Thursday, December 14, 2017

Redux: What Christmas Reindeer Antlers Say About America

I rarely do this... OK, I never do this, but there's a first time for everything.  I'm going to recycle a post.  This one is from 2010, and the reason I'm reposting it is because of something painful I read last week saying: Study: American Kids Lack Entrepreneurial Spirit.  That's like a dagger to the heart to someone who knows a bit of history and understands that the American free market has driven more prosperity and pulled more people out of poverty than any system ever in human history.  The loss of American entrepreneurial spirit for the world would be like the sun running out of hydrogen.  It won't implode immediately, but for freedom and prosperity, the end is nigh.  Well, here's my pinprick of an attempt to maybe ignite a bit of entrepreneurial spirit in someone, somewhere... Some of the references may be dated (Like Groupon, which was a big deal back in 2010) but the point remains the valid.

One last note, for the budding entrepreneur out there or for the mature one, there may be no better present in the world than Harold Evan's "They Made America; From the Steam Engine to the Search Engine".  It's nothing short of brilliant.

What Christmas Reindeer Antlers Say About America

My wife is from France. In the four years we were on opposite sides of the ocean before we got married I had the good fortune to be able to visit the country a number of times. Much of that time I was working at Outback Steakhouse and always envisioned opening a unit in Paris. (I know, for most people that’s epicurean heresy, but consider the source… my favorite food is McDonalds and M&Ms…) Nonetheless, at Outback the fundamental idea was that we would prepare your food any way you wanted. You could have your salad dressing on the side, your Bloomin’ Onion cooked with flour, or you could have your steak extra well done. Whatever it was, we wanted you to be happy with your meal. When I mentioned the idea to my wife she said it would never fly because the idea of the customer being in charge of anything in France is largely unheard of, particularly as it relates to restaurants. Basically the rule is: Chef’s are trained to know what works with food so you basically get what they give you and you like it.

Not long after that I had another idea that equally befuddled her. Licensed apparel is a multi billion dollar business in the United States and around the world – think NY Yankee hats or Manchester United shirts. One of the biggest sectors of that industry here in the US is NCAA (college) licensed apparel. One day I suggested we think about going into the licensed apparel business and sell shirts, hats etc. for French colleges. She was puzzled. “Why would anyone want to buy a shirt with their college’s name on it?” I tried to explain the whole college rivalry, pride in your school deal to her and it just wasn’t clicking. She told me that such a business would likely not find a market in France because there is largely no such thing as school sports & spirit and French people would never understand the point. (The University of Paris tee shirts that are sold throughout the city are for tourists.) For the French, going to college is expected to be four years of focus and study with very little extracurricular activity of any sort, organized or otherwise. Simply put, it’s all work and very little fun and who wants to wear a shirt reminding them of that?

I thought about these two episodes recently when I saw a car with some reindeer antlers sticking up out of the door of a passing car. In a moment the subject of this column came to me: The beauty of America is the fact that anything and everything is possible here. When you peel back everything else, America is a place of possibilities. Americans by their very nature are a rebellious sort. From breaking with King George to Manifest Destiny to heading to the moon, America has always been a place where big things can and do happen. More importantly however, it’s also a place where everyday, seemingly inconsequential things can happen. What I mean by that is that it is not only the politician, the successful businessman or the wealthy heiress who can set out to pursue some grand design… it’s also the guy next door, the guy at the coffee shop or the guy you knew in 3rd grade who can do something that changes the world, or maybe just his little corner of it.

America is a place where people feel that if they can imagine it, they can make it come true. Although that doesn’t always lead to success, the aggregate impact of all that creativity on the country is tremendous. Think about how many things that you know of that are so fundamentally unimportant from the perspective of surviving in this world but impacted the lives of the people who invented them or used them. Silly Bandz. The Snuggie. College apparel. A dozen flavors of Coke. Personalized M&Ms. Car wrap advertising. Pet manicures. Cheesehead hats. QVC. Having it your way at Burger King. McMansions. The antlers are the perfect example. They’re utterly frivolous, but they let people express the fun side of Christmas and maybe make others smile as well. Not earth changing but certainly a net positive, particularly for whoever created and sells them.

The list goes on and on. And this is not an exercise in navel gazing. Just the opposite actually. It’s recognizing and appreciating the fact that America is a truly unique place and Americans are a unique people. Not because they any better or worse than anyone else, but because they have largely bought into the notion that in America anybody can have an idea and do something with it – although regrettably the system is increasingly suffocating the pervasiveness of that notion. Nonetheless, America has prospered – and much of the rest of the world has benefited – by Americans bounding forth from the darkness to invent things for which there was no demand, to do things that few might have thought possible or necessary and alas, to even stumble more often than not.

Many things that Americans come up with are indeed frivolous, but that’s really the beauty of the country. Just as failure is the foundation upon which success is built, a culture that tolerates and even extols the frivolous fertilizes the garden from which the consequential emerges. For example, while media giants have spent (and continue to spend) billions of dollars trying to figure out how to connect with Americans, something that started out as a way to meet and rate girls has actually accomplished it: Facebook. Yellow Page publishers have lost billions of dollars over the last five years because they can’t seem to figure out how to impact consumer behavior while a company built on the ashes of a website that helped people protest has managed to rapidly impact how and when millions of consumers spend their money: Groupon.

Whether it’s having your steak cooked exactly the way you want, sporting your schools’ mascot on the seat of your pants, or volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, America is more than anything a place where people feel like they are more than just cogs in a machine. They feel like they have the power to make their lives better and impact the world around them. Fundamentally, they are empowered to do things… frivolous or otherwise. That’s real freedom… the ability to decide what you want to make of your life and the opportunity to go out and do it, or even die trying. It’s not the destination that makes life worth living, it’s the journey. The journey in America may be cluttered with kitsch and failed ideas, but it is the dynamic energy fostered by freedom that has created so much of substance and so much abundance. As the year ends and politics takes a back seat to friends and family, we should remember and be thankful for that freedom which we so often take for granted.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

How Did Cheap Airline Travel to Europe Set the US and the World on the Road to Ruin?

