When I was in the drug and alcohol treatment business, my old boss, who was a whiz at modern management, used to describe unmotivated staff members as "fat, dumb and happy."
Utilizing the latest management techniques, he would cajole, educate and motivate staff to a higher level of development unless it was hopeless. If that were the case, it was time for them to get off the bus and go elsewhere. Larry's theory was that we had become way too comfortable and self-satisfied in our country, and it was time to get competitive and be uber-productive. It worked. While we were going strong we were at the cutting edge of addiction treatment.
I was quickly reminded of Larry and his management lessons when I saw some of the recent statistics on Doug Henwood's Left Business Observer site. President Obama's speech last Wednesday discussed fear and the goal of American's to deal with our fear by shaping the future. Some of the data I saw shows a real need to be as industrious as we were in the years after World War II and to take a much more active hand in shaping our future. Growing up in the post-Sputnik era, I saw firsthand the technique to teach math change on a dime. Old math and science textbooks were thrown out, and local school boards moved to ditto sheets and quick printing until new textbooks could be written. No, this time the Russians haven't put a satellite up in the sky, but our competition might as well have. The statistics are sobering, and it is time to do something different.
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The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, or OECD, has released its 2009 indicators report, and much of it is not pretty in regard to the good ol' USA. Henwood has taken the time and effort to put graphs and numbers in understandable data.
We are near the top in terms of income level, but still way too many Americans live in poverty. No, we are not in the category of the Sudan/Darfur type of poverty, but in Western World terms it is poverty. Poverty is defined says Henwood as less than half of the household median income. A poor household in the United States has an income 38 percent below the poverty line. What is truly amazing is our work ethic. In this sense, we are not "fat, dumb and happy." Twenty-five countries were measured in regard to hours worked per year. The United States was first with 301 hours more than average, which equates to more than seven weeks of additional work. You might say that shows our productivity, but it also comes out to seven weeks of work time that parents do not get to spend raising their children. That translates into less time cooking nutritious meals, reading to children and helping with homework. It also means more stressed parents. It "trickles" down, as Ronald Regan used to say.
Working parents generate more daycare costs, but knowing what we know now about brain development, it is essential that young people develop neural pathways in the brain so they can learn more complex concepts in the later years. Only 58 percent of our 3 to 5-year-olds are enrolled in formal preschool programs while Mexican children have a preschool enrollment of 70 percent! France and Spain have a 100 percent and 98 percent preschool enrollment respectively. How can we possibly compete with countries that are teaching reading and reading readiness while our children are watching television as their parents are working those extra hours?
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It is not surprising that our health-care bill is going to break the bank. We are ranked 24th out of 30 countries in life expectancy, and we are the most obese of all the countries surveyed. Fat equals health-care problems, and that is expensive to treat. The United States is one of the only countries where people in their 20s are not taller than people in their 40s. That is one of the greatest indicators of lousy nutrition. School lunches, fast food from overworked parents and way too many choices from the processed food industry create an unhealthy country.
We also rank highest in lifetime prevalence in mental illness. According to Henwood's statistics, we take the lead in all of the mental problems – anxiety, mood, substance abuse and impulse control.
So, by my former boss's standards we are not fat, dumb and happy, but we are fat and not so smart. Along with health-care reform, we need lifestyle reform, and we need it urgently. Other countries that we should be ahead of will outpace us. American society needs to change at all levels – as individuals, families and communities.