For the past eight years I've flown to New York at least once a month and I've seen the gaping hole at Ground Zero from almost every angle—from the air, from the street, and from nearby buildings.
A memorial and museum finally are under construction and five new skyscrapers are in the planning stages, including a building to be known as Freedom Tower. But the fact that there is still mostly a hole in the ground where once stood the majestic 110-story World Trade Center twin towers—which I as a child watched being built—and construction on the new buildings isn't expected to be completed until sometime between 2014 and 2018, says something important about America. And it's not an encouraging message.
Those in government and business who are worried about the growing economic might of China, India, and other rapidly developing countries should pay heed. If the hole in lower Manhattan is a metaphor for 21st-century America, we're headed for serious problems. And jobs summits, bailouts, rescue packages, stimulus programs, and corporate reorganizations won't change this. When the passion and drive to excel succumb to the willingness to muddle through, the future starts looking less bright.
So why can't Americans get things done anymore? Have indecisiveness and inaction become the new American way of life?
As a consultant to corporations throughout the world, I spend much of my time in airports and airplanes. I was in London on 9/11—and was on the first plane back from Europe on 9/14. The following Monday I went to New York for the first time after the attack, with just one other passenger aboard the aircraft. The flight attendants watched us both very carefully. I understood their caution.
But isn't eight years of caution a bit much? If terrorists destroyed one of Beijing's or Shanghai's landmark skyscrapers (most of which, for the record, have been built subsequent to 9/11), do you think there would still be a hole in the ground eight years later?
Not likely. In about the same amount of time it will take to complete construction at the former World Trade Center site (expected to be completed somewhere between 2014 and 2018 considering the likely delays—as long as 17 years after 9/11), China is expected to complete construction of a 16,000-mile nationwide high-speed rail passenger network (starting in 2005 and expected to be complete by 2020) and 100 or so new airports (announced in 2008 and expected to be completed in 2020). Bear in mind it takes the typical U.S. airport several years to obtain the permits needed for a single new runway.
What is it that ails us—and what can be done about it?
1. Politicization: I'm right; you're wrong; let's fight.
Everything in America is now politicized, with interest groups jockeying for power and favor. It is not just 24/7 news anymore; it is now 24/7 politics. Much of the creativity, energy, and resources that used to go into productive activities—research and development, building, creating, marketing, and managing—now goes into lobbying, protecting the company from damaging regulations or legislation, or pushing proposals that might give the company an advantage over its competitors.
Hand in hand with politicization is the phenomenon known as NIMBY: "Not in My Back Yard." Many in the United States, for personal or ideological reasons, have become nay-sayers, rather than yea-sayers. Their answer to virtually everything is "no." Some of this is national, but much is local, as when community activists on Cape Cod blocked construction of offshore wind turbines or when activists in Wilmington, N.C., attempted to block the building of a cement plant in the exact location where an abandoned cement plant previously had operated, despite the community's need for jobs.
3. Decision by committee.
When the blame game is constantly being played, as it is when everything is politicized, one of the best ways to shield yourself from criticism is by deferring decisions to committees. Decisions by committee are always slow and require consensus or majority rule. The result is usually blandness, rather than boldness. One of the biggest problems with committees is that there's no ownership, no accountability, nobody to thank, nobody to blame.
4. Numbing bureaucracy.
Committees and commissions are forms of bureaucracy. What most Americans don't understand is that when Congress or state legislatures write laws—even detailed laws like the 2,000-plus-page health-care overhaul now in progress—that is only the beginning. After legislation is signed into law, the agencies responsible for implementing the laws then write regulations explaining how the law will be administered and enforced. In 2008 alone, 80,700 pages were added to the Federal Register, the official government compendium of all proposed, newly completed, and amended rules and regulations.
Add to that thousands of additional pages of state and local regulations. What this means is that every move in any direction requires businesses to navigate their way through a minefield of rules and regulations, restrictions, applications, compliance forms—mind-numbing paperwork that costs money to complete, reduces the time available for other pursuits, and takes the joy out of business.
So what can be done to turn things around?
First, executives must take ownership of matters that affect their livelihoods and businesses and get involved. As my colleagues David Rhodes and Daniel Stelter observe in their forthcoming book, Accelerating Out of the Great Recession: How to Win in a Slow-Growth Economy, executives need to hone their political skills. With Washington playing an ever-increasing and increasingly crucial role in the day-to-day affairs of U.S. corporations, both survival and success may depend on the manner in which executives participate in the war of ideas. Going along in an effort to get along often leads only to bigger problems. This is a new challenge; executives must take it on.
Second, executives must lead. Passing the buck—setting up committees to make crucial decisions, putting off until tomorrow a decision best made today—puts the company at a disadvantage.
Third, people must act decisively. There will always be close calls that can, in theory, go either way. That doesn't mean delaying the call or striking a "compromise" by going half-way in two directions. We have seen indecision and delay in New York and it's the wrong formula for America, unless America wishes to drift into mediocrity.
China is serious about being No. 1. India is serious about competing with China. America, meanwhile, spends valuable time talking about its exceptionalism and its capacity for greatness, while shackling its own hands.
The hole in the ground at the site of the Twin Towers suggests how this story might end. Rather than lose by default, the hole in the ground should inspire us to think smarter, work harder, move faster, and believe in ourselves again.