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America in crisis

Posted by on Nov. 11, 2016 at 5:43 PM
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When Geert Hofstede studied the cultures of different countries around the world, he found a pattern.  Six cultural dimensions on which each country could be placed.   America stood out as being at the far end of one of these dimensions in particular : individualist versys collectivist


The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

The fairly low score on Power Distance(40) in combination with one of the the most Individualist (91) cultures in the world reflects itself in the following:

  • The American premise of “liberty and justice for all.” This is evidenced by an explicit emphasis on equal rights in all aspects of American society and government.
  • Within American organisations, hierarchy is established for convenience, superiors are accessible and managers rely on individual employees and teams for their expertise. 
  • Both managers and employees expect to be consulted and information is shared frequently.  At the same time, communication is informal, direct and participative to a degree.
  • The society is loosely-knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. 
  • There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States. Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.
  • Americans are accustomed to doing business or interacting with people they don’t know well. Consequently, Americans are not shy about approaching their prospective counterparts in order to obtain or seek information. In the business world, employees are expected to be self-reliant and display initiative.  Also, within the exchange-based world of work we see that hiring, promotion and decisions are based on merit or evidence of what one has done or can do.


This characteristic seems to be closely correlated with isolationism versus globalism, and purity versus tolerance.   In America, it is also seen in the preference for state over federal.    In seeing America as being uniquely exceptional, versus seeing America as a shining example for others.

The outcome of this individualist bent has been the American dream : that in America anyone can better themselves and do well, if they work hard enough.    

The downside of the dream is that when someone doesn't do well, the cause is seen as them not working hard enough.   They are thought of as a failure.   A moocher.    Not just by others.   By themselves.

For many proud people, that thought is unbearable.    They have a need to find a different answer.   Someone else to blame for their 'failure'.

None the less, the dream has served America well, for more than 200 years.   Those seen as 'failing' have been acceptable losses.   The enterprise others have been driven to (Americans work long hours - longer than in most other developed countries, and with fewer vacations) has made up for it.

But now there's a problem.


Technological progress has reduced the costs of transporting physical items and pieces of information so much, that countries on far sides of the globe can now compete in each other's home markets on a nearly even footing.

Technology has improved productivity, but at the expense of complexity, reducing the numbers of people needed to farm a field or fell a forest by an order of magnitude, but increasing the amount of education they need in order to do it well.

And technology has had a hand, too, in liberating women into the workforce (increasing the supply of workers, thus driving down wages), and in increasing mobility inside each country (thus increasing the size of the pool of potential applicants you have to compete against to win a particular job).

The net result of technology's impact, is that working hard is no longer a guarantee of bettering yourself.   It can help your odds (especially if your IQ is high enough to be able to make good use of higher education), but it is now not just possible but quite common for someone to work hard enough to bust a gut, and yet be little better off at 60 than they were at 20.

And that's the crisis.    The cognitive dissonance between the dream that's worked so well for so long, and the changing conditions that are leading to more people seeing their hard work go unrewarded, and the need of those people to find someone to blame for that other than themselves.

by on Nov. 11, 2016 at 5:43 PM
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