Graham Watt and I get together for coffee fairly regularly and discuss almost everything, ranging from kids to education to communications theory. Graham has posted several comments on this blog and recently I took one of his comments and made it a post, The Communication of Bias. I thought that it might be a neat idea to have Graham as a guest blogger, so here is a post that has more humour than any of my straight-laced, and always trying to be balanced, blog posts. They may even a become a regular feature.
We don’t have a productivity problem. We have a proximity problem.
by Graham Watt
We’re just too damn close to the U.S. Not politically. Physically. It’s turned us into American junkies. We’ve faced south so long now our asses are frozen solid. We don’t even bother inventing anything any more because they’ll do it sooner or later down there and we can just copy or borrow. Business learned this ages ago.
But it’s not just business. It’s us too. Look at television shows and movies. We’ll take their mediocre lives over our mediocre lives even if they don’t ring exactly true. We can compensate for that. Let them make them down there. We’ll just watch them.
All these problems with our low productivity relative to the U.S. can’t be solved only in economic terms. They have to be solved by addressing our proximity problems.
We have to get a handle on where we are, not who we are.
That’s snow out there, not rose petals. And that tingling feeling in your fingers isn’t stroke onset, it’s frostbite. I once saw a piece in the Montreal Gazette during a cold spell which showed us how to put plastic bags in our shoes to keep warm on cold days (an article taken from a Fort Lauderdale newspaper). I read that and I swear I could hear a whirring sound as all those fur traders buried on Mount Royal started spinning in their tombs. We haven’t got a clue where we are. It’s like we’re ducktaped to the side of a manic rhino lumbering through a swamp (Boy, I hope he knows where he’s going!).
Yes, proximity is a problem, isn’t it?
Who needs research when you can just let those other folks do it. Yet, there was a time when we actually did some neat innovative stuff. That was back in the days when pawsta was pronounced pasta. and Viet Nom was Viet Nam.
We were a big physical country then with very few people and airports, so deHavilland Canada designed Short Take-Off and Landing aircraft (STOL). The Beaver, the Otter, the Caribou, the Buffalo, (Gee, they even had Canadian type names too).They could land on little airstrips and lakes throughout the country. We sold tonnes of them. Most of them are still flying around, because they’re simple and you can fix them easily.
Remember the DeHavilland Dash-7? With the world’s most advanced STOL technology; a 55-passenger pressurized aircraft as quiet as a school bus, that could land in 1000 feet. When they tried to let it fly into Toronto Island airport there was an incredible outburst of indignation. All about noise and danger. You would have thought it was the Hindenburg with a load of plastique in it. The real problem was the Dash 7 was designed and built right in Toronto. Had it been designed and built in, say, California, the Toronto city fathers and those environmentally sensitve mothers in the Beaches would have been clambering over themselves to buy this thoughtful, sensitive and passive technology. Would have reflected well on the city. But hey, all the good stuff is down south isn’t it?
So it isn’t just business, it’s us. We don’t screw up because we try. We screw up because we don’t have to try. And it’s all of us.
That’s the proximity curse.
So forget about productivity. Our problem is proximity. We have great copyability because of it. We’re actually quite nice people, given that we look at the U.S. as if it was the J Crew catalogue.
But does anyone else actually believe proximity’s the problem? Not on your life. A new study from the Conference Board of Canada recommends that we hunker down even closer to the U.S. to get our productivity up. What’s that mean, exactly?
Copy more stuff?
Assemble more of their cars here?
Watch more of their TV programs?
Speak more like they do?
There was a time when we had clearer heads. Must have been a zillion years ago. We liked the squeak of snow on leather. An old fur trade doctor named John Rae once snowshoed from Hamilton to Toronto just for a cocktail party. No big deal. And I’m certain he wasn’t wearing a “hoodie”. In those days, another guy invented a motorized contraption that could go like crazy on all kinds of snow. sold a slew of them. Ended up making planes, trains and boats, and got so big and successful we started hating the whole idea. It wasn’t normal doing that stuff in Canada.
A long time ago another bunch of guys used to get in canoes and go from Montreal all the way to Alberta and back again. All without Vibram soles on their boots or Gore-Tex jackets, GPS’s or Tony Robbins CD’s. And they did it while singing songs. They had nature-tech canoes made of bark and if one sprung a leak they stopped, got some spruce gum from a nearby tree and some bark, patched it up, and got going again.
What was their secret? Well, they did stuff relative to where they were, not some place 500 miles south. And they weren’t doing this because they heard other guys were doing it in the U.S.. They did it for money and adventure. Ahh, you say, but that was then and this is now. Well, I have news for you. It’s only now in the U.S.
The day we understand that the problem is proximity, and we turn around and let our asses thaw, is the day our productivity will begin to grow.