Thursday, September 10, 2009
Americans must work harder and smarter
Jeff North is the husband of Melanie, the Sun ad manager. He stops by the Sun from time to time to hang out in between his jobs as an entomologist. I always ask him about the crops.
He was telling me about some insecticide work he was doing. “Is that why I can’t remember anything anymore?” I ribbed. “Probably,” he said, obviously used to the joke.
“So I hear y’all got rid of the boll weevil,” I said.
“They’re gone. Extinct. Seven boll weevils were captured in the whole state of Mississippi last year,” Jeff told me. “It’s been a running joke about who would be extinct first, the cotton farmer or the boll weevil. It seems kind of scary that human beings could wipe out an entire species.”
“Well maybe God’s taking revenge on the cotton farmers,” I joked.
“Don’t think that idea hasn’t been discussed by farmers over a bottle of merlot or some bourbon and branch water.”
“Who’s growing the cotton then?” I asked.
“You mean to tell me a cotton farmer with 5,000 acres and all the latest machinery is being out-matched by the Chinese?” I asked, incredulous.
“What do you think the average size of a Chinese cotton farm is?” Jeff asked.
“Wrong. One-quarter of an acre. They use no pesticides. They pick the bugs off by hand.”
Jeff went on: “Think about it. The average American, including the cotton farmer, wakes up in the morning, has a little coffee to get started, sits in front of the fire or has the AC going, reads the newspaper, maybe watches “Good Morning America.” After a while, he gets up and takes a shower, maybe has a little more coffee. Then he gets moving and gets working.
“In China, the cotton farmer wakes up at daybreak. He heats a bowl of water on a wood stove. Pours in some rice. That’s his breakfast. When done, he goes out to his field and picks bugs off his plants or weeds. At lunch, he heats up some more water, adds a little rice. That’s lunch. Then he takes a nap and heads back into the fields and works until dark. Then the family heats up a big bowl of rice and has dinner. Then they go to sleep. No TV, no video games, no reading. How do we compete against that? Plus, all the textile mills are over there. There’s not even a shipping cost.”
At the start of our parents’ generation, the United States was king of the hill. We were so much more advanced than other countries, nobody could compete. Then Japan came along.
The Japanese were smart, hard-working and hungry. Within a generation, they had caught up with America. Now the Japanese face the same high labor costs as the United States.
The current generation faces huge competition from both China and India, both of which are developing rapidly. Combined, the two countries represent one-third of the world, 10 times the population of Japan. The competition is 10 times as severe. That’s where we are. That’s why you see so little new manufacturing in the United States. It’s all going to China and India.
What America couldn’t do in farming and manufacturing, we made up for with money. The U.S. financial prowess grew to enormous proportions. Why work when we can juggle money? That worked great for a while, but the financial crisis has put a big crimp in that game plan.
The development of China and India is really the development of the world. Once those two countries are as affluent as the United States - which will take a generation - the world will be fundamentally changed. No longer will the United States be an oasis of richness in a sea of poverty. It will be a magnificent thing to witness. Too bad it’s going to hurt us in the pocketbook in the meantime.
I am an optimist. From the perspective of the world humanity, we are on the cusp of the most dramatic breakthrough in all history. It’s hard not to be selfish when it’s your standard of living on the line.
We must work harder, work smarter and not be complacent. As a boss, I see so many people who think just showing up at work and making a few phone calls should ensure them all the affluence the rest of the world is willing to die for.
Our nice homes, air-conditioned offices, good schools, vibrant media, efficient cars, clean environment, stable government, all give us the perfect working conditions to outperform. Instead of seizing the moment, far too many of us squander this historic opportunity by barely lifting a finger and then gorging at lunch.
We have lost our sense of urgency. We feel entitled. Meanwhile, the global economy has afforded hungry billions the chance to eat our lunch. And they will. They are.
The Great Recession is a wake-up call. Too much spending and not enough hard work. Our country must get not only its nerve back, but its will power and capacity for hard work. No matter what your job is, it is important to our economy. We must take our jobs extremely seriously and strive to excel in any and every capacity.
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