Americans are frustrated with inflation and the general direction of the country.
Stronger economic growth would help as much as anything, and that requires cultivating a culture of trust and shared purpose among businesses, workers and politicians.
COVID accelerated workplace changes and removed several million Americans from the labor force. Workers with skills in demand are resisting employers’ requests to return to offices and are seeking higher wages.
Better management needed
Faced with shortages and rising labor costs, businesses are installing robots and embracing artificial intelligence. Those should raise productivity, but less overbearing management would help too.
Daily commutes on crowded roads, buses and trains wastes time and are mentally draining. For self-starters and many responsible employees, work from home raises productivity but after two years of zooming, as many as half of all employees are disaffected and doing the bare minimum.
In the summer of 2021, the CEO of Michigan mortgage lender UWM
ordered all his workers back to the office. Those who wanted to work from home were free to find another job.
This approach penalized his best employees by treating them the same as slackers. Now many needlessly waste too much time commuting and high-quality employees are leaving.
Costs and stresses of commuting
is requiring workers to be at their desks Tuesdays and Thursdays and one other day as determined by individual teams. This approach permits better mentoring for younger workers, helps newer employees assimilate the corporate culture, and is a reasonable compromise to minimize the stress and costs of commuting.
As for those tempted to abuse such arrangements, these days employee engagement is easy to track. However simple metrics like keystrokes and the number of client interactions must be supplemented by other sound management practices that encourage quality engagement with managers and colleagues. Such as regular staff meetings where individuals report on how they are approaching assignments and can offer ideas about challenges affecting the whole team and enterprise.
COVID, the war in Ukraine and China’s threats toward Taiwan, lockdowns and efforts to curb the influence of high tech and private enterprises lay bare that globalization and free markets are great at optimizing costs but not risks.
Relentless competition cultivates long, brittle supply chains with multiple firms in many countries making essential contributions to products—such as simple computer chips in automobiles. And excessive reliance on comparative advantages begets threats to basic sustainability and social stability—for example, global dependence on Ukrainian grain
and Russian natural gas
China’s dominance in solar panels and pre-eminent positions in EV batteries and many other markets—often obtained through subsidies, protection and subversion of the WTO rules and dispute settlement—slow American growth by denying our businesses markets and scale to spread investments in new technology.
Those create a strategic vulnerability in the event of conflict in the Pacific that dwarfs anything the Russians could impose.
America could better manage globalization—secure supply chains and spread R&D costs to maintain leadership in high-tech—by linking together allies and emerging nations that agree to compete by fair rules. We should rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership and negotiate similar arrangements with the EU and U.K.
Even without the war in Europe, droughts, floods and rising temperatures are permanently disrupting global food supplies and damaging industrial commercial networks, for example, by lowering water levels in the Rhine and Mississippi rivers.
We may already have reached the tipping point where even the best CO2 emissions efforts will not be enough to halt temperatures from rising to new, more-menacing plateaus. Yet, the United States and other nations are devoting too little of their infrastructure and climate change resources to mitigation.
The American West is becoming hotter and more arid and is in a permanent water crisis. Yet, the president’s infrastructure program does too little to fix leaky reservoirs and distribution systems and even less to correct a bias in water allocation rules that favors new industry at the expense of allotments to farms and ranches.
Semiconductor factories use lots of water and would be better built in the East than in Arizona to maintain agricultural production.
Addressing all this butts into traditional tensions—business vs. labor, protectionism vs. multilateralism, cities vs rural communities, and regional rivalries. Advancing through compromise is often impossible when progressives view conservatives as not just wrong but evil and conservatives view their opposites as cynical and dumb.
North America’s abundant resources often has been credited as the wellspring of American progress.
Just as important has been our historic belief in a noble calling and shared purpose. Without those as guideposts—a faith in American Exceptionalism—all the natural abundance heaven can bestow is of no avail. Look at Venezuela.
We are not yet a backward banana but in places we are acquiring the characteristics of state entropy.
Don’t believe it? Look at our porous border, public safety and the performance of public schools.
Peter Morici is an economist and emeritus business professor at the University of Maryland, and a national columnist.
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