Time Magazine’s Small World

Stephen DeAngelis

April 21, 2009

There is a saying in Europe about American sports that goes something like this: “When we hold a world championship, we actually invite the world.” It’s a reference to events like baseball’s World Series. With the exception of baseball, I think Americans have become more politically correct in they how depict their sporting championships. However, a recent issue of Time Magazine, which listed “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now,” makes one wonder if there really is a broader world out there. As you read through the ideas, many of them seem to ignore most of the rest of the world. There are exceptions — ideas that have broader application — but one can only conclude that Time‘s world view is fairly narrow when it comes to “world changing” ideas. The list was brought to my attention while reading Tom Barnett’s Weblog. Let’s look at the ideas.

1. Jobs Are The New Assets[Barbara Kiviat] In my discussions of Enterra Solutions’ Development-in-a-Box™ approach, I have stressed that development is largely concerned with the creation of jobs that can help foster the emergence of a global middle class. In Tom’s discussions about exit strategies for stability operations, he has long preached that “jobs are the only exit strategy.” Jobs have always been viewed as assets in the developing world. Only in the developed world is there a new appreciation for the value of a steady job. Time‘s focus, however, is even more narrow than the developed world. Kiviat writes, “in terms of the American psyche — and a household’s balance sheet — we’re rediscovering the job as the most valuable asset a person can have.” I guarantee that most people throughout the world already had great appreciation for the value of a steady job. Kiviat does make one point about jobs that some developing countries’ leaders need to learn and that is that “human capital is worth quite a lot. Gary Becker, the Nobel Prize-winning University of Chicago economist, figures that in a modern industrialized economy, 75% to 80% of a person’s economic output comes from human capital (as opposed to, say, land or machinery).” In many developed countries, human capital is still undervalued. Kiviat soon returns to an American focus, however, when she notes that savings rates in the United States have begun to improve. She claims that Americans are no longer disrespecting their paychecks or “treating employment income as an also-ran source of wealth.”

2. Recycling the Suburbs[Bryan Walsh] — Like Kiviat, Walsh’s “world changing” idea focuses on America — more specifically on American suburbs. He claims that the suburbs are dying as the economy tanks and malls go dark. To save them, Walsh asserts that the suburbs need to be transformed. He would like to see them establish “downtown” areas so that they become hometowns rather than havens for commuters. If the transformation can be made, he predicts “the result will be a U.S. that is more sustainable — environmentally and economically.” Will that change the world? It could have some impact, perhaps, on greenhouse emissions, but I doubt that the poor in Africa will take much notice.

3. The New Calvinism [David Van Biema] — Most of the developed world is turning its back on religion and much of the developing world adheres to religions other than Christianity. Nevertheless Van Biema asserts that “new Calvinism” will be world changing. That may be true if your world is found south of the Mason-Dixon Line — but that’s a pretty small world. I’ll avoid theological discussions and simply predict that if the religious right becomes even more conservative it will become even more marginalized — the very opposite effect I would expect of idea destined to change the world.

4. Reinstating the Interstate” [Richard Lacayo] — The Romans demonstrated that good roads can have world changing impact, but Roman roads actually connected with the world. The question is can American roads have a similar global impact. It could be argued that America is basically an island nation whose roads only affect internal trade; but, that would be shortsighted. Lacayo points out that modernizing American infrastructure is an important part of Obama’s stimulus plan, but the impact of U.S. highways goes far beyond the creation and sustaining of jobs. Most historians believe that the construction of the interstate highway system was one of the most transforming activities in American history. Lacayo writes: “The construction of the interstate highway system, which Congress authorized in 1956, was one of the great can-do enterprises of the post-World War II era, the largest public-works project in history.” He also notes that it created America’s car culture and made the U.S. oil dependent. The roads also helped create one of the world’s great economies — and that economy has anchored globalization. Lacayo, however, doesn’t merely want to do maintenance on the interstate system, he wants to enhance and broaden U.S. infrastructure by taking advantage of the right-of-ways on which the interstate system relies. “The government owns the road-beds and adjacent land, so rail and power lines can be laid down without the need to purchase more land. ‘Right of way is a precious resource,’ says Representative Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat who has become a point person in Congress on infrastructure issues. ‘It’s been developed over centuries at great cost. It’s strategically located and immediately available.’ … Envision a system in which you drive to a light-rail station along the interstate, plug into a smart grid at the parking lot and ride the train to work while your car recharges.” Although this idea may appear to have a U.S.-centric focus, it is an idea that could have world changing impact.

