Colorado – Our Defining Character
Colorado induces clarity of spirit. I believe it is due to the air, or, to be more accurate, the lack of air. I travel to Colorado about once a year to visit family and it takes a few days to get used to the diminished oxygen a mile high. Breathing takes effort and I drink water constantly to ward off altitude headaches. This consciousness of basic elements, air and water, attunes my mind to basic concepts. To me, Colorado evokes the fundamental character of Americans; independent, ingenious and industrious. As a long time Massachusetts resident, one might think that the birthplace of our revolution conjures those feelings, but Boston is wrapped in history and tradition. It was the spark plug that ignited our nation, but its roots are too European to reflect our uniqueness. Boston had already been settled for 146 years before the revolution. Colorado hasn’t even been a state that long.
The history of Colorad is one of men exploring, exploiting, and moving on. No mountain was too tall or plain too dry that we could not dominate it. Conquering the mountains and enduring the hardships required to extract their hidden resources was a feat of economic gambling, engineering savvy and brute strength. Men came lured by the promise of gold, and though some was found, they mostly found silver, iron, copper and molybdenum. They figured how to extract the metals from inhospitable places. They dug mines, built towns, laid railroads, and when the veins ran dry in one place, they moved everything to new locations. The main highway through Climax, CO, which goes overFreemontPass, was relocated five times as engineers mapped the shift in molybdenum deposits. The entire town of Dillon, CO moved four times, first to accommodate railroads, and later, for water.
Colorado’s early economy, based on pulling precious stuff from the ground, produced cycles of boom and bust that reflected prevailing economic patterns in the United States throughout the 1800’s, when the role of government was more limited and our systems of banking and trade were still being formulated. Booms were periods of high living, but there was no cushion for the busts, no social security, no safety net. People sustained a bust with whatever got tucked away during the boom, along with the inherent understanding that bad times were only temporary. Everyone understood that in this land of bounty, another opportunity would reveal itself, around the mountain as it were, and another boom would explode. Americans had good cause to be optimistic; the frontier was inexhaustible.
The three terms I use to define our character all begin with ‘I’ for good reason; we are a society of individuals, a less generous term would call us self-centered. Independent is our premier characteristic. We are nation of people who chose to leave the constraints of an earlier life. Perhaps it was our parents or their parents or their grandparents who severed their roots and came here; most of us don’t have to count too far back. The brothers and sisters who stayed behind to care for kin among familiar surroundings, well, they were the kind of people who stay behind. We are the ones who left hearth and home and the known world to come toAmerica. Being independent is practically a precondition for being American.
We are ingenious because we came to a place and saw its untapped value. The Indians who roamed this great land before we arrived had a very different relationship with their environment. They were integrated into a web of live, linked to the grass and the bison and the rivers and the fish without hierarchy. Our hierarchy was simple, we were the top dogs, and top dogs don’t look at their world to see how they fit in, they look at their world to see what’s in it for them. Americans are masterful top dogs; we always find an ingenious way to plunder and extract whatever we want.
Finally, we are industrious, because it took an incredible amount of work to transform our ingenuity into products and profits. It requires a good effort to ride a bicycle over Tennessee Pass and Vail Pass and Fremont Pass, but the work pales in comparison to the effort demanded to create those passes, to build the trails and the railroads and the highways to the mines, to pull the metals out of the mountains and to transport them East. Whenever I came upon an historical marker along the road, I read the snippet of local history and tried to envision the bleak, unformed land that greeted the first explorers who came to Coloradoin search of possibilities.
These days, those historical markers are just another tourist attraction. In the past twenty years Colorado has experienced a boom that eclipses all others – the tourist boom. Ski resorts and second homes is the economy of theRockies now. The mountains are brimming with picturesque wooden villas available for a weekly rental, Interstate 70 whisks vacationers up fromDenver in a few hours, while the locals make a better livelihood catering to the whims of well-heeled visitors then they ever did mining ore.
