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Algora Publishing - The US Disease of Scale and Proportion
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Tuesday,
The US Disease of Scale and Proportion
Flight attendants hate passengers because they behave like beasts, and the beasts hate the crew because they’ve become wardens rather than waiters. What’s more, the rudest and dumbest are in charge of keeping the skies secure. I dread to think what’s going on in some control towers.
Financial Times

America Inc needs to get smart

By Tyler Brûlé

Published: November 22 2008 01:00 | Last updated: November 22 2008

I’ve been meaning to write this particular column for a while now but I was going to hold off until just before the inauguration to jot down a To Do list for Barack Obama’s inbound administration.

However, the news that America’s big three carmakers are looking for a bailout to the tune of $25bn (£17bn), and that its airlines will no doubt follow suit, impelled me to file this story on Wednesday from New York. I was feeling particularly strongly about the subject because I’d just been shuttling around the San Francisco area for two days in a big, bloated American car and was fresh (hardly) off the United Airlines overnight service from SFO to JFK.

Let’s deal with the four-wheeled transport first. Why should the US taxpayer bail out a motor industry that has done little in the way of innovation and possibly less to produce vehicles that people feel good about driving? In some corners of the world, my head turns when I pass an attractive car. In the US, my head turns in horror as one monstrosity after another blocks out the daylight in the rear-view mirror.

The US is suffering from a disease of scale and proportion that not only affects the waistlines of its citizens but also the size of vehicles and houses. In terms of family cars and runabouts, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Detroit when the automotive chiefs clearly haven’t been listening to Americans who define themselves as Acura, Toyota, BMW and Honda drivers. What do these consumers see in these brands beyond the obvious lures of reliability and price? Answer: they find sound design packaged in attractive, human-scale cars.

The big three carmakers have also managed to mess up some of their international acquisitions. Saab is a perfect example of a niche, much-loved brand that General Motors could have used to launch a series of clever-looking and performing vehicles. Instead, they’ve left that territory wide open for Subaru to exploit. And don’t get me started on the opportunities lost by Ford with Land Rover and Jaguar.

It is for these reasons and others that Detroit should be left to wither. Yes, there’ll be job losses and the state of Michigan will need to rethink what it wants to be (a province of Canada perhaps?) but Americans aren’t going to fall out of love with their cars, so there’ll be plenty of CEOs from Nagoya, Munich and Seoul flying into Detroit to kick a few tyres.

In America’s less-than-friendly skies it’s the entire aviation system that needs a kicking:­ the airlines, airport operators, the federal security body, air traffic control and passengers.

Put simply, nobody seems to care. Passengers treat airports as if they were their living rooms and aircraft as if they were their bedrooms. Public space is treated as private space (shoes off and stinky bare feet draped over armrests), iPods are cranked up without consideration for others and noxious takeaways are unpackaged to drip and waft through whole cabins.

Flight attendants hate passengers because they behave like beasts, and the beasts hate the crew because they’ve become wardens rather than waiters. What’s more, the rudest and dumbest are in charge of keeping the skies secure – I dread to think what’s going on in some control towers.

Your average US citizen is quick to defend many things about his or her country, but the state of air travel isn’t one of them – which brings me to that To Do list. In the upcoming issue of Monocle, I suggest that one of the new president’s main focuses should be on infrastructure. Here’s a few more things he might want to shift to the top of the agenda:

1) Let the Big Three rust. If there’s anything worth salvaging in the US automotive sector, then suitors will swoop in and ensure there are enough vehicles to move the nation around.
2) Allow full foreign ownership of airlines. Let foreign carriers come in and buy up failing airlines and pave the way for a liberal aviation sector.
3) Privatise all airports. The New York travel experience might be superior if the Singaporeans were running and overhauling Newark.
4) Create a new national uniform. Obama’s trim suits on a trim frame might prompt American men to get out of comfy (read: “I’ve given up on myself”) mode and start updating their wardrobes. With men’s fashion titles only interested in showing unwearable garments on American Idol drop-outs, it’s hard to blame the US male for being a bit misguided.
5) Shake up Chicago. The Windy City might be a good place to road-test a few ideas: ­overhaul public transport, champion new housing initiatives and spark an urban revolution. We’ve already witnessed an enthusiastic and willing audience for change.
6) Media. All US news outlets should devote 30 per cent of their pages or airtime to overseas news and views.
7) Scale it down. Small should be positioned as truly beautiful:­ the new administration should champion small businesses, smaller-scale living and smaller calorie intake.
8) Craft a culture of pride. If part of the Obama mantra has been “made in America by Americans”, he might want to inject the words “pride” and “craft” into the mission statement. America Inc needs to relearn a culture of craft and bring back some lost arts from Asia and Latin America.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine.
tyler.brule@ft.com

The US Disease of Scale and Proportion