America’s culture of no

November 26, 2010

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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Just wanted to tell you that I have enjoyed reading your column in Fridays Globe and Mail. I still remember reading your articles in the Financial Tines.
I find your articles insightful and thought provoking.

Keep up the good work.

Bohdan Leshchyshen

Posted by Leshchyshen | Report as abusive

The culture of no is also the perfect fit for a lazy citizenry, my diagnosis of the current discontent and crankiness pervading the political and social conversation. Yes, we want to feel secure, but we’d rather have an authoritarian state to do that for us-and determining a national profile that makes us inherently safer by being less offensive would mean actually reading books. (Real books by people with an interest in facts – no Beck, no Coulter, no Palin, no Hannity, no O’Reilly) Yes, we want fewer taxes, but mostly because we can’t figure out for ourselves exactly what’s wrong with the way we spend money as a nation – economics gives us a headache. And no, we don’t want tax cuts ended because analyzing who is paying what is so tedious that a slogan is much more manageable. Imagine if enough Americans decided to think for themselves, arm themselves with enough education to make thinking possible, and then say YES to the strategies that would help us move forward. Saying YES to real democracy where involved citizens felt responsible for being informed. Saying yes to real news instead of the ever-devouring Fox Speak that has devoured political dialog. Saying YES to getting both body AND mind up in the morning. Sadly, unlikely to occur in a nation of obese people with rapidly fading interest in the effort required to behave as the Founding Fathers intended. For all the schreeching, complaining, obfuscating and manipulation currently afoot in the phoney demand for believing in hewing to the original intent of the Constitution, there is virtually no equally strident call for citizens to behave as the Constitution intended – functioning citizens in a union of the people, by the people and for the people. I believe that the Founding Fathers would weep at the sight of the current political circus featuring some of the most obnoxious and ill-equipped clowns in this nation’s history.

The more Americans say no to being part of an active citizenry, the more they say yes to the poseurs and demagogues that appear to offer a choice. Ignorance and fear are bad bedfellows for true democracy.

Posted by SoCalDanielle | Report as abusive

Lets get beyond this “ignorance/fear” debate, shall we. Sometimes the better question to ask: “is this wise, sound, prudent, and does it build a better America”?

Now, reconsider that yes/no fork in the road. Does bailing out Wall Street lend a sense of responsibility? Is it wise to empty the Treasury for universal health care when SS is not fully funded? Since when are trillion dollar deficits responsible fiscal policy?

Everyone would like to be Santa Claus and say “yes” to the world. However, that is not responsible.

Posted by GregParker77 | Report as abusive

Really like this article for its directional setting that emphasizes where the winners of tomorrow are; technology and emerging markets economies- go Brazil, India, china and technolgy in general. Also a good assessment of the american market: no more collateral or inflated assets upon which to buy anything: cars, houses, vacations, consumer goods etc. Also as SoCal demonstrates no capacity for at least a generation to pull themselves out of it.

Posted by FlyingBreeze | Report as abusive

In spite of SoCalDanielle’s post above, I believe we need to say yes to less government intrusion in our lives. We need to say yes to lower taxes. The current administration has created an oppressive government that has stiffled the economic creativity of the entire nation. We need to say yes to a culture of less taxes and less national debt. That would inspire business to generate commerce that creates jobs. It is the government itself, particularly this current administration, that doesn’t realize that optimism is about 90% of the force that makes the economy run and makes this country great. I don’t care if the next President is Democrat or Republican, as long as it is someone who has run a business, who has functioned in the marketplace, and realizes that beyond fostering regulations that provide a level playing field, Government needs to say yes to less and get the heck out of the way.

Posted by ProfessorP | Report as abusive

In my opinion the culture of “no” stems from the over abundance of laws. Some dating back to the Jim Crow era (inversion of protection), religious fortitude, and bipartisanship. The discontinuity of the national culture is very deep. On the one hand there are liberals invading the home on the TV screen and on the other there is abject poverty on the outside. Pragmatism is a great weight we as individuals and communities are dragging behind us as we try to ascend that slippery slope.

