tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
I think my mother did all her shopping at that Sears store. When I was growing up, our family only had one car, which Dad needed much of the time, so Mom took the bus. When Mom would buy me clothes, we’d walk two blocks toward Pearl Park on 54th Street and catch a No. 5 bus heading north on Chicago Avenue. At the rapid rate I was growing, Mom had to take this oldest boy shopping at least twice a year. By the time I was 10 or 11, the procedure had developed into a loveable ritual.
The 24-block ride on the bus was like a commute into another world. My familiar surroundings extended as far as 52nd Street. Once we got north of Minnehaha Creek, I was lost. Four blocks from home was about as far as I ever strayed on my bike. The ride toward the center of the city took us past houses, stores and buildings that seemed mysterious to me. Who lived there? What went on in some of those buildings? Did anyone buy things in these stores? Of course, there was nothing mysterious about those places at all, only did it seem that way to a kid living in a very small world.
Several commercial buildings made up the southeast corner at the intersection of 53rd and Chicago – a drycleaner and a take-out restaurant that featured chicken. The whole corner burned to the ground when I was in the third grade. It happened in the middle of the afternoon, and you could see the smoke through my classroom window at Resurrection Grade School. After school, I ran to the corner with my brother. Chicago Avenue was blocked off to make room for the fire trucks and other emergency equipment. A maze of hoses, wires and tools covered the street and sidewalk. Barricades prevented us from getting too close, but we could see flames shooting out from the roof of the building. I had never seen a real fire before and it scared the be-gee bees out of me. I didn’t stay long, but it was long enough. I later found out Dad was at the scene and caught much of the action with his super-8 movie camera. To this day, the fire is archived along with Bengtson family events in Dad’s collection of home movies.
Every time we passed that corner, I remembered the fire. The businesses never re-emerged; they were replaced by a three-story apartment building. Sometimes I looked the other way as the bus drove by.
It was a half-a-block’s walk to the front entrance of Sears from the corner where the bus dropped us off. The entryway seemed remarkably understated for such an otherwise impressive building. When this store opened in 1928, it was the largest retail building in Minnesota and even today it is second only to the Mall of America. The parking lot in front of Sears seemed huge to me, and Mom always said she was glad she didn’t have to drive because it would be so easy to lose a car in that lot. Like the Sears catalogue – my first exposure to retail commerce – the store had everything. Tools, furniture, appliances and clothing were organized by floors. We took the escalator to the floor where they sold boys' clothing.
Mom would buy me camping shorts at Sears. These were knee-length shorts featuring numerous pockets that snapped and zipped. They also featured a clip that could be used for securing a flashlight. I had several pairs of these shorts during my childhood, in colors that included tan, navy blue and green. I never considered myself fat, but my official pant size fell into a category known as "husky.’’
Mother never bought a pair of shorts for me without having me try them on first. I would go into the changing room by myself and spend 10 to 15 minutes securing the lock on the door, hanging up our prospective purchase on a hook, removing my shoes, unbuckling my belt, unzipping my fly, stepping out of each pant leg without falling over, removing the new shorts from their hanger, stepping into each leg hole and snapping and zipping them up. About half the time, the first pair we’d select would actually fit. Either way, I’d emerge from the changing room where my patient mother was chatting with a sales lady. Mom would have me step in front of a three-way mirror. Mom and the sales lady would assess the fit, asking me to turn around. Sometimes they asked me to bend over. Worst of all was when the sales lady would put the open palm of her right hand into the back of my pants to demonstrate the beauty of the fit. "There’s plenty of room back here,’’ she would say. That generally convinced my Mom and the sale was secured. To this day I don’t really like shopping for clothes and I am sure that sales lady at Sears has something to do with it.
The bus ride to return home was more one-on-one time with Mom, which I liked. On those rides, I asked her a lot of questions, like why they don’t make dresses out of diamonds, why the buses were red, what was on the top floors of the Sears building, why it costs more to take the bus at some times during the day than others, why the sky was blue and would I ever be getting another brother or sister? Mom was very patient. One time, another passenger on the bus heard all my questions and joined in our conversation. He said I seemed like a very smart boy and asked if I was in high school! As a fifth-grader I went home feeling king of the world.
