Culture 5 – America, A Positive Sum (+∑) Culture, Mostly

This seems to be becoming routine: I get an idea; I ponder it, read and “research” it; write it; and then get hit with a multitude of higher priority items* that intrude between me and the “Publish” button. (*An organization’s finances; RFP for a building project; request to develop and teach a course: this retirement thing is not what it’s cracked up to be. Meanwhile, back at the Culture of Nations ranch…)

A recent article on cultural differences focused on the staggering number of Russians (80%) who hold a very negative view of the United States (Business Insider, 9 March, 2015). Current reasons for this certainly must take into account the absolute control of the press by the Kremlin and the perceived resistance by the west over Russian activities in the Crimea and the Ukraine (which also have about an 80% approval rate).

However, Russia is not the only country whose people have unfavorable views of America.

In 2001, an article by Fareed Zakaria expounded on his observations of this same attitude and some of the reasons for it. (The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?, Newsweek). It is still a worthwhile read.

In all honesty, to try to understand how and why a significant portion of the world thinks about the US in this way, one must go back several hundreds of years, as we did previously with Russia, to get a feel of what and how the US thinks about itself. For that, we need to take a short look at

2 Pertinent History Lessons: One You (and the media) Probably Never Learned in School, and One You (and the media) Probably Haven’t Altogether Forgotten.

1. The Little “Ice Age”: In the mid-17th century the world experienced a significant period of the coldest weather ever recorded in over a thousand years, during which perhaps about 1/3rd of mankind perished. The 50-year period from the 1640s until the 1690s especially was the longest as well as the most severe period of global cooling ever recorded, causing it to be named by climatologists “The Little Ice Age”.1 Accounts of appalling climatic conditions during this time are found in the historical records of virtually every civilization around the world, in fact beginning as early as the 1590s.2

The immediate effects included severely colder winters, colder summers, and foreshortened growing seasons and failed harvests resulting in famine. Since the world was then living with sustenance agriculture, a significantly reduced harvest provided only food for the farmer, and nothing for the market. 3

As with similar historical but more localized climatic events, man’s response typically fell into two categories: stay and attempt to survive (Fight), or migrate in hopes of better conditions for survival (Flight). “By the 1630s thousands crossed the Atlantic each year, alone promoting England’s stability because the colonies ‘serve for drains to unload their populous state which else would overflow its own banks…’ “4

The difference between a Fight and a Flight response seems to involve a higher tolerance for risk in the people choosing to migrate: choosing to stay in a known place in unpredictable conditions would seem to carry less risk than migrating to an unknown place with unknown conditions.

Recall that during the early 1600s the European migrations to North American began, migrations that were even more risky as they involved long journeys over the ocean rather than land.

I think it seems probable that the climatic conditions of The Little Ice Age not only contributed to the motivation for people to migrate across the ocean to North America, but this particular journey selected for people with a much higher risk tolerance, or willingness to assume a greater risk for survival (risk seeking), to make the voyage. Hold onto this thought.

2. The Reformation: Focused primarily on Europe, this is the one lesson we probably haven’t forgotten, considering how much we remind ourselves about a huge reason why America was founded: religious freedom.

While we generally attribute the beginning of the Reformation to 1517 when Martin Luther posted his 90 Theses, significant rumblings began in the late 15th century (~1490s) when royal families in Italy began contending for leading positions within Europe.5 The prizes were usually which family would become the ruling dynasty for a kingdom, and, based on history, this carried with it the ability (responsibility?) to determine what the religion would be for the kingdom. This thrust Europe into a ‘geographical kaleidoscope of opposing theologies’ resulting in a major theme of the Reformation: cuius regio, eius religio, ‘where you come from decides your religion.’6 This continued the time honored political logic of:

The King’s religion is The Church, and The Church is the Kingdom of God on Earth (KoGoE) – no other will be tolerated.

