America’s culture of no | Analysis & Opinion |

Saying ‘yes’ is one of the dominant tropes of American life. America’s favorite politicians are the sunny optimists: think Ronald Reagan and “Morning in America.” In fact, the culture is so insistent on looking on the bright side that, as Barbara Ehrenreich complained in a recent book, injunction can be heard on the cancer ward. You might even say — and some historians have — that Americans themselves have been pre-selected for their optimism: you or your ancestors had to have a powerful faith in the New World and the opportunities here to make the trek over in the first place.

That’s why when I interviewed Nikesh Arora, Google’s head of sales, operations and business development at a media conference last week, one of his comments had particular resonance with the live midtown Manhattan audience and in the blogosphere shortly afterwards. Google, Arora said, works hard to create “a culture of yes.”

Arora described the Google approach as an “inversion” of the attitude in more traditional companies, where “everybody in management is trying to look at where the flaw is when somebody is presenting. Everybody is trying to figure out what’s wrong with their plan.” At the Googleplex, by contrast, “we’re going to say what’s right with it, let’s find a way to say yes.”

According to Arora, creating a culture of yes is central to creating a culture of innovation. As he put it: “the more times you say yes, the more you create a culture of yes, the more likely you’re going to have people innovating and coming up with great ideas. The more you say no, people will absorb that, anticipate that and say, ‘What’s the point of me trying to innovate, management is going to say no anyway’.”

Google’s culture of yes extends to the pay-checks of its employees: a couple of weeks before I interviewed Arora, Google had given all of its 20,000 staff members a $1000 holiday bonus and decreed a company-wide 10 per cent pay raise.

Before the financial crisis, Google’s gung-ho commitment to innovation, and even its $1 bn company-wide retention bonus, would have been perfectly in tune with what I can’t resist calling the national zeitgeist. But what made Arora’s comments so striking this month was their sharp contrast with the mood of America, and even most of the developed world.

Google’s chiefs are striving to build a culture of yes, but most of America is living in a culture of no: banks aren’t lending, businesses aren’t hiring and consumers aren’t spending. That’s true of much of Europe, too: the latest act in the sovereign debt crisis has pushed the continent deeper into its new age of austerity.

That contrast points to one of the deeper consequences of the recession and slow-motion recovery: after two generations of plenty, the developed world has abruptly shifted to a culture of no. That includes even the homeland of the optimists, America. The culture of no is already being reflected in American politics, where the Republican legislative strategy of just saying no has proven spectacularly successful politically.

The two exceptions are the emerging markets — already re-branded fast-developing economies by some of their fans — and the technology sector. These countries, and this industry, remain cultures of an emphatic, even accelerating — remember that 10 per cent pay raise — yes. And even in nations that have been pushed into the no camp, anyone smart and lucky enough to surf the waves of the technology revolution and the rise of the emerging markets is still living in the land of yes. That’s why the New York Times this week announced the return of conspicuous consumption on Wall Street, even as Main Street is experiencing, at best, a prolonged period of slow growth.

We are living in at time of unprecedented international interconnection and access to information. But it is also a moment when different parts of the world, and different groups within societies, are moving at very different speeds. A good way to understand the divide is between the cultures of yes and the cultures of no.

One reason this recession is so tough on the American middle class is that by habit and by inclination, it belongs to the culture of yes. But high unemployment, a stalled housing market and less access to consumer credit has trapped the middle class in the culture of no. That is turning out to be a social and political problem as much as an economic one.

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