Friday, October 22, 2004
Years later in high school, a history teacher introduced the class to the great French Philosophes. These were the world’s greatest thinkers in the 18th century, who formed the basis for philosophical thought that remains relevant to this day. The teacher, Mr. Dawson, asked us to contrast the reasoned life described in the works of Voltaire with the passionate works of Jean-Jacque Rousseau. We were instructed to write an essay about the man who we believed presented a better framework for living. Everyone in the class but me wrote that Voltaire offered the better choice. Having long since stopped watching Star Trek, I chose Rousseau. I wrote about being overwhelmed by the beauty of nature and a love of music. Mr. Dawson liked my essay so much he read portions of it aloud to the class.
Mr. Dawson was asking me to consider for the first time a question that I would wrestle with most of my life: is it better to listen to my head or my heart? Does knowledge provide the best basis for action, or does emotion? The answer, of course, is not one or the other, but both.
Writing taught me this most important lesson. My best work comes from my heart, but depends on my mind. Reviewing the columns I have written over the last dozen years, it is evident the best ones come from my heart. They communicate passion that can only originate in the center of my being. Without my head, however, the ideas in those columns would be meaningless. The best emotional pleas spring from a solid intellectual foundation.
I think of the columns that have originated solely in my head. I wrote them on the basis of research and study. While these columns meet a certain professional standard, they are not artwork. They lack passion. Literally, they lack heart. These columns are a little like an empty train traveling from point A to point B. The train still arrives at the station, but somehow the arrival is not very exciting without passengers. When a baby is conceived, its heart forms first, and then the brain. The human body is the greatest artistic creation of all time. Is it any wonder that smaller works of art should depend on this same pattern of development?
As a boy, I learned to play the French horn. Over the course of years of study and practice, I learned to move air cleanly through the brass tubing. By fingering the valves in a certain sequence or according to certain rhythms, I could produce a pleasant enough sound but it was never really music. The sound didn’t originated in my heart. I had to think about every note, every beat, ever breath. Mechanically, I could work my way through a piece, the same way a well-oiled machine completes its shift to the satisfaction of the plant foreman. But I couldn’t really make music, the way a golden-glove short stop can scoop up a ground ball, pivot, and throw to second without a thought. For me, it was all intellect and no heart. It was Salieri, not Mozart. Today, I would never make the mistake of calling myself a musician.
Just as there are endeavors in my life that were entirely intellectual, there were others that were entirely emotional, like my first love. My heart was in overdrive while my brain went to sleep. That first relationship involved a beautiful high school girl, with whom I spent far too much time. All I saw was her long dark hair, big brown eyes and her friendly smile. I couldn’t see the obvious. I couldn’t see that, in fact, our interests were different and that our goals were incompatible. So like my foray into music, that relationship didn’t last. The head alone wasn’t enough to sustain my musical endeavors and the heart alone wasn’t enough to sustain a relationship.
In a way, we are all artists trying to paint the picture of our lives. True art, which I am trying to achieve with my life, is a perfect blend of heart and head. It is the head and heart working together like a good pitcher/catcher combination. The pitcher can’t do anything if there is no one to catch the ball after he’s thrown a strike. And a catcher without a pitcher has nothing to do. A life without passion is hardly worth living but a life that’s all passion would be madness.
Life is not about choosing between the practicality of the intellect and the emotion of the heart but bringing them together into a splendid balance -- the way a conductor brings together great sounds to create a symphony, or the way a chef mixes the right ingredients to come up with a tantalizing recipe. I am neither a conductor nor a chef; using my heart and head like a map and a compass, I am, nonetheless, navigating my way through life at the dawn of the 21st century.
