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Investing In People

The Road to Resilience

While reading a book by a Finnish woman who had become a US citizen, I was reminded that this country really is an historically and culturally significant place.  It is the combination of cultures that makes it unique, and I think that a textile is a better analogy than a melting pot.

In weaving, the warp consists of the foundational threads upon which a textile is woven.  The weft consists of the threads woven across the warp and are the ones that mostly determine the ultimate design of the textile.  In this analogy, I would say that the warp of the US is our European heritage, which, at this point, predominates in our language, religious, and other cultural traditions.  In the weft, I would say that the single most influential culture is African.  As horrific as the African diaspora was for Africans, it was a boon for our culture.  Most of what we consider American music and dance is predominantly African in origin.  Practically every aspect of our culture is influenced in some way by African culture.  Native American culture is also very important.  It is so imbued in our general culture that we don’t often even notice it. Our mythical conception of place and “the environment” is much influenced by Native philosophy. Native place-names abound, and much of the food we eat is theirs.  Latino culture is another big part, and it, itself, is a combination of Spanish/Portuguese, African, and Native cultures.

We’ve gained much from the many Asian and Middle Eastern cultures as well.  There is no other place in the world that can claim such a rich and varied cultural heritage.  All the more reason why we should value the continued influx of immigrants:  they have created the dynamic and creative environment we have here that is the envy of the world.

However, not all is blissful in the Land of the Free.  In our obsession with Freedom and self-reliance, we’ve created a society where winners are few and spectacularly rich, while the rest of us languish in a world that we can’t afford to live in.  This brings me back to the Finnish woman, Anu Partinen, I mentioned at the start.  She wrote a book titled The Nordic Theory of Everything in which she compares the socially supportive Nordic culture she grew up in with the every-man-for-himself culture of the US.

When she first arrived in the US, she began to have bouts of anxiety.  At first, she considered that Finland must be as many Americans had characterized it: a Scandinavian socialist nanny state that had coddled her and left her unprepared for the fast-paced, live-at-your-own-risk American lifestyle.  As time went by, she realized that anxiety was the default state for most Americans.  Clearly, the Scandinavian countries outperformed the US in providing healthcare, education, housing, and income security to its people.  Were they giving up their freedom for these benefits?

She argues the opposite: by guaranteeing the provision of life necessities, the Scandinavian people actually have more individual freedom than their American counterparts.  They do not have to choose their work based on whether the income is sufficient to provide their necessities or whether the employer provides sufficient benefits.  They can change jobs at will with no fear of losing their safety net.  They are free to pursue as much education as they require to work in the field they are passionate about.  They still have to work and contribute to society, but it is on their own terms in the area of work that they enjoy and are most suited to.  They don’t have to worry about the cost of childcare or of having to depend on their relations or friends to take care of them in times of need.  It is also a great relief as they get older to know that they will be cared for and will not be a burden on their children.

Certainly the costs of such a welfare state must put a real damper on business in these countries.  Well, wrong again.  Companies like Nokia in Finland and Volvo in Sweden are not exceptions to the rule.  Business is prosperous in Scandinavia.  Besides paying for the social safety net, businesses grant long term, sometimes more than a year, paid family leave and three to five week paid vacations.  Employers don’t see this as a burden.  They realize that a happy, secure, and healthy employee is much more productive and are happy to make the investment.  

The author points out that the US has a lot going for it, but could be so much more by investing in its citizens.  We are at the top of the list in terms of profitability.  Why are we at the bottom in health, educational achievement, and wealth inequality?  By valuing profit over people, we have gone astray both at home and abroad.

Even Scandinavians complain about things, but, if you ask them if they would trade their system for ours, I doubt you will find many takers.