(Copyright 2013 Stephen Tryon)
At the very least, here in the United States, government has presided over a society where individual success stories could occur with sufficient frequency to create the hope that the American dream was within the grasp of each of us as individuals.
The reality of the American dream is important because it creates hope, and hope shapes individual behaviors that drive the cooperative character of our society. When we hope for some goal, and we believe that goal is within our reach, then we are more likely to invest time working to achieve the goal. There is significant evidence that this mechanism is self-fulfilling: hope motivates work, and work makes the hope a reality.
In his wonderful book, Talent is Overrated, Geoff Colvin makes a persuasive case that excellence in any endeavor is a function of hard work and deliberate practice. Colvin examines cases of so-called prodigies, people widely believed to have been born with innate talent far beyond that possessed naturally by most others. Across every field of endeavor, whether in sports, art, science or business, he concludes that the difference in the level of achievement of those we consider “prodigies” is more a function of the time and deliberate practice they spend perfecting their skills than it is a result of any special natural gift.
If Colvin is right, and I believe he is, then the perception that the United States is a place where dreams come true may create conditions that, in fact, lead to a larger percentage of the population achieving their dreams here than elsewhere. In this case, the most important thing our society can do to support our pursuit of happiness is to preserve our ability to hope: to anticipate a positive return on the investments we make with constructive individual behaviors. We must preserve the perceived value of having a dream and investing in the behaviors that can make that dream a reality. One of the most basic of these cooperative behaviors is to vote.
A Case for the American Dream
At the Aspen Ideas Festival in July of 2012, I listened to Howard Shultz, the CEO of Starbucks, describe an initiative he was sponsoring to foster a dialogue on how to make America better. Mr. Schulz noted that he came from humble roots in New York City and felt an obligation to help others based on his own good fortune and success. Besides the marvelous initiative undertaken by Starbucks to make money available for small businesses in the United States, I was pleased to hear yet another story of a person who had a dream and found a way to achieve that dream here in the United States. I see evidence of the reality of the American dream all around every day.
As the executive with responsibility for human capital management—what I call the people systems—at Overstock.com, I have the privilege of seeing others realize parts of their dreams through their work. Systems such as our performance management, our online campus, and our tuition assistance provide tools for people to use in furthering their individual dreams within the company. The same tools may allow people to use their work at Overstock.com to further other life goals and dreams. This year, nearly 1,200 people have jobs at Overstock.com.
Consider the case of an employee I shall call Jim. Jim started work for Overstock.com in 2003, packing shipments for customers in the company’s main warehouse. At the time, he was working for a company that provides temporary labor to help with seasonal surges in our shipping operations. Within a few weeks, Jim had an idea for improving the efficiency of the packing process. His supervisor allowed him to build a prototype, and the idea was a great success. Soon Jim was leading a team of packers.
I first met Jim when I took over direct responsibility for warehouse operations in August of 2005. He was a natural leader and was highly respected by people throughout the warehouse. As the holiday season approached, we added a night shift so we could keep up with the increasing volume of orders. The labor market was competitive, and we had some difficulty staffing the night shift. When I needed someone to take responsibility for the entire packing operation on the night shift, Jim volunteered. He did a terrific job. Early the following year, when we no longer needed the night shift, Jim took over responsibility for all packing operations in the warehouse.
I found out that Jim had a college degree, and was attending school at night working on an advanced degree in information systems. His dream was to ultimately have a career in technology or science. The company started a scholarship program as a first step toward the tuition reimbursement program we run today. Jim received one of the first scholarships in 2007, which helped him complete his studies. In 2008, Jim notified me he was graduating with a Master of Information Systems degree.
I told Jim I would try to get him a position in information technology as soon as I could spare him from logistics. It was another two years before I felt comfortable giving him up, but he continued to work diligently running our packing operation. In 2010, Jim moved to the technology department as a tester working on the software that powered warehouse operations.