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
“We all have to work harder at understanding an enemy that is too eager to sacrifice his body to do great harm to what we hold dear,” pronounced Brokaw. “We cannot ignore hundreds of millions of young Muslims who love our culture and hate our government; who envy our success but disdain our pluralism, and most of all, who are enraged by our sense of entitlement…
“I think we have to work harder at understanding this conflicted world in which too many young Muslims in politically and economically oppressive regimes are influenced by devout, intelligent and fanatical religious teachers. Just as they are frustrated -- not just in Iraq but also in Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt -- by the absence of economic and social opportunity within their own societies, they are inclined to lash out against the West. Young and old Muslims believe we are too eager to control their lives and too reticent to deal with the long-standing and deathly feud between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a situation that is getting too little attention from both parties during the course of this presidential dialog.”
Brokaw, who will be leaving his anchor duties at NBC in December, said about 30 percent of the world’s population is Christian and 20 percent of its population is Muslim. “In the next 20 years or so, that will change,” he said. By 2025, he said, the Muslim population will grow to 30 percent of the world, exceeding the population of Christians.
“The primary challenge of our time is not only to secure our nation and to defeat militarily the forces of terrorism, but also to bank the fires of hostility burning out of control, to neutralize the hatred, to expedite not just global competition economically and politically, but also global understanding. It’s a monumental task. And it requires a carefully calibrated mix of military might and diplomatic finesse...
“In this uncertain new world, I strongly believe that ideas are equally important to military power. It is not enough to be feared alone, for fear is not a complete defense against the zealotry of those who are at war with the Western world and the ideas of the rule of law, tolerance, modernity and gender equality.”
Brokaw, the man who wrote a best-selling book about the people who lived through World War II, the people he names “the greatest generation,” called the challenge we face in this clash of cultures a challenge as great as the cold war or the proliferation of communism were.
He said every American has a stake in this challenge and all of us must engage in the effort to find resolution. “Participation is not just invited but required; it is a fundamental obligation of citizenship,” he said.
Brokaw expressed concern about the condition of our democratic society. “I am persuaded we have become one country and two nations as a result of both parties determined to divide and conquer,” he said. “I am also persuaded during this time of profound change -- of challenges at home and abroad -- that is a schematic for structural weakness” at a time when there is a great need for finding common ground.
“I have no illusion that American politics should resemble spring break, when everyone gathers on the beach and loves everyone else,” Brokaw said. “But must it be scorched earth, all day, every day? In a country that seems to be so evenly divided -- when a handful of precincts in a couple of swing states can determine the outcome of a presidential election -- I know that is the battle plan for both parties. Couple that attitude with the modern tools of politicking and campaigning -- ruthlessly efficient mass marketed polls and surveys that map the electorate down to the fungus in their suburban yards, media campaigns and buys that target every paranoia, real or imagined -- and you have American politics as kill and kill again.
“That party machinery is reinforced, of course, by single interest organizations,” he continued. “The single interest citizens have become a power in American politics well beyond their numbers alone. They have the ability to make a surgical strike in the election process. To single out candidates… These people are members of the NRA, but they are also members of the teachers’ union. They are manufacturers and they are consumer activists. They are physicians and they are trial lawyers. In so doing, they often reduce the American electorate to a body that is less than the sum of its parts. They encourage the population of public servants who too willingly develop a myopia in which their vision is confined to the narrow interests that helped elect them. Their methods and their impact on the commonwealth have been well documented by the mass media but their money, their momentum, and their focus, is so considerable that mere exhibition is not enough for course correction.
“Having said that, those of us in my business also have a role in all this,” Brokaw confessed. “We need to spend less time on the minutia, less time on the horse race, less time on the gossip, and more time on the larger, over-arching issues that confront us all and present them in a way that the American voter feels they have been enlightened and not repelled by what they have seen or read.
“We have an unparalleled opportunity to define our time, and leave a lasting legacy,” Brokaw concluded. “We are all dazzled by the new technology that we have available to us now. It has changed the whole world. The Internet is the single most empowering development of my lifetime. But the fact of the matter is, you can look at the keyboard and hit the delete button and it won’t change poverty, or racism, or economic opportunity, or hostility toward who we are. It will do us little good to wire our world if we short circuit our secular and spiritual souls.”