5. Amortality [Catherine Mayer] — Mayer writes: “You may not have heard of amortality before — mainly because I’ve just coined the term. It’s about more than just the ripple effect of baby boomers’ resisting the onset of age. Amortality is a stranger, stronger alchemy, created by the intersection of that trend with a massive increase in life expectancy and a deep decline in the influence of organized religion — all viewed through the blue haze of Viagra. Amortals live among us.” Wait a minute — didn’t we just hear that new Calvinism is changing the world and now we learn that there is a deep decline in the influence of organized religion? I’ll let Time sort out that inconsistency. I’ve reported in previous blogs that people like innovator and entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil believe that we are rapidly approaching a time when people may live long enough to live forever (or at least rich people will be able to live for a very long time — it may just seem like forever). For more about what Kurzweil believes, see my post entitled Looking towards the Future with Ray Kurzweil. Mayer also discusses Kurzweil’s beliefs, but her emphasis is not on living forever (“for all the optimism about how science may prolong life,” she writes, “mice and humans keep turning up their toes”) but on acting younger longer. “Notions of age-appropriate behavior will soon be relegated as firmly to the past as dentures and black-and-white television. … If that doesn’t sound like a manifesto for revolution, it’s only because amortality has already revolutionized our attitudes toward age.” She’s correct; but it will be a revolution for the rich until we can get a handle on healthcare costs.

6. Africa, Business Destination [Alex Perry] — Halfway through the list of world changing ideas and Perry finally lets us depart America’s shores in search of world changing ideas. For many people it’s hard to imagine that any world changing idea could emerge from the Dark Continent. After all, Africa is still filled with corruption, conflict, disease, poverty, and crime. It is also filled with resources. We’re familiar with African diamonds, gold, and minerals. It also has human capital. Unfortunately, Africa’s human capital has been undervalued and ignored. However, one African country, Perry reports, is home to one of the world’s most stable banks. “Lomé, Togo’s capital, is home to Ecobank, a 21-year-old pan-African retail and corporate bank that, according to CEO Arnold Ekpe, employs 11,000 people in 620 branches in 26 countries, with a balance sheet of $8 billion. Unlike a lot of other banks, Ecobank is expanding. It has opened 200 branches since 2006 and aims to set up in three more countries by June. What’s more, it actually makes money: annual profits were up 47%, to $191 million, in 2007 and up 32%, to $104 million, for the third quarter of 2008 alone, the latest period for which figures are available. Even more extraordinary, it is managing to raise money in the ‘crunched’ capital markets — $700 million since August. Granted, the world’s banks are in a historic crisis. That does not make any less arresting the thought that some of the best-performing bankers on the planet right now come from a place called Togo. ‘Warren Buffett is based in Nebraska,’ says Ekpe. ‘It’s not where you are. It’s what you do.'” As readers of this blog know, I’m sanguine about the future of emerging market countries; most of them, however, are not found in Africa. But even in Africa, one can find diamonds in the rough. The question is why does Perry think that a successful bank in Togo become a world changing idea? His response: “Ecobank’s success is not an isolated blip, and aid is no longer Africa’s main source of foreign income. Africa is becoming a business destination.” The tipping point, Perry reports, occurred in 2006 when foreign direct investment (FDI) was larger than foreign aid for the first time in modern history. I’ve argued for some time that FDI is critical for successful development. Even though Africa may have reached a tipping point, it has not yet turned the corner on poverty. The signs, however, are improving. “Yes, Africa is still a continent of commodities — with its forests, oil fields and mines — and demand for commodities has plummeted. Yes, Africa still has its Darfurs, Somalias, Congos and Zimbabwes. But commodity prices are higher than they were in the 1990s. Most Africans are not middle class, but most also no longer live in extreme poverty. The World Bank says the percentage of Africans living on $1.25 a day or less dropped from 59% to 51% from 1996 to 2005 and has decreased further since.” The idea that Africa has a future as a business destination could have enormous impact on the lives of millions. For more information about good things happening in Africa, see my post entitled The Emergence of North Africa.

