Monday, February 15, 1999

Business still rules in the United States


Every time I travel in the United States on business, I'm struck by the buoyancy of the entrepreneurial spirit. Everyone is a hustler, everything is on the move.

At the airport in Atlanta, even the sidewalks are mobile so that travellers can connect quickly between the five concourses needed to accommodate all the flights. Each concourse in Atlanta is larger than the entire airport at Dorval. The distances between the five terminals are so great that they have trains on rubber wheels to connect them.

The bulletin boards flash signs in English, French, Spanish, German, Japanese and Arabic.

As my Delta MD-80 taxied toward its takeoff spot for the second leg of a journey, I noted the flurry of activity on the tarmac below — perhaps as many as 50 Delta flights being loaded or unloaded at their bays, in addition to hundreds of flights from other airlines.

There was also action inside the cabin. The man next to me dressed like a cowboy was chatting up a stewardess who looked like the model Naomi Campbell. He was pretty flamboyant himself — blue denim shirt and jeans, white alligator cowboy boots, a black leather jacket and a light brown Stetson hat.

His sweet talk bore fruit. She gave him an extra can of juice. As he is fond of saying, "When you do the Lord's business, you get deals." He is the Reverend Walter George Bracy, CEO of the the First Baptist Church of Prichard, Ala., and a university graduate with a double major in religion and business administration.

"Most churches don't handle God's business well," he said. "But the Lord's ministry must be financial. If we're good stewards, we can grow spiritually, numerically and economically."

I learned during a 30-minute conversation with him that Bracy has increased the membership of his church to 525 from 250 during the last three years and that he has plans for a major expansion, including a new sanctuary and a day-care program which will be self-financing.

When he visits Alabama businessmen looking for their support, he puts on a suit and tie. But most of the time, he likes to dress casually. "I like to be down to earth," he said. "If I wear a suit, it's intimidating. I don't have time for games. I'm for real. It's the only way to be."

The image of a man of cloth with a business brain and the title of CEO struck me as a typically American phenomenon. Everything in the U.S.A. is geared for business — even religion — because Americans start out with a social vision which promotes the pursuit of wealth.

They start with the premise that everyone is born equal and has a chance to make it big. To earn money in an egalitarian society like that of the U.S. is an honor. It shows you have talent, character and conviction. Everyone applauds your spunk. No government barriers which hinder commerce will ever be erected or tolerated. Property rights are basic to the U.S. constitution.

Contrast it with the attitude in Canada where the class system prevails. You are born into wealth and privilege here. If you have to earn money, it means you were born on the wrong side of the tracks. In Canada, governments have consistently passed legislation which hinder commercial transactions and have even erected barriers to trade between provinces.When the Trudeau government gave us a charter of rights and freedoms in the early 80s, it did not include property rights.

In the U.S., there is no higher calling then to start your own business. It is the American experience in a microcosm. Banks, such as Wells Fargo, are geared to serving the interests of small business because they understand them to be the engine of growth for the economy as a whole.

Once again, contrast that attitude with the disdain with which Canadian banks treat their small business clients. They neither understand them nor do they respect the rugged individualism which is required to start your own business.
But individualism and egalitarianism are cornerstones of American culture. "Americans love liberty, but they love equality more," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, his seminal analysis of U.S. society done over 160 years ago.

De Tocqueville, a French lawyer, statesman and writer, was sent by his government to study the American penal system. He ended up making 14 notebooks of observations which became the basis of what is still considered a source of insight into the institutions and character of the American experience.

De Tocqueville came to two conclusions about America: 1) The majority is always right and there is no moral power higher than it. 2) Every individual is the only lawful judge of his own interests.

His book deals with how U.S. society resolves the conflict between majority rule and self interest. It also notes frequent examples of fortunes being won and lost in business during one generation.

The U.S. is an especially propitious environment for small businessmen. Americans love the underdog. The nation was formed in the crucible of revolution and, once again, business interests were central to its formation.

Ironically, George Washington, who would go on to become the first U.S. president, fired the shots which precipitated the first world war known as the Seven Years' War which led to the British capture of North America and which itself served as the forerunner of the American Revolution.

It happened innocently enough when Washington, then a Virginia militia major in one of the 13 British colonies, ambushed a small French detachment in the Ohio Valley in 1754 even though war had not yet been declared between Britain and France. His rash action led to more jockeying and skirmishes between British and French forces in North America. Finally, Britain declared war against France in May, 1756.

The protagonists were Britain, Prussia and Hanover against France, Austria, Sweden, Saxony, Russia and Spain. Britain's war aims were to destroy the French navy and merchant fleet, seize its colonies and eliminate France as a commercial rival.

France concentrated most of its troops in Europe, while Britain committed most of its troops to North America. It sent 23,000 soldiers to defend its 13 colonies in America.

On Sept. 13, 1759, Maj.-Gen. James Wolfe with 9,000 men under his command defeated Gen. Marquis de Montcalm at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of Quebec City. One year later, the French were forced to cede Canada to the British, although the war continued in other parts of the world until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1763.

During the negotiations to end the war, the French did not even try to win back Canada. Instead, the Duc de Choiseul, the French prime minister, pushed to regain Martinique and Guadeloupe. He also wanted Cape Breton as a base for the Grand Banks fisheries, but was forced to settle for St. Pierre and Miquelon.

He must have been some chess player. He already suspected what de Tocqueville would document 75 years later — the fierce sense of individualism and egalitarianism of the American colonists. De Choiseul figured that if France removed itself from Canada by giving up all claims, the American colonies would revolt against Britain once they realized they did not need protection against the French.

Of course, he was right. The British, staggering under a war debt of £150 million, tried to impose a series of taxes on the colonists even though such actions flew in the face of their own principles that only those with parliamentary representation could be taxed.

The American colonists, who had no voice in the British parliament, didn't take well to the tax measures. On Dec. 16, 1773, they threw a party — the Boston Tea Party — where they dumped a shipment of British tea in Boston harbor.

On April 19, 1775, the colonial militia known as "minutemen" fired the first shots of the American Revolution at Lexington, Mass. as proof positive that in America you can't put your hands in the pockets of hard-working businessmen and you can't shove bureaucracy down their throats without a fight.

Warren Perley is a former Gazette journalist who is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a graphic design and marketing company.