Thursday, October 14, 2004
On September 19 in Des Moines, I heard Stuart Varney describe a world economy dominated by the United States. He sees a future in which the United States maintains a position of world leadership. Varney helped launch CNN in 1980 and has contributed to a variety of cable news programs during the last 25 years. Last January, he joined the Fox News Channel.
On October 4 in New York, I listened to a speech by Fareed Zakaria, who sees numerous challenges to the United States' position at the pinnacle of the global economy. He sees America's leadership waning and proposes that other countries are much more suited to succeed in the global economy. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International Magazine. The former managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, he is the author of the best selling book, “The Future of Freedom.”
Zakaria argues that economics and technology were the great drivers of globalization in the 1990s. Many countries were swept along by these factors, adopting laissez fair economic structures that resembled those of the United States. Zakaria said these countries felt like they were in a "golden straight jacket," where they no longer controlled their own economic destiny, but if they went along they would succeed in the end.
A few countries, however, resisted the U.S. economic model, and Zakaria points to Sweden as an example. He noted Sweden has 62 percent of its GDP devoted to state spending, compared to America, with 32 percent. It has inflexible labor markets and it is increasing its subsidies, not cutting them back. "By American standards of capitalism, Sweden is doing everything wrong," Zakaria said. But, "what is Sweden's GDP growth rate over the last 10 years? The same as the United States."
Because countries like Sweden are proving that a country can succeed economically without adopting all components of American capitalism, a new kind of globalization has emerged for the 21st century. "You are seeing globalization 2.0, which is quite different from the globalization of the 1990s," Zakaria said. "If you look at the 1990s version of globalization, everyone believed that the only thing countries could do was to become like the United States and deregulate their economy. Now, what you are beginning to see is a globalization that the rest of the world is owning, and using as its own."
While countries recognize the need for economic reforms, they are realizing they don't have to do everything at once. Some countries, like India and China for example, are resisting a fully convertible currency. The South African government, Zakaria noted further, is spending money on the rural poor. "Brazil is finding ways to provide farmers with some safety net," Zakaria continued. "The result is we are increasingly finding ourselves in a world where these countries are stable, with effective government, moving forward economically, with comfortable political support... a world in which these countries are confident and increasingly these countries see themselves as actors on the world stage," Zakaria said.
"This is a world the United States has not known, a world in which we are not the single dominant power that we have become used to."
Zakaria qualified that the U.S. military remains by far the most powerful in the world but, regardless, he said, the United States will have to "contend with a world in which people are not as comfortable with U.S. leadership."
Zakaria cited world initiatives underway without the involvement of the United States, listing first the Kyoto accord. Although he said the participating countries will never meet the accord targets for limiting carbon monoxide emissions, "they will coordinate without American leadership or involvement."
He also noted that the international standard for bar codes recently adopted the European model instead of the U.S. model. The European Union, Zakaria pointed out, is larger than the United States.
"The universe of trade is no longer a uni-polar world, it is a bi-polar world," with the United States and Europe, Zakaria said. "In fact, one could argue we are no longer the strongest pole."
He cited the growing confidence of other countries that want a place on the world stage. At the world trade talks earlier this year, he said, Brazil walked away from the talks because Europe and the United States refused to reduce their subsidies to farmers. Brazil, representing poor countries, gave up access to U.S. markets by refusing to negotiate. "Their feeling was," Zakaria explained, "we'll get access to your markets. There will be another time to have this negotiation but we're not going to sign on to a bad agreement right now. That confidence is new."
Zakaria further noted our mono-lingual culture and our unwillingness to convert to the metric system as evidence of the United States' inability to deal with a global marketplace. "It's a whole new world out there and my greatest fear is we are not prepared for it," Zakaria said.