Over the course of the seven years that we have known each other, Jim married his childhood sweetheart and started a family. A year or so ago, he sent me an email to tell me he was buying a house. And, back in 2005, with the help of a letter from Overstock.com confirming his great contributions to our team, Jim received his citizenship. Like my grandfather, Jim is an immigrant.
The story of Overstock.com, and how it came to be a successful company, is another American dream story. The CEO and founder, my friend Patrick Byrne, had an idea in the 1990s to use the Internet to sell a certain type of product. After being turned down by eighteen of the private organizations that specialize in funding new business ideas, Patrick launched the company in October of 1999 with his own money and investments from family, friends and acquaintances. The story of Overstock.com is a book by itself, and that is a book I hope Patrick will write one day. My point here is simply to note that a special group of Americans invested a lot of their personal wealth to build a company that endures to this day as a part of the American economy. Over the past thirteen years, that company has provided great value for its customers, its partners and thousands of employees. The company’s success is a dream fulfilled for my friend, and that success in turn has helped many others further their dreams.
The Threat to Individual Liberty
The American dream is real for each of us as long as we can hope to make our future better by virtue of our own effort and intelligence. The key to our ability to hope is our individual liberty. This liberty has been guaranteed by a representative government for over 236 years.
Our failure to adapt to the evolution of our information stream over the past forty years is a threat to our individual liberty because it has alienated us from our indispensable role as citizens in a representative government. The most important element in our role as citizens is our duty to vote with the full, independent, honest, and imperfect wisdom we can each bring to the ballot box. No matter what we have done (or not done) to prepare, we must all vote as best we can. The lesson of The Wisdom of Crowds is that we will make better choices together than we will when some of us choose not to vote. Voter participation data show a pronounced downward trend since 1972, and I believe a major cause for this trend has been our failure to adapt to the evolution of our information stream.
We are inundated with more information than we could possibly consume. Most of us don’t have a strategy for confronting this tempest of information and are buffeted by the currents of the day. I do not believe these currents are centrally controlled as part of some nefarious conspiracy (yet), but they are governed by the economics of what sells and by our psychology as consumers. The content of the commercialized information stream, driven by economics and psychology, converges on some common themes. I call these themes the five myths. I believe the myths tend to distract us from our individual relationship with our members of Congress. I believe they lead us to more negative interpretations of events than is warranted by the facts alone.
The myths undermine our sense of hope, erode voter participation, and open a path for special interests to exert undue influence in Congress. Our perception of the rising power of special interests reinforces this negative trend. Political parties are special interests, and to the extent that our elected members of Congress vote to support a party position rather than to support the synthesis of their constituents’ visions and values, they fail us.
When fewer of us vote, the gaps between our individual positions seem greater. Compromise is harder, and we drift toward partisanship and paralysis. When more of us vote, especially for our members of Congress, the opposite effect occurs. We empower our elected officials to find common ground.
Organizations and groups, including governments and political parties of all types, have no conscience unless they are comprised of people who insist that collective actions synthesize individual values appropriately. Conscience—the little voice in our heads that tells us whether or not we are acting in accordance with our values—is a function of individual consciousness, or self-awareness. Organizations, groups and governments build their collective “conscience” from the individual values of the people who participate in shaping the group’s perception of itself.
When we choose to vote, we choose to participate in shaping a collective vision for America that reflects a synthesis of our individual values. This—and only this—is what lends America what we might call its collective conscience. When we fail to vote, we surrender the opportunity to participate in shaping our collective vision. In place of a synthesis of individual values, we are left with the lowest common denominator: political parties whose source of power is the sense of differentiation from other parties rather than a synthesis of the best of all parties. We are left with public servants who feel they must react to our fears rather than be a channel for our hopes. We are left with an America that is only as strong as its strongest special interest rather than the America that is, and always has been, greater than the sum of its parts.
Individual Liberty and Congress 2.0
As a preamble to this discussion, let me summarize the general case for which I have argued in this book:
(1) Americans have been passive consumers of information and government throughout our history.