Take the healthcare bill as an example. Republicans said no because there were uncertain about change. This forced Democrats to bolster-up the charge. In reaction to this over enthusiasm, insurance companies balked. The entire thing was stalled and hyped for so long it is only questionable that it is an effective bill. While the rates dropped substantially after the signing, this was more than likely a hush-hush agreement to prevent further public backlash — backlash which would threaten any subsequent improvements.

And what is the issue??? We don’t like government generally and fear eminent failure.


Posted by vampares | Report as abusive

The military paradigm is to break-’em in boot camp. This rational extends to far to many facets of life.

The nature of this beast is that MISTRUST and skepticism is inherently reinforced through the educational system (for starters) for a LACK OF INTELLIGENCE. Time and again the irregularity of reality is reinforced without provisions otherwise. Furthermore the geniuses such as the one behind Facebook provide a faux social network that has no real value what-so-ever but misleads and delves into an irrational sense of conformity.

When we rise into the day we remember that Salmon always swim up stream. Every diversion and every dam issues a new setback. And here in low waters sits a function of destruction. So prize fish aren’t raised on a farm . . . I’ve sat through rational discussions on deeper means of life — like stronger cultures yield bolder cheese.

Nothing inspires confidence like hard facts. Positive policies rather than ones that divert. Corporations that have true integrity. And yet “disdain for markets” or “bear economy” holds progress while fictitious numbers drive the demand for free-radical corporations.

“Laws of decency” are inappropriate. “Decent laws” quiet the insanity. Numbers need not apply.

Posted by vampares | Report as abusive

The only things in contemporary America that hear “yes” are:

war without end or sufficient cause, overprinting money, allowing unlimited immigration, conformity and lack of criticism, de-europeanization, reneging on social insurance commitments, and rigging elections through control of the ballot and the media. And oh yes — let’s not forget the world’s lowest taxes on our rich and some of the highest on our poor.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

Not being American my opinion is not worth much, but for what it is worth.

The inaugural speech of John F Kennedy in 1961 talked of a generous forward thinking and giving nation a nation of Liberals, some quotes from that speech.

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.

Back then the US had a vision of a better future anything was possible.
Today the US seems to be concerned about destroying enemies and individual wealth, conservatism.

Read the whole speech it is so inspiring but just doesn’t seem to fit today’s USA.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

My conclusion from reading your article is that the spirit that made the United States the great country it is could be lost due to a change in consumer behaviour. I still believe that no generation will be made worse off than the one before it although global warming will set an enermous challenge for policy makers big business and consumers. You just have to ask the right questions. Its just that your great country will say yes to differant things. Thats the definition of capitalism.
From David Wajand

Posted by enterprise99 | Report as abusive

Any fool can say “yes” all the time. It would be equally foolish to never say “yes”. There is a season for all things and right now we are in a season of suffering the effects of over leverage. (Brought on by saying “yes” all the time). We need to get real about where we are and how we are going to get back on track.
Trying to look at the tough road ahead with a monolithic viewpoint is insane and a part of the problem.

Lets take accountability for the mistakes we have made, correct them, punish those that have willfully lead us astray (left and right) and then move forward.

Posted by Gen | Report as abusive

If you title your article “America’s Culture of No” you could at least speak of the good doctor, Dr. No AKA Ron Paul. He will eventually be known as Dr. Know. For the writer to suggest that since one fascist front in America, Google is doing well, we should make them the goal of every big business/big government institution. Americans are saying no because George Carlin was right…the Nazis lost WW2, but fascism won. Americans are tired of big biz big govt and Google.

Posted by MikeinSanDiego | Report as abusive

it is apparent the author doesn’t grasp why Americans are saying no to big business and big government. My guess is she is too entwined with one or both herself to understand. Ignorance is bliss and Orwell is still right.

Posted by MikeinSanDiego | Report as abusive

Unfortunately right now the US has political leadership that denies American exceptionalism, disparages our history, and is hell bent on creating a miserable culture of dependency. The last time we had such a terrible president was Jimmy Carter era. Obama and Carter both believed in stifling competition through government mandated social engineering, and sophomoric socialism, which is failing not just in the US but globally. Look at the wreck of our pathetic union controlled public education system, which liberals have dominated for 50 years. Now that’s tragic. And yet we spend more per student than the 27 nations ahead of us in math and science.