If our American character is shaped by the rugged explorers who first tapped this land, how is that character impacted by the transition from a working landscape to a landscape of leisure, from a population at work to a population at play, from a land of inhospitable elements to one of generous creature comforts? By turning Colorado into a resort, we have dominated it more completely than any miner or trapper could imagine. The tracks they laid through treacherous passes are now bicycle paths, unscalable slopes are now Black Diamond ski trails, the most dangerous rivers are full of thrill seeking rafters. We can have great fun in Colorado, but we have lost the opportunity to hone our independence, ingenuity, and industry in this land. The traditional frontier is gone, and the frontiers on our horizon; sustainability, information technology, biomedicine, virtual reality, robotics, even quarks, are fundamentally different from the physical frontier of the past. These are knowledge-based frontiers that will be championed through collaborative teams and incremental improvement rather than bold individual initiative, exploration, and brute strength.
The American Character, which was so successful in building our country and spreading our culture throughout the world, is increasingly irrelevant in a world of shrinking physical challenges and expanding intellectual ones. We created the transportation, communication, and business systems that enabled globalization to occur, yet, ironically, the signature attributes of our character that made these leaps possible are not the most successful traits required for navigating a tightly knit world. Getting Neil Armstrong to walk on the moon was the ultimate expression of our independence, ingenuity and industry; finding a meaningful way for all of our citizens to work and participate in society is a murkier problem; and understanding our role in a global economy that requires playing well with others is worse still. We are so used to being the Big Man on Campus; we scorn collaboration and cooperation as signs of weakness. Yet, those are the very skills that will lead to the most well balanced societies in the years ahead.
When people speak of the ‘national malaise’ in this country, I believe it is a longing for that time when our core attributes, independence, ingenuity and industry, were the signature traits required for success in the world. We cannot address this malaise by changing our attributes; they are powerful, innate characteristics that define us at our best. Rather, we need to learn how to leverage these traits in a more interrelated world, and develop corollary characteristics to create a broader vision of our character. We must build on and expand our strengths rather than bemoaning that they are no longer entirely sufficient.
It is important to understand that independence means something different in a country with 310 million people and fixed boundaries than it did when we were a foundling nation of just over a million citizens with limitless westward expansion. Like it or not, we bump into each other more these days. At root, independence means I can go wherever I want and do whatever I want. I reality, we have to add the caveat, except when it impinges on others. Once that caveat is affixed, we create opportunity for negotiation. I can play my stereo indoors with the windows shut as loud as I want. If I take it out to my deck in the afternoon, I can probably still play it pretty loud without complaints from the neighbors. But if it gets to be midnight, I have to turn it down, or off altogether. If I get along with my neighbors, we can negotiate the volume among ourselves. If I don’t get along with them, or don’t even know them, we have laws that establish acceptable parameters. Our hierarchy is that independent behavior is allowed so long as it does not impinge, when it affects others it is negotiated, and when negotiation fails, laws intervene. With 300 times as many people in our country, there is whole lot of impinging going on these days.
Historically, the ingenuity that our forefathers brought to this land has been reinforced through the United States premier educational system and our carefully constructed patent and copyright protections; two excellent tools for promoting ingenuity. Together they created an environment where the knowledge base required for innovation was spread among the entire population; innovation was acknowledged and duly rewarded. Unfortunately, each of these ingenuity enhancers is under siege. Our decentralized educational system provides unequal basic skills among our children, while at the national level our educational system has slipped in relation to other developed countries. We have a smaller pool of people capable of innovating, and more innovation originates abroad, undermining our role as the world’s ingenuity leader. Meanwhile our copyright / patent protections are often not respected beyond our boundaries as the easy flow of information makes piracy more prevalent. The key issues for us in maintaining a leadership role in ingenuity are both internal, to make our educational system more innovation friendly, and external, to spread the protections we have developed to promote ingenuity throughout the rest of the world.