(2) As long as the production of the commercial information stream was decentralized and the content of the stream was localized, this behavior allowed for adequate accountability for members of Congress.
(3) Over the past forty years, the production of the commercial information stream has become more centralized while the content of the stream has become less localized (geographically generic). This has made the information stream less relevant to our most important political relationship—our relationship to our members of Congress.
(4) We have not adapted to the change in our information environment.
(5) Passive consumerism of the modern information stream leads to unreflective, widespread acceptance of five myths that may be more false than true.
(6) These myths decrease faith in our government, suppress participation in federal elections, and contribute to a pernicious accountability gap in Congress.
(7) We can counteract the negative effects of the modern information environment by adopting the practice of accountability citizenship: being appropriately positive, appropriately informed, and appropriately engaged.
The first and most important step to accountability citizenship is for all of us to vote, to empower those around us to vote, and to hold our fellow citizens accountable for making the effort to vote. How others choose to vote is, of course, none of our concern. It is our right as Americans to have the choices we make on our ballot remain a secret. Whether our fellow citizens choose to vote, however, affects all of us. Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds teaches us that the most extensive participation by individuals, independent of how others are voting, is likely to lead us to the best outcome. The ultimate measure of whether we are appropriately engaged, then, is whether we have voted ourselves and whether we have been a positive influence to encourage voting behavior by those around us.
The second most important step to accountability citizenship is to create an accountability relationship with our members of Congress based on transparency. We should require the use of modern technology to facilitate a dialogue between each member of Congress and their constituents. The technology exists to create functionality in the web site of every member of Congress that will create what I call Congress 2.0. This technology would allow individuals registered to vote in a particular member’s district or state to record their top priority issues along with the rank they assign to each. Thus in real time, or at least in near real time, both member and constituents could see what people in the district considered the most important issues of the day, and how many people voted for any particular issue. Members of Congress should want to know this information, and they should want to share it with the people they serve. Leveraging collaborative technologies to create the right relationship and dialogue with our members of Congress is the key to being appropriately informed and engaged.
Establishing Congress 2.0 is critical to telling us the specific objectives for which we should hold members of Congress accountable. The essential aspect of our government—the thing we fought for in our revolution—is representation. We cannot know whether we are being properly represented unless we know that which the people have asked members to accomplish. Accountability citizenship is about people accepting their accountability to vote and participate, but it is also about our members of Congress accepting accountability for representing us.
The Constitution gives us the power to replace 87 percent of our Congress every two years. We should leverage this power by holding our members of Congress accountable for completing the specific, measurable, and achievable performance objectives that their constituents deem most important. We do not have to accept public servants who are more responsive to their party leaders than they are to the people they represent. When constituents ask for information on the positions and values of members of Congress, it is simply not acceptable for members of Congress to refuse to provide that information while citing direction given by party leaders.
The third most important step to accountability citizenship is to be appropriately positive in our posture towards the information that confronts us every day. Being appropriately positive means understanding our personal priorities and using those priorities to govern what we spend time watching, reading, and hearing. It also means using reason, as best as we can, to illuminate the perspectives and reasoning of those with whom we disagree. Finally, it means challenging the five myths wherever we find them by examining the evidence used to support them. Being appropriately positive requires us to become active rather than passive consumers of information.
Taken together, the three steps of being appropriately positive, appropriately informed, and appropriately engaged are the essential elements of accountability citizenship. Applying a positive structure of personal priorities and basic time management principles—being appropriately positive—inoculates us from the negative effects of information overload. Basic information processing skills and a rudimentary appreciation of our history and government enables us to be appropriately informed—to absorb important information from the free press while compensating for media bias. Together, being appropriately positive and appropriately informed empowers each of us to engage with our government in a way that restores and sustains an acceptable level of accountability, especially with our members of Congress. A systematic approach to individual citizenship, reinvented a bit for the information age, is all that is required to preserve the full power of the American dream for ourselves and for our children.
 Geoff Colvin, Talent is Overrated (New York: Penguin Group, 2008).