Our budget deficit, Zakaria argues, hurts the United States. "Every morning Treasury Secretary John Snow wakes up trying to find someone willing to buy $2 billion worth of U.S. Treasury bills because we have a current account deficit of some $500 billion per year, about 5.5 percent of our GDP," Zakaria said. "If we were any other country, the rest of the world and the IMF would have put the U.S. government in receivership."
Zakaria said that the United States is getting a "grand exception," and wonders how long that will last. "Probably a long time," he said. "They have a vested interest in not plunging the United States into chaos. But one of the problems is there has never been an alternative [to the dollar, the international currency]. There is an alternative now with the Euro. There is a foreign Euro bond market. It is smaller than the dollar market, but you are beginning to see things. You are beginning to see small attempts to price oil in Euros," he said.
Zakaria's conclusion: "These trends all point to a world in which the United States is going to have to come to grips with a world in which its special position is substantially reduced."
Zakaria's view was quite a bit different from Varney's, who agrees there is a shift going on in the global economy. Varney, however, sees the United States emerging as an even stronger player in international markets.
Varney said that during the 1980s and 1990s, the conventional wisdom was that the U.S. economy was in decline while Japan and Western Europe offered real economic opportunity. As we enter the 21st century, however, Varney said we have moved into a bi-polar economy with the United States and China taking charge, leaving Japan and Western Europe distant also-rans.
"During the nine years leading up to March 2000," Varney said, "the United States created 220,000 new jobs every month. Europe, with a population of 385 million people, in the last five years has created one million net new jobs. The United States, with a population of 280 million, was creating one million new jobs every five months."
Varney noted that the United States is home to the most important industries in the world, particularly computing. He said the top five computer companies in the world are located in the United States, with the exception of Japan's NEC. "But what's inside an NEC computer?" Varney asked. "Intel, an American company." He further noted that the software industry is dominated by American companies.
Japan, once held up as the economic future of the world, is not keeping up with the United States, Varney said. "In 1990, the Japanese economy was two-thirds the size of the American economy," he said. "By 2000, it had shrunk to two-fifths. That's the story of America clearly pulling away."
Japan, nonetheless, continues to represent the second-largest economy in the world -- behind the United States. "This year, America will have GDP of some $11 trillion," Varney stated. "That's the dollar value of the total economic activity within our society. Japan is second with $4 trillion. Germany is third with $2 trillion. Britain is fourth, fifth is France, and sixth is California. Seventh is China; eighth is Mexico; ninth is India; and tenth is the city of Los Angeles."
China has emerged as the "great factory to the world," Varney noted. The country's economy is growing. "Sooner or later, to make it in this world, you have to compete with China," Varney said.
Varney sees a bright future for the United States and China, and a dim future for Western Europe because of changing demographics. "Fertility rates have fallen in every developed country on this planet, so much so that we are about to see population declines throughout the developed world," he said.
"You need a fertility rate of 2.1 to keep your population stable," Varney explained. "The fertility rate is defined as the number of live births per year, per 1,000 women of child bearing age.
"The fertility rate in Italy, Spain and Russia is 1.2. In Germany, Greece and Japan, it is 1.3. In Austria and all of Scandinavia, it is 1.4. In Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, it is 1.2," Verney said.
"We are about to see population decline in about 55 countries around the world. It is beginning to hit Japan. It already has hit Italy. The Economist magazine says Germany, with a population of 82 million people, because of its fertility problem, will have a population of only 60 million by 2030. In one generation, the country will lose one-quarter of its population. It will be the first time that has happened without the aid of war or disease. This will have a radical impact on economic and social policy.
"We must also consider the aging of society," Varney continued. "In developed countries, people are living longer, so you have this great bubble of people who are retiring, and fewer people actually working to support them. How can you possibly maintain health and pension benefits for an expanding retirement community with a smaller working community? You cannot keep those levels of health and pension benefits in retirement. To keep it up, you have to have mass immigration, which most European countries will never allow."
The situation in the United States, however, is not so bleak, Varney said. The U.S. fertility rate is 2.0, which is actually up from the 1.9 rate that held through most of the 1990s. That's still slightly below the replacement rate but he said the decline is being more than offset by the arrival of millions of legal and illegal immigrants into the United States.
