by Eric J. Epstein
Competitiveness studies essentially analyze tax structure, labor pools and relative business climates. Rarely do they discuss the nature of competition or who we are competing against.
As a nation, we unquestionably implement domestic and foreign policies that survive Administrations and incent and subsidize the American brand. We protect steel, defend oil and extract minerals from under the ocean floor – not in the name of competition – but under the manifest guise of protecting the American way-of-life.
Many of the “American” corporations that seek to capitalize on state and federal competition polices are based in Bermuda, manufacture in Mexico and import from China, yet remain “uncompetitive.”
When was the last time a talking head or political mouth muttered a word about whether or not America’s competitive edge is undermined or strengthened by these policies?
On that rare occasion when an international referee sanctions foreign nations for knockoffs, corporate espionage, or illegal dumping, America still finds itself on the short end of the competitive stick.
Then again, how aggressive have we been in dealing with insider trading, mortgage packaging or corporate fraud? We can not jump-start competition when consumers, entrepreneurs and markets do not believe that there are fair rules of engagement or objective referees with enforcement powers.
The bigger question to ponder is whether the American lifestyle is conducive to competition. Is the contemporary American-way-of life overweight, sluggish, and self-indulgent? And if so, should we not fashion policies to target the American psyche rather than write blank checks to create artificial competition?
Twenty years ago in the wake of Tiananmen Square, China’s leaders were scared and embarrassed into action. The Communist Party decided that making money was good and competing against the US was better. We celebrated the demise of the Soviet Union, and accepted the mantle as the world’s only superpower.
The current reality is that we can not compete against China. They are agile, repressive and not slowed down by the machinations of democracy, lobbying or sound bites. There are no workplace rules, lax environmental regulations, and consumer safety recalls are nonexistent. Forget human rights, clean air and toxic crayons. Red China is a competitive juggernaut without a democratic middle-class.
At some point the Chinese will be pushed by the appetite of their workers to buy whatever we are still manufacturing. But that won’t cure the apathy and inertia that has supplanted the American can-do attitude.
We need to have a frightening fireside chat about what we can learn from China while preserving and maintaining a modern democracy.
We are a consumer society, not a competitive culture. We do not allow failure, and will not tolerate the emotional bruises that result from competition. Rules are not meant to be broken. Not all kids deserve four strikes, a “progress” trophy or a gift certificate to self-esteem camp. These kids grow up to become adults who demand a European sedan, mental health days for a hangover and a time-share in the Caribbean.
If we are serious about competition, than we need to rethink who and what we are as a culture. All the tax abatements, giveaways and subsidies that politicians rush to adorn businesses with in the name of competition will not cure our cultural addiction to soft-landings for everybody.
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