Taking off the blinders
Could Americans' unawareness of developments overseas turn out to be a major economic disadvantage?
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - "It is just amazing how parochial Americans are," I heard a voice just in front of me say. "Amazing," agreed another.
We were on a bus full of World Economic Forum participants headed from Davos to the Zurich airport Sunday afternoon. I figured out pretty quickly that I was listening not to arrogant Europeans talking trash, but to a couple of editorial cartoonists from different African countries expressing genuine wonderment.
They were both well-informed fans of American cartooning and comic book art. But they also shared tale after tale of how little their American peers knew of developments beyond their shores. One told of taking a comic-book-illustration class in New York. The instructor asked everyone what their favorite comic book was. When our African artist named the Adventures of Tintin by Belgian genius Hergé, one of the most popular comic-book series in the history of the planet, neither the teacher nor anyone else in the class had ever heard of it.
This was criminal, I agree. It also got me thinking about matters beyond the world of cartooning. It's not just Tintin we don't know about: Americans are on the whole spectacularly unaware of developments overseas, be they technological, political or cultural. Our newspapers and television news broadcasts generally ignore all but the most sensational foreign news. Only 34 percent of us have valid passports (according to a recent survey of over-18 Americans by the Conference Board of Canada). In a world where economic activity is becoming ever more global, could it be that our stay-at-home, self-involved ways will turn out to be a major competitive disadvantage?
I'm generally an optimist about the United States' ability to cope with the economic rise of China and India. Western Europeans have survived the economic rise of the U.S., after all, and in general Americans are more willing than those across the Atlantic to work long hours, take risks and adapt their lives to economic change. But American self-centeredness -- born of oceanic isolation and then nurtured by our rise to global economic, military and cultural dominance in the 20th century -- does seem like it could be a handicap as innovation and economic growth spread through Asia and continue in parts of Europe.
There are millions of Americans who do care what goes on elsewhere. The U.S. is home to significant subcultures of people who pay fanatical attention to developments in English soccer, Japanese animation, Scandinavian pop music, you name it. Many of our flagship corporations -- from Intel (Research) to Coca-Cola (Research) to Tupperware (Research) -- make most of their money overseas. As a land of immigrants, the United States also adds about a million people each year who are extremely well-informed about at least one foreign country.
In other words, there doesn't seem to be too much danger that American individuals and corporations will fail to find out about and take advantage of new technologies and money-making ideas from abroad. Good ideas will make their way from fringe groups and foreign subsidiaries to the mainstream.
It's in matters determined by a majority vote that this globalization-by-percolation doesn't seem to work so well. Political debates over economic policy in the U.S. assiduously avoid any mention of the world outside. Did you know, for example, that President Bush's plans for Social Security had a lot in common with reforms already enacted in Sweden and Australia? That the U.S. health care system, which spends about twice as much money per capita as those of other developed countries, delivers worse health outcomes (infant mortality, life expectancy, etc.) by almost every measure? That while U.S. personal income taxes are low by international standards, corporate taxes are not?
Maybe you did. But there's little evidence that most members of the U.S. Congress know or care. The scant turnout of U.S. elected officials at Davos this year may even indicate that American politicians fear voter backlash if they appear to be too globally involved. That's even more alarming than not knowing anything about Tintin.