Monday, October 11, 2004
A leader is someone who takes charge, someone who brings ideas to the table, articulates them in a compelling fashion and makes things happen. I know a lot of people who are good at bringing all sides together, facilitating discussion and seeking consensus, but this is not necessarily leadership, in my opinion. While consensus is nice, sometimes you have to lead in directions that no one else has considered.
Real leaders also see beyond the obvious. Of course we want a balanced budget, good schools, environment-friendly public policy, safe neighborhoods, fair taxation and economic opportunity. I have a hard time getting excited about a candidate whose entire platform consists of this kind of default-mode governance. A real leader, as I see it, should be able to take care of the state’s own needs and then offer something to the country or the world -– like innovations in food production or medical care, or breakthroughs in technology, or world-class educational opportunities.
And real leaders respect those who hold different opinions. They acknowledge the people on the other side of an issue without putting them down. They understand that most people want the same things -- peace, safety, good education, affordable housing and transportation, decent medical care, a good job -– but that people of good will may differ on how to achieve these things. I like a leader who acknowledges a breadth of approaches on a particular challenge, but acts without compromise on what he or she knows to be best, keeping the constituency informed along the way. There will be people who won’t like leaders who don’t chose their ideas, but being a good leader is more about being respected than about being liked.
Finally, good leaders make us forget our fears. What is it that keeps people and their societies from advancing? I believe it is the fear of doing something different. A good leader helps people see the advantages of a particular course of action, even if it is something that has never been tried before. People who don’t want to risk anything are afraid of losing what they have. A good leader alleviates those fears. A good leader affirms people where they are at and shows them the possibilities for a better life. Of course there is risk, but a good leader will make the risk seem like a manageable down payment on a better future.
If you are lucky enough to live in an area where any of the candidates for public office hold the qualities of true leadership, go out and vote for them on November 2.
Friday, October 01, 2004
The Americans went on to win the gold medal in Lake Placid. The team was supposed to finish seventh, but coach Herb Brooks and his guys shocked the world in what many people consider to be one of the greatest moments in 20th century sports.
So what a treat it was two weeks ago for me to listen to Mike Eruzione, the captain of that storybook team. He was speaking at a business meeting I was attending in Des Moines.
His message was simple, but nonetheless motivating: success is more a matter of heart, pride and commitment than ability. “My high school coach told me that ability and a dime will get you a cup of coffee,” Eruzione said in his signature Boston accent. “Think about how many times we have been around people of great ability who don’t quite get the job done.”
While teams spend a lot of time measuring a player’s speed, weight and strength, “it’s really the things you can’t measure that make the difference,” Eruzione said, “things like heart, pride and commitment.” Eruzione said these were the qualities that propelled that 1980 hockey team.
“Those are the little things that I firmly believe separate good teams from great teams,” Eruzione said. “And it is absolutely what separates good businesses from great businesses. I call those intangibles old-fashion values… Pride, respect, commitment, belief in yourself… Surround yourself with people whose goals and objectives are the same as yours. That was our hockey team.” And, maybe, that could be your company or business.
Eruzione said there used to be a banner hanging in the locker room at the Olympic training camp. It said: “Individually you can be good, collectively you can be champions.” It apparently meant something to Eruzione and his teammates. Can it mean something to you? Eruzione thinks so. “Everyone has a role, everyone has a piece of the puzzle,” he said.
And Eruzione discounts anyone who says the 1980 team was lucky. “People are successful because they are hard workers, not because they are lucky,” he said. “Time and effort are the ingredients to success.”
Of course, you have to work at the right thing. Hockey was the right fit for Eruzione. The question so many people contemplate is: Am I doing something that makes the most of my skills and talent? Answer that question correctly, pour your heart, pride and commitment into your hard work, and that seems like a pretty good recipe for success.
And while I'm not relying on luck, if there's any to be had, I'll take it for good measure.
Success for everyone won't be a gold medal, but hard work is always part of a winning strategy.
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