The Great Collaboration
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
I originally posted this article on July 2nd, 2017 (to coincide with the July 4th holiday). As the media starts to talk about Covid-19 in the past tense, we’re all contemplating the economic fall-out, which is becoming more present than future. It seems like a good time this Memorial Day, to remind ourselves of the overlooked American capacity for public-private collaboration.
This gets lost in the popular view of “Americanism” being confined to “rugged individualism.” We need to reacquaint ourselves with that collaborative dimension. Dust off some history books perhaps and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll get a great reminder from America the Ingenious by Kevin Baker. Get comfortable with this idea because only a cooperative approach between private business and public institutions and government agencies will make the difference between this being the dawn of a new golden era or the condemnation of two or three generations to unnecessary hardship.
There’s a tale of two cities happening right now on this subject. Last week we saw what will be the first of many companies making permanent changes in their business models. Weight Watchers is the example I'm thinking of as they fired an undisclosed” number of employees. You’ll see Weight Watchers withdraw from most of their physical locations, implement massive technology adoption, and shed most of their current payroll of 17,000 people. These are the type of changes that business has contemplated for some time, but which were construed as simultaneously transformative, but also socially unpalatable…until now. Here's a quote from American author and journalist, Peggy Noonan’s WSJ article dated April 30, 2020, which supports this sentiment:
"Thirty million have filed for unemployment. Here is a fear-based on the vibrations coming from CEOs and other captains of great entities: They'll use the 2020 crash as cover to do things they've long wanted to do, which is get rid of costly people in their corporations, especially in the middle levels. Some will speed up artificial intelligence and robotics. They'll announce they're "redefining their mission." They'll be shaking off people they've wanted to shake off."
We think Peggy is right, and we are on record as having said it ourselves. The shakeout from Covid-19 will be used to excuse failure in things that were already doomed (like Hertz and JC Penney). It’s a macro lens that business leaders will look through, which will clarify their route to success. They'll look to keep what they need, adopting new tools and ideas. They’ll jettison a whole lot of people, products and businesses that don’t bring clear value, or are hanging on by a thread.
Here’s the other tale from the Two Cities. This Wednesday Elon Musk’s SpaceX will launch two live astronauts into space to rendezvous with the International Space Station. You can read all the information in this article, so I won’t recreate it here. What we will say is this…the space program was always a great example of how public-private partnerships can help us “go where no man has gone before.” I don’t know the details and I’m sure there’ll be people who worked on the inside of that program who don’t have anything good to say about the public-private collaboration, but it seemed to get the job done.
The “space race” was also the catalyst for the modern technology age, spawning lots of iconic companies and accelerating the development of hundreds of technologies. A quote from the current NASA chief reminds us of the public contribution with taxpayer money; “After investing a total of more than $7 billion of taxpayer money so far in SpaceX and Boeing efforts to resume astronaut liftoffs from U.S. soil, NASA chief Jim Bridenstine sees Wednesday’s event as the culmination of a new way for America and other nations to reach space. U.S. astronauts “need to have the capability of accessing space, not just for NASA but for all of humanity,” he said this month.” $7 billion? That’s not chickenfeed. Because government involvement has always been so unfashionable since everyone signed up to “Friedmanism”, it gets no recognition or credit for such efforts. In the launch on Wednesday it will be Elon Musk and SpaceX that get all the limelight, and it will be seen as a victory for private business.
Chalk up another win for capitalism. Well, not so fast. Many of our greatest achievements are the result of these apparently unpopular and outdated collaborations. They’ll be labelled Keynesian. Some will even use the “S” word….(socialist) to scare you off. Again it all about finding the balance. We won’t succeed with government by itself as sure as we won’t (all) win with Wall Street alone.
“celebrated by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival with pomp and parade, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to another.” July 2, 1776, John Adams describing the Independence Day Celebrations.
