Britain and America need to reinvent their economies. That has been common ground since Lehman. As the nations who gained (and then lost) so much on the back of the supercharged financial centres of Wall Street and the City, the US and the UK have been forced to do a great deal of self-examination in recent years.
And there is a striking similarity in the conversations taking place in the Starbucks, the restaurants, the dining rooms in the homes of both Washington and London:
'We cannot carry on as before,' says a Hank or a Henry; 'Yes, yes, yes,' says a Mary or a Martha, 'but what do we do from here? Sure we can do a little high-end manufacturing but never on the scale or with the efficiencies that can be achieved in Asia.'
This much, at least, isn't new: over the years, millions Brits and Americans have had to come to terms with the fact that someone, or very often something, can do their jobs better or more cheaply than they can; and sometimes both. Since the Industrial Revolution began, jobs and skills have steadily been eroded by the inexorable process of what has become known as commoditization. Just ask 'Captain Swing' about his views on the threshing machine, the assemblers of Detroit about Japanese cars, Welsh miners about Polish coal fields. The list is endless.
Historically, though, that list had a blue collar.
No longer. One of the marked characteristics of the 'readjustment' through which we are all living, both sides of The Pond, is that - for the first time - white collar jobs are under just as much pressure from this creeping commoditization.
When I practiced as a lawyer over a decade ago, business was developed, deals won, over lunch. Fees were not terribly relevant, and would, in any event, be invoiced on a time-incurred basis. Contrast that to now, where the procurement wing of one of the big banks will send an email to one of the senior partners of a White Shoe firm, inviting them to submit a numbers-based, fixed-fee quote into the procurement database within the next twenty four hours.
This is not about lawyers missing out on fancy lunches (devastating as that may be) and I'm certainly not defending the cozy nature of doing business in either Wall Street or the City of London ten years ago; I'm simply observing the very clear signal that is being sent to lawyers by their clients about the value of their services. And it's happening because, ultimately, even Wolfe's Masters Of The Universe are themselves being steadily automated, computerized.
A friend of mine in financial services admitted recently that having vaguely, and absent-mindedly, watched the working classes lose industry after industry, he felt as if he was living in Niemoller's 'First They Came'; there was no one left to speak out for him.
Nauseating self-pity? Probably. Over the top? Almost certainly. But - illustrative of the scale of the challenge we face? Without a shadow of a doubt. Helpful in that it gives professional and ruling elites a sense of urgency that perhaps hasn't existed before? Definitely.
Where there was relative apathy, or sometimes even a casual reference to the 'price of the market', there is now the quintessential burning platform; and the people who make policy are standing on it. All they can see are dark, icy waters.
They know that we can't manufacture our way out. They know that the business of financial services is becoming significantly harder. They know that we cannot return to agrarian living. But they do not know what to do instead; and they are scared.
They shouldn't be. Because the water isn't icy and black. It's warm, sweet and clear and it goes by the name of creativity.
One of the many things that binds our two nations together is our love of innovating, of tinkering; creating. But both Britain and America have, partly as a result of the crazy boom years, forgotten that this is a core strength and a reason to be not just proud, but extremely optimistic also.
We must rediscover, and celebrate, this creative spark within ourselves, using it to light a fire of such immense proportions that it heats every part of our economies.
That's not to say that Brits and Americans 'create' in the same way of course. British creativity is often result of what a good Australian friend of mine calls our 'tolerance of eccentricity'; think Turing, Pink Floyd, Tracey Emin. American innovation, on the other hand, tends to be built on the sunny optimism of the dream; the can-do culture - going to the moon not (to borrow from JFK's famous Rice University speech) because it is easy, but because it is hard.
But those are differences of methodology, not of output. And what a rich history of creative output our two nations have:- Chaucer, Mark Twain, Lady Gaga, Johnny Rotten, Adam Smith, Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, Hogarth, Michael Jackson, George Stephenson and so on and forth; a million times over. These people, their talents, their innovations - their creativeness - have powered our economies to such an extent that we think of it as normal, ubiquitous even. But it is not.
It would be easy for a cynic to dismiss much of our combined heritage of innovation as less about a genuine culture of creativity, and more a product of the cultural hegemony enjoyed by the United States for the last century or so, with the UK having simply taken advantage of the resultant English-language 'slipstream'.
