Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Blight of Short-termism

A couple of weeks ago, hot on the heels of similar announcement out of Detroit by General Motors, Ford unveiled plans to close a dozen plants and prune their workforce by 30,000 in the next few years. So, here are two of the great icons of American industry in trouble, and from all I have heard and read there are probably several other large companies that are facing difficult times ahead -- and a key component of all this seems to be short-sightedness.

Indeed, short-termism is a huge problem thoughout out whole culture, whether we are thinking of politics, commerce, or the Christian community. Just this week the Administration has announced a budget that has built into it a huge deficit, and this on top of the nation's debt has doubled in the last five years -- just as pension and healthcare bills for seniors are about to skyrocket. Again, part of the problem seems to be thinking in the short-term of how can we get elected again, and not what are the implications for America, the next generations, and the world, by racking up unimaginable debts year in and year out. Whatever smoke and mirrors economists may use, the time has to come where settling up of debts is necessary -- and China is wriggling a little and showing signs that it might eventually call the USA on this one.

Let's go back to the auto manufacturers for a moment because the scenario that surrounds their demise is a little easier to grasp than that of the government. For years the car companies have been coasting along thinking that massive profits that were wracked up by churning out trucks and SUVs would keep on coming in forever and ever, and that Americans would always want these gas guzzlers that have the rest of the world shaking their heads in amazement.

That might have been the case a while back, but the writing has been on the wall for a number years now that gasoline was not always going to be cheaper at the pump that bottled water. Indeed, most forecasters were predicting significant price rises somewhere in the middle of this decade: and they have proved right. The auto manufacturers just did not seem to be listening. They KNEW best, now even the most optimistic analysists are worried that their day could well be over.

The reasons for the fuel price rises that have folks fleeing to hybrids and something smaller are multifold, but here are a few:

* China and India, with their billion plus populations, have not only been developing their industries for a while now, but because of this were becoming massive importers of petroleum products. Sheer demand would inevitably push prices up. Americans are part of the world, they do not live in a bubble insulated from the rest of the world and the ebb and flow of trade.
* Certain oil producers have either reached peak production or are close to doing so (possibly even Saudi Arabia), and while it is being furiously debated all over the world, it is increasingly likely that we are getting close to having used up 50% of all known oil reserves. When that happens with a finite commodity, prices are bound to rise.
* Until fuel prices started to rise significantly there was no incentive for Americans to conserve or look for alternative fuels. But they suddenly shot up and the charge is on for something else.

Then the auto companies had competitive problems of their own:

* Their workforces were aging, which would raise all sorts of questions regarding healthcare and pension expenses. Just this week GM have decided to abandon their old-style pension fund in favor of 401k plans because they could no longer carry that pension burden.
* That while the quality of American cars was improving, the Japanese and others have kept on raising the benchmark in terms of efficience, quality, as well as price, and technology.
* They seemed to assume that Americans would always prefer to buy juggernaut vehicles with a nice profit margin related to them, rather than trading down when fuel became too expensive.

I could go on, and surely there are all sorts of other issues and concerns that enter into the mix with these and other major corporations who are now struggling. Behind a lot of it has been that they have spent their time surveying the quarterly profit and loss statements, rather than looking to the horizon and wondering where they might be in five, ten, twenty years or more into the future. Most have not even begun thinking adequately in the long-term, and as a result their planning, thinking, research and development have lagged far, far behind their competition elsewhere in the world.

American auto companies have, for example, improved the quality of their product, but to where the Japanese were maybe 12-15 years ago. The Japanese took and ran with hybrid technology, the Europeans took and ran with deisel technology, but the Americans had their heads buried firmly down several huge great holes in the ground. Instant solutions preclude the development of the finest quality.

It seems that there is a close relationship between short-term thinking and instant gratification. We now live in a culture where if I can't have it now, then its almost as if it is not worth having. We seem to have lost our ability to defer pleasure and gratification. A symptom of this is our addiction to credit card spending, and another is our endless quest for pleasure and entertainment. As Neil Gabler says in the title of his book that life now apes the movies. What he means by that is that we allow fiction to share reality rather than the other way round.

All this impinges on the church and the way that the People of God go about their business. The big megachurches around here are fiercely competitive, attempting always to put on the best performance on a Sunday along with the most attractive programs during the week. Now, while there is nothing wrong with doing church well and benefiting numerically, a by-product is roving bands of consumer who never advance in discipleship one whit. Churches as a result tend to cease majoring as communities of faith and take on other characteristics.

Few churches, mainline or conservative, seem to have grasped that building up Christians is for the long haul, lifelong, and this needs to be done within the context of genuine community -- which is also something that does not happen overnight. We talk about the Christian faith being a journey, but we have this tendency to turn want to turn it into a quick stroll around the backyard.

Impatience is one of the greatest shortcomings of our culture, and it is deeply ingrained in the life of the churches. We see it everywhere. People think they can use the one-minute-manager approach to growing in the faith. Episcopalians think that if the problems of the primary Anglican franchise in North America that took 300 years to get into this pickle cannot be solved in 30 months, then they are opting out and will create their own. Success and failure in church-planting is not judged by what God is doing in people's lives but in numbers.

I would love us believers to become really countercultural and try to turn our backs on this short-termist mentality. But perhaps I am being too optimistic to think such a thing could happen.

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