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America: Excelling at Mediocrity

Geschrieben von hkarner - 28. März 2012

Freitag, 28. Oktober 2011, 20:26:46 | Umair Haque Blog HBR

Recently, I’ve been around the world and then back to the US of A. And what strikes me is how fast many parts of the globe are forging ahead — and how decrepit coming home can feel in comparison (JFK airport, I’m looking at you). It’s got me wondering: what is America still the best at?

Consider this thought experiment. If you were really, really, really rich — say, not just part of the routinely opulent 1%, but a card-carrying member of the eye-poppingly decadent .01% — what part of your life would be American? If you had the money, I’d bet you’d drive a German car, wear British shoes and an Italian suit, keep your savings in a Swiss bank, vacation in Koh Samui with shopping expeditions to Cannes, fly Emirates, develop a palate for South African wine, hire a French-trained chef, buy a few dozen Indian and Chinese companies, and pay Dubai-style taxes.

Were to you have the untrammeled economic freedom to, I’d bet you’d run screaming from big, fat, wheezing American business as usual, and its coterie of lackluster, slightly bizarre, and occasionally grody “innovations”: spray cheese, ATM fees, designer diapers, disposable lowest-common-denominator junk made by prison labor, Muzak-filled big-box stores, five thousand channels and nothing on but endless reruns of Toddlers in Tiaras — not to mention toxic mega-debt, oxymoronic “healthcare,” decrepit roads, and once-proud cities now crumbling into ruins. Sure, you’d probably still choose to use Google on your iPhone to surf the web — but that’s about far as it’d go.

How did we get here?

The mightiest adversary that snaps great empires like twigs isn’t chimerical “globalization” — it’s glittering hubris, bedecked in the finery of denial. Hence, if the whispered rumors of our imminent decline are worth leaning in and listening to, then perhaps it’s worth trying to diagnose the depth of the plunge and the slope of the cliff before we scrabble for a handhold.

If, as I’ve argued, we’ve got a bad case of Reality Deficit Disorder, then it might be time for a gentle reality check. Argue with me if you like, unleash the snarling dream team of Homeland Security, cable news, and Rick Perry’s Hair on me if you want, but here’s my hypothesis: today, America excels at mediocrity.

After decades of erasing the last luminous wisps of a once awe-inspiring excellence, today, it’s perfected the art of imagining, designing, mega-financing, and mass-producing the tedious, humdrum, banal, middle of the road, bland, trivial, forgettable, the less than exhilarating — whose side effects may include unemployment, stagnation, insecurity, distrust, meaninglessness, depression, and dumbification. And it might be that all the preceding is what lurching machine age “markets”, “corporations”, “finance” and “profit” optimize an economy for — and further, what they shape the minds of a people to come to expect as the limit of the possible (until, of course, a metamovement reminds them that it’s not).

Let me be clear. I speak not merely of America’s structural current account deficit, sagging trade balance, or dearth of exports — but the possibility that America’s greatest export might be the furious pursuit of mediocrity: a set of self-destructive expectations and preferences that, having not been good enough for America — having reduced the people formerly known as the middle class to penury, having rotted Baltimore and Detroit into cities that are beginning to resemble Kabul and Peshawar — probably won’t be good enough for the world. Should the world cotton onto the not-so-happy ending of the story of dumb, opulence-driven McGrowth, then that recognition might be the rocket fuel that sends an American decline into liftoff.

Mediocrity backed by muscle might be a recipe for success in preschool — but by the time you don a baccalaureate’s cap, it’s the sharper, quicker, wiser and curiouser that tend to prosper. Hence, if you accept the heretical proposition that at this juncture in history America’s not the best in the world at everything under the sun — that it just might excel at the stuff of the widget age of plastic prosperity, but that’s not nearly good enough for 21st century prosperity — then allow me to ask, again: what is America still the best in the world at? Or maybe, more powerfully, what should America be the best in the world at?
NB — No, I don’t “hate America”, so please don’t get defensive. My question isn’t a rhetorical one. I want your answer, and you’re more than welcome to answer in the affirmative. You’re welcome to disagree with me, or to support me — either way, let’s keep it civilized.

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