Posted by trajan2448 | Report as abusive

How refreshing it would be to actually read an article in my local newspaper where some big project was not always being thrown to the way side because a few vocal opponents are screaming not in my back yard.

Posted by osito3 | Report as abusive

Why should I get up in the morning if I have no college education, therefore not much spending money, therefore no chance to further educate myself in a school, I might as well stay in bed. Now if there was at least ONE factory in town I could get hired there and feel good about myself more because they would train me, pay me more than McDonalds, I’d be making something I could feel good about. And then I would have more money that I could then spend on some things besides food and shelter. But alas NO ONE rich in this country seems to have the desire to build, open, or re-open a factory, so that we “dumber” folks can have something to do, literally!

If we don’t stop outsourcing jobs and start buying American as much as possible, WE will be out matched getting weaker everyday. Don’t buy the “trickle-down lie” and or Fox snews garbage, think for yourself and demand your city build a factory. A factory in every town, that’s all we need. Oh and demand free colleges (most used to be free b4 Ronald Reagen came along and changed that model forever) that used to get us ready for factory jobs (many require an engineering degree of some kind to run the machines)

get to work people, demand a factory be built in your town! So your kids can afford to buy a house, a car, and raise a family on one income.

Posted by mjimih | Report as abusive

Americans are good at denying reality. Thanksgiving is a real good example. We present the holiday as one of peace and thanksgiving with the Indians, when in fact it was the beginning of genocide. We paint our constant state of war as bringing democracy to the world, when in fact it’s destroying our economy. We enjoy watching reality shows like “American Idol” to tell ourselves how talented we are. How about we say NO to war?

Posted by dcrimso | Report as abusive

I think that we got too far into the yes business and telling our kids they were winning when they were losing and expected all the benefits to be handed to them. I think a maybe, with ifs, is a better way to go. I think that a government that allows any merger to go forward, even though it eliminates competition is a poor government at best. We have too many career polititians and too few political parties right now. This will require a painful correction.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

Fred We are a two party country because we embrace democracy, and having 34% of the people running 100% of us won’t fly, ever. Your right tho’ we need to reign in the Corporatocracy, and that won’t happen with a majority of congress getting elected with corp. money who don’t SEE or CARE about ideas and solutions that pertain to the folks on the ground. Congress is stuffed with rich people. The supreme court is stuffed with judges that came from districts judgeships and are also out of touch with the regular folks of America. There are no folks in power that have had to take a bus to work anymore. We need to elect middle-class reformists without using unlimited corporate donations.

Posted by mjimih | Report as abusive

What a poorly written article. It purports to be a story about how America has become more negative, but spends most of its effort dealing with the exceptions to that thesis. I suppose the author is still in mourning over the November elections. Another bang-up job by the editors at Reuters for producing a headline that misrepresents the article.

Posted by DanG | Report as abusive

I can remember the bank commercials on TV in the oh’ so recent past 1990’s. A happy banker with a cash register was at the door and when he came in he was throwing money about. He was saying, “Yes, you too can have everything you want. Your house is an ATM machine. It didn’t matter that we were building up great debt. That too was the culture of yes. See where it got us. I’m an optimist by nature, but it MUST be leveled with a sense of reality of situations. The American public, except those over 90, cannot remember the Great Depression with great knowledge. For most that period was and is a black and white documentary from U.S. History class or a film like, “They shoot horses, Don’t they?” It’s the reality of today that has people in shock. Thank the banks and the mortgage companies for pushing the obscene “borrow till the cows come home” philosophy that got us into this mess. They need to help us get out of it.

Posted by neahkahnie | Report as abusive

[…] A much more sober analysis of the situation is described by Christia Freedland of Reuters in an article entitled “America’s culture of no,” in which she contrasts how Google encourages […]

Posted by Political Google « politicoblues | Report as abusive