice would be unrecognizable as such to Depression-era grandparents. It has only now begun to dawn on America and its leaders that the role of sacrifice, specifically the sort required to renew society, is poorly understood and even more poorly embraced.
This realization isn't where we started. In the 1990s, Americans believed economic gains from the country's innovation engine would outstrip economic losses, so much so that we comfortably unleashed a great good on the world - the wonders of free and unfettered trade - with little expectation that the swap might not be quite that simple.
But for most of the 1990s, the costs of this transaction went overlooked as cheap credit made Americans feel their standard of living was increasing when, in fact, they were barely treading water. Now overwhelmed by the consequences of this exchange, we are acutely aware that we spent too much of the 1990s focused on using that credit for consumption instead of investment. And, to Rendell's point, money spent on consumption rarely hardens the soul or stiffens the spine.
This is perhaps why his hasty comment, said tongue-in-cheek but remarkable for its clarity, interjected itself so quickly into America's consciousness. Americans are beginning to come to grips with the idea that maybe our current struggle is more our own fault than we were willing to admit in the aftermath of 2008.
The villains of Beijing and Wall Street will always provide convenient fodder for those who want to be distracted, but Rendell's comments force an admittedly unpopular gaze inwards. His comments harbor a deeper truth, an acknowledgement that American politics - more than any canceled football game - reflect a national wussiness, a marked inability and unwillingness to make the difficult choices necessary to maintain a fiscally responsible government, capable of executing meaningful economic-development initiatives through bipartisan leadership.
Rendell's criticism of American culture isn't necessarily unique to the US. Voices within Japan have been asking similar questions since Japan's economic climax over two decades ago, wondering aloud if the country's struggles are due in part to a generation that does not understand the sort of work ethic and single-minded focus on achievement that staying on top demands. And, frankly, within America's own story, this sort of criticism isn't unique either: in the midst of the Roaring Twenties, themes of decadence and decay are woven throughout the American novels of William Faulkner, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Perhaps becoming a nation of wusses is an inevitable, if regrettable, stage for countries that experience unparalleled success. Already, the lauded Chinese are seeing a different sense of shared sacrifice reveal itself within its youth, marked by the current generation's fixation on material possessions above a sense of community or social sacrifice.
Some China-watchers believe the slightly more heavy hand of President Hu Jintao's regime is the result of these very fears among old-timers within the Communist Party. It may well be that regardless of which country this transition presents itself in, the stage marks a very real inflection point where society must choose between descending into a further morass of materialism, or calling once again for the sort of dedication and striving that marked earlier success.
For Americans, Rendell's comments may be a necessary wake-up call, the sort of gut check that harkens back to an era where coaches could yell at their players, daring to risk emotional damage through their heavy-handed use of negative reinforcement, but always with an eye towards improving the players' - and the team's - performance.
The reality, which may strike some as harsh, is that as bad as today's economy feels, and as real the pain many Americans feel today, those who came through the Great Depression had it much worse.
Our ideas of what pain and sacrifice mean today are nowhere near the sorts of deprivation and scrap for survival that our grandparents knew. We may not be a nation of wusses, but we do need a reminder that to keep what we have is going to take a lot more dedication, effort, and hard choices from our elected leaders than the false promises of the 1990s held out.
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc (www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses bring innovative technologies into the North American market.