Umair Haque / Bubblegeneration
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Thursday, March 16, 2006


The Banality of the Market, pt 4

Jeff N thinks my recent posts have simply been saying "America is stupid and it sucks, you should have a European accent". Now, I think that's a (way) unfair reading from someone I have a greal deal of respect for and I think is really cool, so let me try and summarize my argument.

I'm pointing out that econ is very good at explaining many things; but in America the language of econ dominates everyday life and everyday business - which it was never meant to do.

We misuse it in two ways:

1) We have no idea what the hell we're talking about. This is Bush sending the country into penury, with half-baked mumbo jumbo to back him up.

2) We fail to factor in the various kinds of capital into our understanding. If we want to use the language of the market to understand things, that's fine - but too often, we ignore the fact that there are many kinds of capital, of which financial capital is, today, the one that's being devalued the fastest.

So our decisions often have unintended consequences: right now, we are essentially trading financial capital (which is then being mortgaged to China) for social and cultural capital.

But we pretend like those forms of capital don't exist. Of course, they do. The loss isn't just felt in terms of binding us together now; their present value is the sum of the innovations that flow from them, and that's lost, too.

Let me use an example to illustrate. The cost of Wal-Mart killing your local mom and pop bakery isn't just terrible food, no more friendly chats, and unemloyment. In fact, Wal-Mart offsets your loss in quality with scale economies, creating value.

Actually, the real economic loss is more subtle, and much more pernicious: we lose entire sets of people deeply committed to what they do, which is where real creativity ultimately flows from. We lose people with skin in the game, and replace them with workerbots. The guys at your local bakery were makers of tiny cultures, not just producers of goods. Which do you think will be more valuable in a world of Chinese/Indian/etc hypercompetition - scale economies, or creativity driven by passion and commitment?

Now, in Europe, people recognize that social and cultural capital are deeply important and valuable forms of capital.

Does that make us Americans stupid? Possibly.

But Europeans are stupid in another way; there, there are no structures to make capital productive (ie, venture capital, etc). Put another way, it has tons of creativity, but because no one thinks about how to make it productive or useful, value is foregone.

The trick for the future, I think, if we (all of us) want to maintain our rapidly dwindling innovative capacity, is to be able to avoid both kinds of stupidity.

-- umair // 8:14 PM // 9 comments


Comments:

damn, another good post. You're on a roll now...Here's a question then: The Europeans and Americans have differing approaches to the mechanism of value-preservation(eg culture) - The axis is USA at one end France at the other. What can each use from the others approach? Sure it's simple to see the Venture Capital/Taxation structures the USA uses to engender innovation, but what can the USA learn from the French?
Lindon(who is from Australia and thus has the best/worst of both worlds)
// Anonymous Anonymous // 11:43 PM
 

Dude, its so annoying how people suddenly turn all irrational when you start comparing countries--every observation is like a personal insult. Just read the comments on Jeff's post. If you switched the country names for corporate names there would they react the same?

How is anyone supposed have an intelligent conversation while walking on the eggshells of people's petty nationalisms?
// Anonymous niblettes // 2:25 AM
 

Umair,
I am going to post this as a comment rather than another blog post because I think very highly of you and have an equal amount of respect for you.

I read your post very carefully because I know that you are smart enough to write something as satire or with a subtlety that esacapes the casual reader.

It was shocking to me to hear you call living in my country "deeply inferior". Shocking because I know how well traveled you are, and how much time you spend in the valley. I would also highly doubt that anyone living in major metropolitan areas like NYC or SF would call their cities inferior to any European experience, or even places like Minneapolis, Boulder, Memphis, or Seattle. The experience of living anywhere is highly subjective and ultimately relative to your life experience.

To suggest that Europe alone has a lock on some measure of cultural identity is also misplaced. If we're going to engage a cultural yardstick (meterstick) where the tick markets are tradition and duration, then the Chinese have everyone beat. What is even more remarkable about China is that after nearly a century of repression under communism, their entrepreneurial spirit is still intact.

I think China and India both strive to achieve what the U.S. has accomplished and Europe makes to continually let slip through it's fingers. Low unemployment, record levels of home ownership, world leading college education rates, and ultimately a system where anyone can follow their dreams regardless of where they went to school, what class they were born into, or how many times they have fallen down in the past.

This leads to my only meaningful criticism of Europe (old Europe to be specific). I have seen too many cases where successful entrepreneurs and independent thinkers abandoned Europe for the U.S. because prior failure had stigmatized them in their home countries. I see this most frequently in Germany, a country where you might as well wear a scarlet "F" on your sleeve if you have been part of a business that failed. Europe cannot expect to innovate and build new and exciting movements if you keep driving away the best and brightest risk takers. I will take this opportunity to recognize the UK as breaking from the Continent on this front.

I don't disagree with you that too much of the "messaging" today pivots on "markets" and "economies", but there is value in this in that this is what is measurable. The fact that people can create successful businesses that also change the way people work/live/experience is a plus.

I do disagree with your statement that America is losing it's innovation edge, and you spend enough time in the Valley to know this as well as I do. More importantly, when I see exciting European companies like Skype and MySQL I see companies that have largely relocated to the U.S. and have U.S. capital behind them. Even though the U.S. has been overtaken in raw engineering and science graduates by China and India, we are still a magnet that draws that subset who want to change their world.