This is a decided game of either/or. As a result, Europe, including England and The Netherlands, experienced over a century of various wars during which there were fewer than ten years of complete peace.7

All this also coincided with the brutal effects of The Little Ice Age, and while historians wrestle with how to link these two extended events, there can be little doubt of their combined influence on the biggest population movements in Europe between the land-based ‘barbarian’ upheavals which dismantled the western Roman Empire and the 20th century’s First and Second World Wars.8

Still holding onto that thought from The Little Ice Age above? Consider that during The Reformation people were not only confronting the effects of nature, but confronting their fellow man as well. One could reasonably conclude that in addition to the two previously mentioned options (Fight – there were fewer than ten years of peace in over a century, and Flight – joining the greatest people migrations since the fall of the Roman Empire), there was now a third: Capitulation – after all, man could change his religious views, right? And on the spot!? Alas, for quick conversions, such as Jews and Protestants who converted to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition, their souls might be “saved” but they still got the stake – they could neither be trusted nor forgiven (once again, man was still pursuing the need to establish some version of KoGoE). I think we could safely say that the upheaval effects of The Reformation also selected for even greater risk tolerance, or at least a willingness to assume a greater risk for survival (risk seeking), for those who ventured across the ocean to North America.

This leads to a reasonable hypothesis that the immigrants who came to North America were not only culturally more risk tolerant, but genetically as well. Studies have shown that among other factors, there is a genetic component to being risk tolerant (if not risk seeking), certainly in financial matters. If there were only a small increase in risk tolerance among the migrating population compared with those who remained, one could expect this to further increase with time, just as one’s retirement fund could increase faster with only a marginally higher growth rate, given enough time. And we have between 300 to 400 years since these people migrations began. (One of the unexpected benefits of these “intruding items” mentioned earlier, is that it gives time for other pertinent information to surface, in this case a marvelously confirming article from The Guardian, Do Your Genes Determine Your Entire Life? which cites research affirming the increased heritability of the risk-seeking trait).

I suspect that one positive influence of this increase in risk tolerance would be to lift the upper bound of risks we were willing to take, compared with other cultures. But since this would be infused into the developing culture, becoming part of our Cultural Mean, it would also be culturally reinforced as well. We can see this in the entrepreneurial nature of our culture, seeking ways to solve problems and provide solutions that add value (that is, are a Positive Sum response). If we aren’t directly entrepreneurial ourselves, most of us certainly aren’t opposed to enjoying the benefits that come from improved living conditions and lifestyles and seeing others benefit as well. Mostly.

On the other hand, while a hypothetical increase in the presence of a more risk tolerant gene might lift the upper limit, it certainly doesn’t do anything about changing the lower limit, or for that matter, the quality of choices made when feeling particularly risky. We still have failed ideas, failed businesses (bankruptcy), and lots of people who cannot manage their finances. Making wise decisions is something learned, not inherited.

There is also another intangible factor, however, one with a potentially large effect: individual freedom. Without this cultural value we would not be so inclined to undertake such entrepreneurial ventures. Regression to our Cultural Mean helps encourage people so inclined to undertake these ventures, while in other cultures where individual freedom is not as freely enjoyed, Coercion to their Cultural Mean discourages those who have these inclinations from taking them.  They’re still there, but we see a significant number immigrate, one way or another.

There is also a very tangible factor: we have evolved a fairly open, free-market economy, which means there is potential funding available to get these entrepreneurial ventures started, IF the ideas and business plans makes fairly good sense, and the possibility of benefitting from broader acceptance of any Added Value. Who wouldn’t want to participate in the (Positive Sum) birthing of a new venture that promises to deliver a new form of Added Value that previously did not exist? The people who finance these are more risk tolerant themselves, but, alas, don’t necessarily have a lock on making the best choices. They crash also. Ahh, downside of risk taking.

These first three cultural factors, increased risk-tolerance, individual freedom, and a fairly free-market economy are not wholly independent of each other. They are coupled together, and an increase or decrease in one greatly influences the others.

I sense that our increased risk-tolerance and its potential benefits (and downsides) are totally missed by others, while their perception of our valuing individual freedom is more often misunderstood (partially due to other cultural lenses and partially our own fault, since we seem to have lost a good perspective on what this really means), and their negative perception of our free-market system is distorted by the resulting behaviors they observe through the lens of their own cultures.

It will be helpful, I think, to save these last important thoughts above and expand on it in the next post.

Next: America – In The Looking glass

Notes: The following two books, Global Crisis and The Reformation, are truly worthwhile and significant reads.
1 Global Crisis, xvii.
2 The Reformation, 554
3 Global Crisis, 20.
4 Global Crisis, 24.
5 The Reformation, xxiii-xxiv.
6 The Reformation, 164.
7 The Reformation, 671.
8 The Reformation, 672.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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