No doubt there is an extent to which the dominance of our common language has had a positive impact for both countries (although when you start considering why English might be the dominant language, that positive impact is not necessarily unfair......), but this can only be a very small part of the story.
Our creative ability is no accident. It results directly from three core, somewhat surprising, cultural truths about our nations. It is these cultural truths that I believe have led us, and can lead us again, to be the most successful nations on earth.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly - our shared skepticism of government. Admittedly this is stronger in the United States than it is in Britain but, nonetheless, Britons have a well-developed view of their own inherent, individual freedom - 'an Englishman's home is his castle', as John Stuart Mill and millions of others would have it.
Admittedly, at first glance, this might seem superfluous, irrelevant even. But creativity is - if nothing - an outward expression else of the deepest, inner-most sense of self. In America and in Britain, there are no qualifications, no parameters for such expression: everyone, anyone, can 'create'. Contrast that to a Napoleonic, top-down, dirigiste environment where a mere individual, literally or metaphorically, needs to be somehow 'licensed': a 'permis a creer', as it were.
And that's not just a perfidious Englishman simply taking a cheap shot at the old enemy. It's a statement of simple fact. Take it to its extreme: Soviet innovation and creativity had its undoubted merits, but individuality was not one of them. That is not to say that other nations do not produce wonderfully creative ideas and people too. It would be churlish, if not downright xenophobic, to suggest otherwise. It's just that it is very difficult to see they offer as rich an environment in which to do so. This is a huge competitive advantage for us, and currently neither Britain nor America is making anything like enough of it.
Mercifully (at least if you are an American or a Brit), this competitive advantage looks set to last. The Chinese - typically - are nowhere near this at the moment, and probably won't be anytime soon. Tiger-Moms may or may not have their merits, and there's no need to rehash that here, but the philosophy behind their approach tells us a lot. Asian education is serious, focused and relentless.
Learning information, processes, data - often by rote - undoubtedly has some utility; but it is simply not the same as developing a sense of intellectual curiosity, academic adventurism and the 'dot-joining' that is the basis of all effective innovation. And - fortunately - it's that education that continues to dominate the syllabuses of English-speaking schools and universities.
Second, our labour markets are flexible. And, whatever the European Union thinks, we like it that way. One of the secrets of Silicon Valley, says Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linked-In, is the ability to fire at will and the fact that restrictive covenants in employment contracts are not enforced. We might not quite have that in the old country, but we're a good deal closer to it than any of our friends across the English Channel. That means fluidity of labour, and therefore fluidity of ideas and know-how. The best creativity is a collaborative process; to be able to access new ideas, fresh thinking is absolutely vital. Moreover, being able to scale up, or down quickly reduces the risk in starting or investing in new businesses and competition - a war for ideas, almost - is enhanced dramatically as a result.
Third, we, the Americans and the British, have already established ourselves as the pre-eminent force in the creative space. There is no Italian Madison Avenue, there is no Malaysian M & C Saatchi. There is only one Bay Area, there is only one Shoreditch. The BBC and HBO are on a different plane of expertise altogether when it comes to developing content and delivering it with the very highest of production values. I am laboring the point slightly perhaps, but it is clear that London and New York, in particular, are genuine centres of creative excellence.
Whilst it would be wrong and truly insulting not to acknowledge the contribution of a Barcelona, a Rio, a Vienna, or a Sydney even; none of those cities comes anywhere near offering the sheer depth and diversity of a London or New York. So we are already leaders in this space.
Enough, therefore, of the doom and gloom. If we get this right, we could be staring not, as Prime Minister Cameron might have it, down the barrel of a gun, but at a golden age of innovation and creativity - where we think our way to a better future. Lehman didn't mark the end of the world so much as the beginning of a new one. Let's just get on and decide what that looks like.
In tough economic times, commentators are often given to explaining complex issues with a comparison to a sick patient in need of a cure. It's a cliche, but let's roll with it - and indulge ourselves in a bit of fabulously optimistic, creative, 1970s Americana as we do:-
'We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better...stronger...faster.'
Because you cannot commoditise creativity.
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