In case you have not noticed, we are in the week of the finest of American holidays – the Fourth of July. A time for lakes and lemonade, beaches and bar-b-ques. A time to celebrate the vanquishing of those dastardly Brits. Speaking as one of them, it’s always wise for us Brits to adopt discretion, as the better part of valor around this time. Once more, we can quietly rue one of the biggest gaffs in British colonial history. The point here is to celebrate what has made, and makes, America great and to remind some of the “leadership” about the very best of American qualities. While Americans and America is most usually recognized for the spirit of “rugged individualism”, a much overlooked and trivialized American trait is the willingness to collaborate, to get on with it together and to "get things done.”
Americans have always been a people who took on the biggest of challenges and overcame. A people who refused to be intimidated. A nation that embraced the most audacious of projects and saw them through. In his book “America the Ingenious”, Kevin Baker summarizes some of these tremendous achievements. The Erie Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad, the Panama Canal, the Transatlantic Cable, the Hoover Dam the Tennessee Valley Authority, and of course the Moon Shots. Seemingly incomprehensible and impossible projects. These were undertakings from which most would shrink, but not the Americans. The pioneering and courageous spirit was undeniable; it conquered all and did it with great humanity. A tough race, but one that was always willing to offer a helping hand. As much as the media love to bombard us with bad news, a splendid example of the humanity of working Americans - the 167 cars that went through an Indiana McDonalds recently, paying for the meals of the people behind them.
From Lewis and Clark to the Founding Fathers and onto Washington, FDR, Ronald Regan, and in popular culture The Duke himself – John Wayne. Americans were the great Uncle some of us were fortunate enough to have. Fearless, dependable, confident. “A good man in a storm.” Utterly reliable and the guy you wanted to be stood behind (as opposed to in front of) when things cut up a bit rough.
This spirit built a land of opportunity. These people embodied that spirit. America is a place where everyone got a fair crack at it, a fair chance, a land where you can “stake your claim.” A level playing field with Liberty & Justice for all. All these achievements were the result of people with individual vision, passion, drive, grit, and determination. And they were enabled by, or a product of, collaboration. In the huge projects previously mentioned, all were a mix of public and private resources.
Times, they are a-changing, maybe faster than ever before. Today, citizens need leaders in the old style and a political system that can explain and make sense of the modern world. The current system and the main players are unwilling or unable to do this. People need a vision. They need leadership to help navigate the changes they are experiencing. Elected officials spend their time retiring to vaguely ideological corners and continuing to posture and squabble with one another. Our leaders can no longer explain the modern world. It makes them uncomfortable, so they do the natural thing, gravitate to where they are comfortable, which is arguing amongst themselves on Capitol Hill, while the real world just keeps on turning. This is very un-American behavior.
We have become complacent ourselves, across all Western culture. We are pre-occupied with too much of the trivial. Easily distracted by the latest app to deliver Chinese food faster. Pondering whether Amazon will use a drone to drop off the cat litter and whether I can get a video of myself in an Uber and post it to Facebook. This is where our leadership is needed to foster public/private collaboration to develop technologies that expand the boundaries of human achievement, as opposed to the boundaries of ride-hailing, house sharing, and video posting. We need “to boldly go where no man has gone before” as James T Kirk famously reminded us every Monday night. To that end, President Trump has just signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Agency to coordinate civilian, military and commercial activities. That’s more like it.
So that’s where we need to end up with on this July 4th. As we watch the fireworks race into the night sky, we need to “contemplate our place in the stars, not our place in the dirt”, as Cooper says in the movie Interstellar. To recreate the great triumphs of the past, we need leadership and responsibility. That’s what the great statesmen of America understood and demonstrated. That’s what enabled some of those great achievements. So, what could be more fitting than to end this recognition of American accomplishment, than by quoting the greatest of the British statesman, Winston Churchill (whose mother was American, by the way) when he said, “the price of greatness is responsibility”. What we have been suffering from is people who want to be “great” without accepting any responsibility. It is time to suffer them no more.