The American Business Model: Hot, Fast, and Cheap

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I am reading a new book by Thomas Friedman called That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back.

Honestly, I debated whether or not I should buy this book. Thomas Friedman was 100% totally wrong on the Iraq war and he’s usually wrong on other issues, too. The only person more wrong than Thomas Friedman is Peggy Noonan. The fact that the two of them are on TV so much — talking about the economy, foreign policy, and politics — is a testament to the decline of the American educational system that Thomas Friedman often writes about. There must be no one else. God knows my phone isn’t ringing to appear on Meet The Press.

But that’s another blog post.

That Used To Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back is book is about work, money, power and politics. It’s a perfect book for Human Resources professionals and I feel like I’m required to read it. And it’s not bad. Friedman suggests that Americans need to look to the past to become a better nation. We don’t need to be like China to compete in the global marketplace. We need to better align ourselves with our core values as a nation.

Those values?

  • Creativity
  • Innovation
  • Sacrifice
  • Education
  • Investment

Unfortunately, the America of today is mired in debt, too much money in politics, and high fructose corn syrup. Tough choices need to be made. Where do we spend? What do we cut? How much of a deficit is too much? All tough questions that HR professionals should be thinking about because those questions impact the power, position, and profitability of our companies.

And at the same time I’m reading this book, an interesting article pops up on Twitter. Many people applaud an American company like Amazon — and its subsidiary Zappos — for selling goods & services with an American benefit of customer service. It’s an amazing success story. Remember, they’re not selling you books or shoes. They are selling you service with a smile!

Schwoo. That’s great. But in the midst of selling you an American concept like customer service, they are implementing the Corporatist Chinese methodology of hot, fast and cheap.

The article I saw  on Twitter — Inside Amazon’s Warehouse: Lehigh Valley workers tell of brutal heat, dizzying pace at online retailer — tells the story of workplace abuse and deplorable working conditions at an Amazon shipping facility in Pennsylvania.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

I read the article and wondered if there’s really any difference between Dalian and Allentown. Or Jiangsu and Mississippi. America is slowly evolving into a mediocre version of China. There’s little worker protection, deemphasizing of worker safety, and a willingness to sacrifice human beings (with souls) to the god of supply side economics and capitalism.

It doesn’t seem very American to me. Nor very Christian. But again, that’s for another blog post.

Very simply, I think that when you have a company that hires employees as temps (without benefits) and would rather pay to have an ambulance sit around instead of immediately address the heat inside of its warehouse, you have the markings of the downfall of civilization.

Here’s where things get even more complicated. When you have an undereducated workforce that would rather fight about social issues like abortion and gay soldiers instead of tackling bigger issues like economic fairness, we have the underpinnings of a collapsed society.

And where the hell is HR in this equation? Why are we rolling over in Allentown, and in hundreds of other workplaces in America, and allowing this to happen? This Amazonian way of operating is bad for business and bad for our country.

Thankfully, Thomas Friedman’s book gives us a path out of this mess. Consume less, study harder, pay more in taxes, receive fewer benefits — but it’s unrealistic. Right now. In this political environment. Man, it feels bleak to be in America, right now.

And everything I learn about China — and everything I read about Amazon and other successful American companies in the 21st century — has me thinking about all the things in my life that are hot, fast, and cheap. While I believe in a global economy where I can have what I want when I want it, I don’t believe in the Amazon and Zappos model of employing low-wage workers who resell  shit manufactured in China and assembled/shipped from an unsafe warehouse in Allentown.

No thanks. I’ll save my money and spend it in more thoughtful ways.

I can do without. And so can you.

That’s the lesson of Thomas Friedman’s book.

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