02
Nov
10

“American Dream” or World Dream?

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria on his CNN show, GPS, did a great set of interviews with four CEOs of major “American” companies: Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM; Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of Alcoa; Muhtar Kent, CEO of Coca-Cola; and Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. They all opined on the show’s topic : Restoring the American Dream.” I found this an interesting coincidence since my last post was about how an iconic US company, Intel, has become a global giant that is sprinkling the largess of its chip manufacturing business around the world including a community in my own backyard.

I thought the questions from Fareed and responses from the execs did an exceptional job of examining what led up to the current anxiety about the country’s future and of eliciting some thoughtful ideas about what needs to be done to get back on track to a strong economy and national self-confidence. I would encourage everyone to watch the podcast.

Of the four CEOs, the one whose remarks resonated most with me was Lou Gerstner, perhaps because we appear to be about the same age and perhaps have witnessed the same history. He raised some issues I’ve thought about but that I have not seen discussed before. Fareed asked Gerstner if we could get back to the American Dream of the past. Gerstner said:

We come from a world where we sort of  had it made. The American Dream was a reality but it was driven by factors that no longer exist. We were alone in the world after WWII. In fact the war itself got us out of a depression and got us into investments in important technologies. And then we had the cold war; we had Sputnik. We had all these things that drove us to have a common purpose. Today I don’t see that.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. That’s what I experienced growing up. During WWII the major nations in Europe and Asia were knocked flat on their backs. They spent more than a generation recovering from the war. During that time Americans seemed to inflate with the idea of  American exceptionalism.  I think there was a degree of racial arrogance in it as well. Many seemed to think that our Caucasian, post-European culture made us inherently superior to the masses of dark-skinned, black-haired people of the world just struggling to survive. We would always be on top because we were superior and, et sequitur, we deserved to be there.

Sputnik gave the US a great shock for which I will be forever grateful. California, where I was born, had developed a first-rate public education system, and I was drafted into a strong curriculum of math and science in high school. After all, the country needed rocket scientists. I attended University of California schools at a fraction of what kids pay today. Of course, that was also before the taxpayers decided in 1978 through the infamous Prop. 13 they didn’t want to support community education that much with property taxes and precipitated the decline of education in the state.

The other CEOs on Fareed’s show last weekend did a good job explaining how global trade — which was supposed to enlarge America’s power and wealth — turned around to bite us in the butt. It turns out there are a lot of hungry, smart, hard-working people in the world who would like to make the American Dream their dream too. The American Dream is the model for the global middle-class vision.

My takeaway from “Restoring the American Dream” is that today’s families have to greatly enlarge the frame within which they plan for their future well-being. The playing field for prosperity grows more and more level. Thinking just locally about  job security is not enough. Over the horizon there are many millions of children in classrooms and workers in factories aspiring to live affluently. Rising to that level and staying there is going to take a lifetime of foresight and effort.

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