Bush shirt and Buffet
By Narendra Luther
Americans gave the world the bush shirt and the buffet after World War II. These improvisations were to meet new exigencies. Now they are part of accepted norms in dress and entertainment. Their search for the novel and the innovative is continuous and unending.
In the last few weeks during my tour of the United States, I have had ample opportunities to study various aspects of life in America. I am impressed by the fact that they have managed their affairs so well. Their genius for improvisation is something to be admired. For every conceivable physical, social and psychological situation they have devised coping mechanisms. Their range of inventions and innovations for dealing with domestic chores is vast. Supermarkets offer a fascinating range of home tools for every conceivable situation. Their town planning is meticulous and there is no question of any one getting away with the smallest violation. Their concern for the aged – whom they call ‘seniors’ – is touching. I visited some residential complexes for seniors. If there is a heaven, it must be quite close to the conditions prevalent there. The care with which they deal with the disabled is also remarkable. They are provided for separately in every public place and utility. Even the meanest establishment has public conveniences – what they call ‘Rest Rooms’. Their traffic regulations are stringent and any violation is strictly dealt with.
Their craze for experimentation is reflected in the number of titles of books published every year on every conceivable topic. Some of the books I read included ‘Dying Well’, ‘Why We Die’, ‘Meetings at the Edge’, ‘The Professor and the Madman’, and ‘The Art of Imperfection’. They gave insights on life, disease and death. The quaint titles of books in stores and libraries suggest the range of research going on in various fields. Hard to believe but according to Andrew Gabrois of R.R. Bowker Co., 185,000 titles were published in the US in 2004. No subject is taboo for them. People experiment and share their experiences freely. The new knowledge and analyses generated are available in bookstores and public libraries where, incidentally, the use of Internet is free. An average city library is better equipped than most of our university and official libraries. The quality of service and the courtesy of the staff are incredibly superior to any thing one gets in India. The World Economic Forum in its report for 2003-04 lists technological advance as one of the three determinants of the Growth Competitiveness Index (GCI). U.S. is one of what it calls the ‘core innovators’. It is not so in technology only, but in its parent -- Attitude. You see that attitude documented in the museums spread all across the country.
Dignity of Labour
No body feels embarrassed by the way they dress. I never had an occasion to wear any dress except the most casual. The consideration that guides the choice of dress is functionality and convenience.
The other thing that strikes one is the dignity of labour. No body is ashamed of doing any thing to earn a living. Students working as waiters are quite common. I met two female university professors. One was living with a carpenter and the other with a truck driver.
I talked to many persons of Indian origin about some of these features of life in America. They all agreed that it was indeed a distinguishing mark of the American society. Their explanations varied. One refrain was that it is because of the small population that all that is possible. It is both a cause and an effect of prosperity.
In India all our progress is negated by the growth in numbers. The fall in law and order is also largely due to that. It is true no doubt, but is rather a simplistic explanation. Also a deeper analysis of the demographic profile encourages some hope for us in India despite the growing numbers. Today, thanks to advances made in public health and social security, the population in the advanced countries is ageing fast. In Europe in 1950, the population over 60 years of age accounted for 12%. In 2050, it will be 32%. On the other hand, the population under 14 will decrease from 27% to 16%. Today 66% of the expenditure in European countries is on education, health and pensions. With the ageing of the population, this will only increase and they will be caught in the Wagnerian bind. This will result in an increase in the public debt. A similar phenomenon is taking place in the United States. According to the March 2005 issue of the Harper Magazine, for every two workers in General Motors there are five pensioners. As against that, in India by 2030 the ratio of working population will double while the increase in the dependent population will be marginal. That will give an edge to India against the developed west.
But before we proceed to celebrate the prospect, let us pause to consider the balancing factors. First, our per capita productivity is about one tenth that of the U.S. One example will suffice. According to the Institute of Management Development, Lausanne, during the past decade, steel production in the US has jumped from 75 to 102 million tons while the number of workers has fallen from 289,000 to 74,000.
A further sobering remark was made by a young Indian analyst in America. The emerging adverse demographic profile of the States will be countered by the immigration policy of the U.S. It can tap the productive segment of the population of any country to meet its needs. It can select, it can pick and choose and so meet its critical requirements in the economy. America is an immigrants’ paradise. For those who have visited the Ellis Island and seen the historical statistics displayed in the Museum so attractively, understand the America was built by the best of immigrants from all over the world. The process has not stopped yet. Because of the factors mentioned in the beginning of this essay, the US still remains the magnet for every ambitious person in the world. Young people all over the world are ready to serve America by providing it the most critical resource – human capital. America does not have to spend on skilled manpower; it has just to open the gate and hordes of young, highly skilled, hard working, ambitious persons from all over the globe will rush to meet its needs and more. America is great because the rest of the world is continuously engaged in contributing to its growth. We may criticize it, abuse it, revile it, but we are always at its beck and call and our best talents are only awaiting an opportunity to be let in to the land of opportunity.
High growth is both its cause and effect. There is some food for thought in that.
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