How Did Cheap Airline Travel to Europe Set the US and the World on the Road to Ruin?

It’s not a trick question. The reality is, many progressives want to turn the United States into Finland or Germany or Sweden or France or some other western European “paradise”. A few more years of Democrats in the White House and the rest of the government octopus they might succeed. Europe will have conquered the US without having fired a shot. The crazy thing Europe won’t have exported socialism to America… They didn’t have to. Why? Because Americans visited Europe and tried to create it when they got back home. Of course not everyone is interested in going quietly into that good socialist, statist night. Which is why the country is so divided today and on the edge of a calamity. And it’s the fault of cheap airfares!

Let me explain why airline travel is the cause of the United States slipping down a path that may someday lead to revolution. Prior to the 1970s travel to Europe was largely limited to the wealthy and members of the military and their families. It was possible to go, but it was a relatively expensive proposition and therefore relatively few people actually did it. It was when flying to Europe became financially feasible for those other than the richest Americans that the beginning of the end set in.

Let me explain. When prices dropped such that middle and middle upper class Americans were easily able to afford to visit Europe (western, mostly) they jumped at the chance. They visited Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam and hundreds of other towns and cities across the continent. And what they experienced there was amazing. The food: French bread, Italian pasta, Greek seafood. The history: They saw castles everywhere, many of which seemed to come straight out of a fairy tale. The lifestyles: From spending an evening unmolested sipping coffee in a French cafĂ© to a languid evening in a Venetian gondola to walking through one of London’s countless parks, it was, in a word, wonderful. It seemed nothing short of spectacular. And indeed it was.

The problem is, what American tourists were experiencing in Europe was not the life most Europeans themselves were experiencing. To hear Americans talk about Europe, it’s nirvana. One month of vacation every year. Months of parental leave for both parents, lots of paid holidays, and of course “free” healthcare. Those things all sound wonderful but they leave a lot out. And those are the things these progressive American wannabe Europeans usually fail to notice or mention… Most Europeans live in tiny apartments or homes, usually without air conditioning, regardless of where they live. And as a result, most of the stuff in the home is small, like refrigerators, washers, and even beds. Many Europeans pay 50% or more of their incomes in taxes. Gasoline in Europe is usually around $8 a gallon and most Europeans drive around in cars that look like they could fit into a shoebox. Unemployment in many, if not most places in Europe is twice or more of what it is in the United States.

And there’s more… Starting a business is not necessarily impossible in Europe, but in many places it’s darn near close. Youth unemployment in particular is staggeringly high as governments set ever higher standards for firing employees who don’t work out… and therefore employers don’t take the chance and hire in the first place. National, regional and industry strikes frequently snarl traffic and interrupt life, often with little warning. And what's more, European birthrates barely hover around half what is necessary to sustain their population!

And then there’s the sainted “Universal healthcare” that Americans constantly hear about. It is anything but heavenly. One need only spend a few minutes on the Internet to find out how bad Britain’s NHS service really is. French doctors are overworked and many hospitals are simply dysfunctional.

Of course, as in most societies, the rich Europeans don’t really have to deal with these problems. A few million Euros will buy anyone a nice big apartment in Paris and a car to match, plus a first class flight to New York to visit the Mayo Clinic if any real serious health issues arise.

Over the last four decades as air travel became financially feasible for the not quite rich to travel internationally, they did. The people we know today as the opinion makers, those in the media, academia, essentially the bi-coastal intelligencia and all of their college friends earning their liberal arts degrees, traveled to Europe and had a wonderful time. They experienced the life of the European elite and mistook it for the life of the everyday European. As such, they decided that they wanted to replicate that experience here in the United States. It’s like they spent a week getting wined and dined in Vegas and came home and decided that their town should have strippers and slot machines and free drinks on every corner. These intellectuals didn’t bother to realize that the Europe they visited had very little to do with the Europe that most Europeans actually experience.

As a frequent traveler to Europe and France in particular, I love Europe. If I had the resources I’d spend months each year in Paris or Cassis on the French coast or Rome or Naples or a dozen other places in Europe. But what I wouldn’t do is confuse that experience as a visitor with the life of everyday Europeans. Increasingly, those everyday Europeans are suffering ever more at the hands of the leviathan of government regulation and taxation. From high unemployment, low economic growth, poor services of all sorts and increasing limits of freedom of all kinds, the quality of the lives of everyday Europeans are slowly eroding, and statism and socialism are fundamentally the cause… and more and more the source is the EU itself.

Freedom and prosperity are not givens. They are not the natural state of man. They are gifts from our Founding Fathers and tenacious entrepreneurs and innovators and inventors… not to mention hard working men and women across the country. The more America comes to resemble Europe, the less freedom we will have, the less prosperity we will enjoy and eventually the United States will cease to be the shining city on a hill that has inspired and helped much of the world for the last century. Compare the world before the United States became the dominant economic and military power on the planet and the last half of the 20th century. The world is far from perfect today, but since WWII the United States has led the world in creating more prosperity – and lifted more people out of poverty – than over any similar period of time in human history. (One can only wonder how different the world would look if the Soviet Union or Red China had taken the lead...) It wasn’t socialism that fueled the world's prosperity, it was freedom and free markets, both of which the American progressives seek to undermine when they seek to turn the United States into Europe.  A great cup of coffee and a perfect loaf of bread are wonderful things to have, but they aren't worth destroying the American fount of freedom and the greatest economic engine in human history over.