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Analysing the USA: An Outsider’s Perspective

What makes the USA unique?

Over the last year I have become deeply involved in the debate in the USA regarding the future of their telecoms sector, which is proceeding very much along the lines of the trans-sector approach towards infrastructure (using it for other sectors such as healthcare, education, energy), open networks and a separation between infrastructure and applications.

While many of the issues are universal it was also interesting to observe the specific elements that make the USA so unique.

My interest was aroused when the Presidential candidate Obama and his (transition) team presented such a strong and powerful vision of a trans-sector approach to a national broadband network—only to then be confronted with the sheer impossibility of actually implementing this policy.

I began to understand that the truly democratic US political structure, along with other elements of its Senate structure (which is more powerful than that of any other country), makes implementation of what looks like an election promise a very hazardous exercise—getting the political mandate through the polls doesn’t necessarily mean getting the political mandate from Capital Hill.

This might seem somewhat strange and unfair to non-Americans.

Part of the US democratic system is also the ingrained notion of Americans that, as far as possible, the state should remain separate from society. They are seen as two distinct entities. While not unique to the USA this philosophy is stronger in that country than in all other western nations.

Society vs State

There is a healthy aspect to this, but I also believe that there is room to move forward. As societies we have become more educated, more involved, more hands-on and more demanding. Only look at social media, and the Internet in general, which has made it possible for people to become far more involved. The Obama election campaign is perhaps the single most striking example of this.

Increasingly, the debate is not what the state can deliver to its citizens but how the citizens can play a far more direct role in policy implementation (co-government). This, by the way, is not unique to the USA.

I would like to use the Australian NBN debate as an example.

When the Australian government announced a vision for the national FttH infrastructure there was an immediate chorus of people, calling for the detailed plan of how this would be implemented—and saying that if such a plan was not available at the time the vision was launched the whole idea was ridiculous and should be written off.

My argument, however, was that the last thing I would like to see was a business plan from the government on how to develop and implement its initiative. Instead I argued that we—the broader society, but, of course, particularly the industry—should take that vision (which was widely supported) and actually work together to make it happen. This has very much been the method the Australian government has adopted, and so far so good.

Increasingly we see people/communities asking governments to show leadership, to provide a vision, to create the right environment and perhaps certain facilities, so that these people can actually carry out some implementation themselves.

Foundation based on personal success

Interestingly it is the political system of the USA that has empowered its citizens beyond any other western nation. People-power has made that country both the economic and political powerhouse of the world for at least the last 50 years. This degree of democracy comes naturally to the American people—and to a certain extent most people around the world have a natural affinity with the American democratic system.

Whenever I am in Washington I try to visit the Lincoln memorial. His Gettysburg address is universal and its core principles will be shared by most people, as individuals, around the world.

Some people have argued that this has led to a society of individual greed and that a more collective social structure is harder to establish. But I don’t believe it can be said that Americans are less community-focused than people in other countries—personal power and greed are not necessarily linked.

The key driver behind the success of America has been the abovementioned ingrained notion of non-interference by the state. Prosperity is based on personal success rather than on the state providing the rewards of success. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this government policy, which was conceived by its founding fathers, has generally worked.

The Sacred Cow of ‘no state interference’

This principle of non-interference from the state runs deep. In the US telecoms industry, while most agree that the incumbent telcos are greedy and don’t deliver good services, it is very difficult for the state to intervene.

And the enormous problems the USA is facing in establishing a national healthcare system is another example of the wariness of the people about state intervention.

While this has had, and continues to have, great benefits, at the same time it is also clear that this notion of ‘interference’ has been hijacked by both certain politicians, political and religious groups, lobbyists and vested interests to generate FUD (fear, uncertainly and doubt) campaigns.

In some parts of American society this notion is now used to halt any progress in many areas, including telecommunications and healthcare.

It doesn’t matter what system or structure is used in countries, societies or communities—a dogmatic approach is never a good thing to take.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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