Perhaps the most challenging of the attributes that define our character to analyze is our industriousness. The United States is still the most productive country in the world, on a work output per hour basis. However, the scope of our economy has become narrower as more basic production and services are outsourced to areas of the world where people are willing to work for longer hours and less money. It does not matter if we can work effectively at $20 per hour; as long as someone offshore is willing to work for a quarter that cost. Even if they work half as efficiently, they are the more attractive economic option. We are well past the point when trinket manufacturing went overseas. Today, customer service, medical technology, architectural rendering, web site design, and other knowledge-based work are all outsourced. When we couple this with slipping leadership in ingenuity, our industriousness becomes questionable.
The United Statesis a mature economy and we have accumulated the trappings of people who have lived well for a long time. We expect good wages, good benefits, good working conditions, and reasonable work schedules. We have regulations to ensure minimum wages, overtime pay, and safe workplaces. All of this is appropriate and humane, but it also drives up the cost of doing business in the United States and places us at a disadvantage in relationship to countries where standards are slack and workers are hungry. Back in the twentieth century, when most of the worker rights and benefits we enjoy came into being, the American worker competed against others like himself. The GM assemblyman completed against the Chrysler and Ford assemblyman, not some worker in China or India. Wage and benefit packages grew as domestic industries competed for a contained pool of trained workers. In the era of globalization, we are competing with a much larger pool of workers willing to work for less money under less favorable conditions, and as a consequence, the American worker appears to be less industrious. Globalization is here to stay, and on the whole, it is a good thing. It will allow each of us to work to our maximum potential. But it does upset how we measure our industriousness.
We are accustomed to thinking that things will always improve; America has a long track record in that direction. We take the wage and benefit packages that our father’s won as the starting point from which to expand. We consider their baseline to be our entitlement. But through globalization, corporations can find a parallel stream of providing manufacturing and services that eliminates that baseline altogether. When a company moves their operations toIndia, American industry standards become irrelevant. The challenge for our industriousness as an element of character is to accept that our twentieth century definition of industry no longer applies. Our measure of industry has to include all the elements of productivity, technology, mechanization, communication, transportation, and human effort. If we want to continue to have greater salaries and benefits than our overseas counterparts, we have to be that much more efficient in other components of our total productivity. We cannot assume the baseline for human industry will remain static, we must understand how humans fit into the entire process of production and service. This requires openness to change and a willingness to constantly improve. If we get stuck in the mindset that we are ‘entitled’ to certain standards without understanding that achieving those standards requires working differently than our fathers did, we will be left behind in the world marketplace, and ultimately poorer than our fathers. Our industrious character is still a critical component to achieving success. It just has to be better integrated into complex business processes and a more collaborative approach to work.
After I finished three days of riding through the mountains, I meandered out of Denver on a bright Tuesday morning and pedaled towards home. OutsideElizabeth, the outer limit of the Denver exurbs, the landscape exposed the ancient seabed that formed this area, the land rolled as waves, the cottonwoods in creek beds were anemone at the bottom of the giant ancient sea, the clouds wild as whitecaps above. I traversed twenty, maybe thirty swales, pedaling to the top, cresting, and surfing the pavement on straightaway descents. Each swale got a little broader, a little flatter, a little more barren, until finally, by the time I reached Limon, the earth was flat. The Rockies had met the shore.
As I rolled towards Limon that first night traveling alone, I considered whether I had left the American Character, the quintessential expression of ‘Life,Libertyand the Pursuit of Happiness’ behind me, whistling like a lost wind through the Rockies. Can the traits that so well served rugged pioneers and explorers translate into a nation of 300 plus million people enmeshed in a globalized economy with six billion potential competitors and collaborators? At the termination of Colorado 83, on a rise looking east over the plains, the view is limitless, but I was hardly alone. I was on an overpass, the continuous rumble of I-70 beneath me. What was once an isolated parcel of plains is now connected to everything else. There are too many of us on too small a planet to allow every individual to do as he likes unfettered. We need to search the soul of our character to discover how it can translate to a world that has extinguished its physical frontiers. I am too confident of our inherent strengths to believe that we will ever abandon what is best about us. Our challenge is how to apply our independence, ingenuity and industrious to this new, compact world.