7. The Rent-A-Country [Krista Mahr] — Rent-a-country sounds a lot like neo-colonialism — so why is it a world changing idea? The epithet may be flippant, but the idea is profound. The concept is not about exploitation, but symbiosis. It grew out of last year’s food crisis. “Countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and South Korea — well-off states without enough good land or water to feed their people — started to look outside their borders.” For more information, read my post entitled Food and Water Shortages in the Middle East. The concept is not without controversy. Food security is an important issue for every single individual on the planet. In times of shortage, people are wary about having foreigners owning local land and crops. Mahr concludes: “In countries where governments can’t afford — or don’t prioritize — significant domestic agricultural investment, foreign money has the power to deliver better roads, irrigation, technology and training. ‘One thousand times we say yes on private and public agricultural investment, but done in a certain way,’ says Jean-Philippe Audinet, acting director of the policy division at the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development. ‘It’s very important not to look negatively at this trend. We have to try to look at the win-win.’ After all, is there a choice? Some of these deals are probably doomed to fall under the ax of the global credit crunch, if they haven’t already. But for land-poor countries, the underlying problem of relying heavily on imports will remain. Encouraging a new generation of deals to come out of the diplomatic closet may be the best chance we have to make sure that people on both ends of the bargain end up with food on their plate.”

8. Biobanks [Alice Park] — Park reports that people at the “National Cancer Institute (NCI) are heading up an effort to establish the U.S.’s first national biobank — a safe house for tissue samples, tumor cells, DNA and, yes, even blood — that would be used for research into new treatments for diseases.” She claims that donating your biomaterial will “earn medical interest in the form of knowledge and therapies that grow out of that deposit — no monetary reward, just the potential that you might benefit from the accumulated data at some later date.” Sounds good, but the idea is bound to stir up controversy. People have donated tissue in the past believing they were helping science only to discover that they were lining the pockets of biomedical companies who patented genes discovered from the donated tissue. For more about gene patenting, see my post entitled Patents and Plants. Park indicates that other countries (Britain, Canada, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have already started building national biobanks. “Imagine the power of those thousands of samples writ 100,000 or even millions of times larger, over not just cancer but any disease, ranging from brain disorders like Alzheimer’s to metabolic conditions like diabetes. With enough tissue samples from both affected and unaffected people, researchers can pick out gene profiles that haunt the DNA of those who get sick, then start to screen and treat these individuals and others like them more aggressively.” Park may be correct, but until the issue of gene patenting is rationally resolved, biobanks aren’t likely to enjoy wide public approval.

9. Survival Stores [Sean Gregory] — Survival stores sound like institutions established to cater to white supremacy groups barricaded in Idaho compounds. Gregory, however, is writing about stores whose objective is to help people get through hard times. This new kind of store is the brainchild of “Simon Graj, CEO of Graj + -Gustavsen and a respected retail consultant.” According to Gregory, “Graj envisions a place where you can get the goods you need — low-cost food, clothing built to last a few winters, a bike to substitute for the new car you can’t afford — while offering experiences that help you cope during these difficult times.” One would be able to buy fresh fruit and then sit down a do a little yoga. Gregory notes that “dollar stores,” today’s equivalent of five-and-dime stores, are doing a robust business (around $4.5 billion last year as I recall reading). The question is, could such stores survive in economically flush times? Gregory believes they can because he believes that the West’s conspicuous consumers have learned their lesson. “We’ve lost too much wealth to return to the old days. Even if the economy roars back, could we really be dumb enough to revert to our old habits of conspicuous consumption? From here on out, the market for sensibility will be stable. Survival will always be in season.” I’m not so sure.

10. Ecological Intelligence [Bryan Walsh] — The final idea deals with how people can actually make better environmental choices given the complexity of the globalized economy. He writes that “we lack the data to understand the full impact of what we choose — and probably couldn’t make sense of the information even if we had it. But what if we could seamlessly calculate the full lifetime effect of our actions on the earth and on our bodies? Not just carbon footprints but social and biological footprints as well? What if we could think ecologically?” To be honest, I’m not sure what difference it would make. It would probably change the way we make some decisions, but probably not all of them. The big difference, I believe, would be how companies use information provided by a method called life-cycle assessment (LCA). LCA breaks down the web that connects raw material to consumed product and determines the impact it has on the environment. Walsh notes that companies like Coca-Cola are using available data to improve their ecological image. I suspect that companies will use LCA data to help them determine how they can save money by reducing the resources they use in making their products. For individuals, Walsh insists that ecological intelligence “is ultimately about more than what we buy. It’s also about our ability to accept that we live in an infinitely connected world with finite resources.”

Even though the Times‘ list is really about ideas that are changing America more than the world, lists like these are important. They help us look at the world we live in through different eyes. They stimulate our thinking. They force us to consider (or reconsider) some of our own cherished beliefs about the future.