I also want to tackle your example of Wal-Mart, everyone's favorite company to hate. What is rarely mentioned in these debates is that WM saves people real money on things they need for their daily lives, and that money (hopefully) goes to things that really matter, like their kids education and providing a better home. Not always, nothing is universal. Despite the presence of WM, there has been an amazing renaissance in those businesses that WM displace. New businesses have developed that offer more specialized products or superior customer service, and in the end the consumer benefits both ways. But the entire WM debate is something too long for this comment so I'll leave it there. Someday I will tell you about how the rise of mass produced hand tools (Home Depot, the equivalent of WM in the building industry) has created a thriving market for boutique producers of handcrafted tools (something I collect).

Umair, I found your post to be, well, offensive to my American sensibilities but I'm not holding it against you because in spite of this online (flat) world you and I have had the opportunity to actually meet face-to-face and that always deepens a relationship. My first instinct when I read the comments on my post was to rise to your defense because I still don't believe that your comments were as critical as they read, something your follow on post covered.

It was a cheap shot on my part to throw in the "charming foreign accent" comment, my apologies.
// Blogger jeff nolan // 4:48 AM
 

Umair,

Just commented on your original post as well. Fascinating how I missed reading Jeff's latest comment before seeing this post. This clearly shows the need for comments and posts to end up in the same feed!
// Blogger Chris // 8:51 AM
 

As a person who enjoys working and spending time off in both the US and Europe:

1) It appears to me a little naive to think you can mix insults and economic analysis and have the analysis come through clearly, but, whatever.

2) My experience with all these little European businesses staffed by people who are totally committed to what they do is that 90% of them could not withstand competition if they were exposed to it. That ought to tell us something, from an economic point of view. What it tells me is that the social and economic structure of Europe is largely a cost-shifting exercise: shifting the cost of maintaining these little boutiques onto the (generally poorer) people who, given a chance, would not continue to subsidise them. I enjoy the fact that a street in Paris is populated with shops offering goods and services corresponding to my tastes. I don't feel any moral or intellectual superiority can be derived from the fact that their continued existence is predicated on their being force-fed to Europe's "little people" (a la Leona Helmsley).
// Blogger Meme chose // 11:13 AM
 

Umair-
Here's a problem I have with your notion. If we accept social and cultural capital as being of value (i.e. possessing utility), and people want it, then consumers should be choosing to trade financial capital to get social and cultural capital. An example would be to choose to shop at the downtown mom & pop store, not Walmart, because it feels better due to the higher social and cultural capital invested in it.

I think americans value social and cultural capital less - that's why they choose to patronize Walmart. Social and cultural capital are worth less in America. It's not stupidity, it's choice.

Cem
// Anonymous Cem Sertoglu // 12:12 PM
 

Good debate. My comment got too long, so it's here
// Blogger phil jones // 6:37 PM
 

Whenever I hear Americans pontificate on how superior Europe is, usually in places like Mill Valley and Berkeley, I quickly disabuse them of their simplistic opinions by describing to them what life in Europe is really like.

Think the French model is so superior? Try making a living there. Did nt go to the right lycee / uni / ecole? Then you can forget any kind of professional career. Decide at the age of 35 that the educational decisions made when you were 13 where wrong, and you want to change to something more suitable. Good luck. You'll have to bitterly fight the system the whole way and at the end you will be very lucky to even get a CPF contract.

Want to set up any kind of creative services company in France? Forget it. It will take you six months (if you are lucky) to get permission from the government and then you will be harassed ( and very heavily taxed) at every turn. So you move to London set up in a week and join the several hundred thousand other French creatives who live the anglo-saxon life-style.

All those wonderful little artisan shops you see in your favorite French village? The owner make almost no money, are in despair at the future, and their kids want nothing to do with the business. No future you see. That cute patisserie on the main street? Wonderful pastries but the local mostly shop in the local Geant or CarreFour because the patisserie shuts at five, and there is no parking in the old town, all those tourists you see.

I could write them same story for Italy, Germany and even the UK and Ireland. The anglo-saxon countries are the least unhappy and most dynamic in Europe but the gloom in most of Europe, and a deep fear of the future is palpable.

The only place that even start to come close to the creative dynamism of the US is London, and even then if you are serious about what you are doing you quickly orient yourself on the US, because that's were the action is, and where the future is.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 10:31 AM
 

Whenever I hear Americans pontificate on how superior Europe is, usually in places like Mill Valley and Berkeley, I quickly disabuse them of their simplistic opinions by describing to them what life in Europe is really like.

Think the French model is so superior? Try making a living there. Did nt go to the right lycee / uni / ecole? Then you can forget any kind of professional career. Decide at the age of 35 that the educational decisions made when you were 13 where wrong, and you want to change to something more suitable. Good luck. You'll have to bitterly fight the system the whole way and at the end you will be very lucky to even get a CPF contract.

Want to set up any kind of creative services company in France? Forget it. It will take you six months (if you are lucky) to get permission from the government and then you will be harassed ( and very heavily taxed) at every turn. So you move to London set up in a week and join the several hundred thousand other French creatives who live the anglo-saxon life-style.

All those wonderful little artisan shops you see in your favorite French village? The owner make almost no money, are in despair at the future, and their kids want nothing to do with the business. No future you see. That cute patisserie on the main street? Wonderful pastries but the local mostly shop in the local Geant or CarreFour because the patisserie shuts at five, and there is no parking in the old town, all those tourists you see.

I could write them same story for Italy, Germany and even the UK and Ireland. The anglo-saxon countries are the least unhappy and most dynamic in Europe but the gloom in most of Europe, and a deep fear of the future is palpable.

The only place that even start to come close to the creative dynamism of the US is London, and even then if you are serious about what you are doing you quickly orient yourself on the US, because that's were the action is, and where the future is.
// Anonymous Anonymous // 10:31 AM
 
 

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