As a consultant and advisor, I’ve helped over 50 entrepreneurs improve their businesses. 

Currently working in AustraliaThailand, and Albania. About to publish my first book about the five keys to an incredible career.

Towards a new geographical advantage

For context, much of this assumes an understanding of the book “Why The West Rules – For Now” by Ian Morris. I recommend watching this lecture as well.

A synopsis of the book would be to say that “geography matters.” This should be an uncontroversial statement. Nobody would argue that rivers are needed for a nation to trade on rivers, or that fertile ground is needed to grow a wide range of crops – these are self evident. Perhaps we are upset that a desert or tundra results in limited food production, and thus population, and thus specialization, and thus GDP per capita. People, through no fault of their own, are born into these environments. It feels oppressive to say that geography could have such a major influence. Yet, it is dishonest to pretend otherwise. “He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation” to quote Machiavelli.

I’m currently working on a piece about the battle of ought and is. But in short, ignorance to the is does nothing to benefit whatever ought you wish. So, I shall not ignore the is and its implications. Geography is a very big is.

Now, on to my point.

Geographies unlock latent advantages as new technologies arise. Some of these advantages (and disadvantages) apply to States. Some to businesses. Some to individuals.

Take agriculture.

Agricultural development required fertility and reasonably predictable rainfall. Before agriculture, fertility and rainfall were not really an advantage. But with it, it becomes an advantage. This advantage was conferred upon States. Empires were made on the basis of food surplus. New jobs were created and inventions made as fewer people were required to work in food gathering/production.

Another example is ocean trade. Advancements in ship construction unlocked this advantage. States with such construction abilities that had access to oceans and quality local timber then gained this advantage. The Swiss were not known for their navy or their sea trade; the Spanish and the Portuguese were. This is not due to some problem with the Swiss, or some cleverness of the Spanish or Portuguese. It has to do with geography.

Let’s move to more recent history. Cities.

Cities conferred an advantage to people and businesses. A metropolitan congregation of talent, knowledge, and options. Capital and knowledge labor were in abundant supply and all in the same area. The jobs were first driven to the cities that were there – in the US context, this is NYC, Chicago, LA, etc.

Individuals and businesses needed to be in a big city. That’s where the options and the mobility were. It’s where your market was, your supply, your demographic, your advertising base, etc.

The technological changes that influenced this were largely economic developments (the expansion of knowledge and capital as sources of economic development) and technological (communications networks that allowed many people to work together, effectively, in the same office and city).

We increased specialization, and businesses worked with the locality. It was easy to keep that process going as individuals and corporations kept innovating for their (very large) backyard.

Things have changed.

Just as landline phones in the 60’s made it easy to work with anyone in your area, the internet and cell phones made it easy to work with anyone, anywhere. Culture is starting to catch up (with a big push by coronavirus). But people will soon realize that talent is everywhere, and many businesses could be located anywhere. The local still matters, it always will. But increasingly, a “good environment for business” doesn’t mean rainfall, or oceans, or cities, but… something else.

If many businesses could be anywhere, and if many workers could be anywhere… then where?

What is the new geographical advantage?

My belief: natural beauty.

NYC, London, Chicago, “the cookie cutter metropolis” will lose (they aren’t naturally beautiful). Southern Chile will win. The Costa Rican coast will win. Western Washington will win. Western China will win. Small towns in the mountains you haven’t heard of will win.

As location and job become de-linked, more people will find that they actually have a better existence on a beach, or near a mountain, or surrounded by a forest. These attributes used to mean “disadvantage” as they prevented city building (which needed flat, boring terrain).

I don’t believe this will go as far as reshaping great power politics, because most great nation states have their own unknown alcoves of natural beauty. But it will reshape the destinations that businesses and labor will go to.

If there were a local policy objective, it would be this: make your town beautiful and environmentally excellent. People will come and they will bring money and opportunity.

And, if you’re the mayor in a small town in Iowa or something (I’m from Iowa, so, not meaning offense…), then you’ve got the geographical cards stacked against you.

My thoughts out of season

Today we have a global pandemic. Which threatens the health of people and economies. Time will tell which one is more vulnerable, and which we are more willing to risk. Time will also tell who was wrong, and the answer will likely be all of us.

Today we have social unrest. Our history, our norms, our future; the disagreement is as wide as it is deep. It is unclear if we could say that we are minimally joined on the basis of a Constitution, or by birth inexorably separated on the basis of identity. Time will privilege popular speech, or well-funded speech, and we are certainly speaking. Time will also tell who has been listening, and the answer will likely be none of us.

Today is a season of cultural pessimism, to the extreme.

The risks of too much cultural fervor have been well studied. The risks of its antithesis have not.

In 1873 the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published Thoughts out of Season. The first essay in the text was a commentary on the War of 1870 between the Second French Empire and the North German Confederation which was led by the Kingdom of Prussia. The French lost. The treaty of Frankfurt was signed. The German Empire was born. And German intellectuals and newspapers proclaimed far and wide a victory on the basis of the great German culture. This had consequences later in two wars that most Americans are well aware of. My focus is not on this history – though giving a brief was necessary for context – but rather Nietzsche’s essay, which offers us truths for today.

But of all evil results due to the last contest with France, the most deplorable, perhaps, is that widespread and even universal error of public opinion and of all who think publicly, that German culture was also victorious in the struggle, and that it should now, therefore, be decked with garlands, as a fit recognition of such extraordinary events and successes. This error is in the highest degree pernicious: not because it is an error,—for there are illusions which are both salutary and blessed,—but because it threatens to convert our victory into a signal defeat. A defeat?—I should say rather, into the uprooting of the “German Mind” for the benefit of the “German Empire.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thoughts out of Season

This is a risk in too much love of culture. The consequences were predicted by Nietzsche in 1873. Too much love of self is to the detriment of the other. It makes us exclusionary, and if left unchecked, violently exclusionary.

How then could too little love of self – or hatred of American culture – be without equivalent risk? The nature of the risks borne by any thesis are borne of its antithesis. It is simply their appearances that are different.

Public opinion in America today is not altogether different than what Nietzsche was commenting on. The winds are of a similar heat and volume, just a different direction.

To rephrase that statement from Nietzsche – it is widespread and universal of all those who think publicly that American culture is damned and the cause of our struggles, and that it should now, therefore, be chastised on 24-hour news, hashtags, and emails in your promotions folder.

It is no longer the fault in us, nor the fault in our stars – It is American culture that we blame for our defeats of the day.

I offer no defense for the present leadership in the current crises, nor the invisible asterisk placed by the founders after the word Liberty. What I do defend most seriously is what is textually enshrined in our Constitution – we constrain the powerful.

Our Laws were not written to grant rights to the powerful or unlimited license to the elected majority. They were written to constrain them, saints, tyrants, and fools alike – but especially tyrants and fools, as well as too great a wind of change.

Here, I must directly quote W.B. Yeats, as I could not possibly improve this statement:

Berkeley proved that the world was a vision, and Burke that the State was a tree, no mechanism to be pulled in pieces and put up again, but an oak tree that had grown through centuries.

W.B. Yeats, Speech to Irish Literary Society, 1925

A State that isn’t like a tree is a tyranny. Meaning it must grow. But slowly.

These ideas are profound. They are the axiom bearing the weight of the American project – of liberty and justice for all, itself. These are being questioned. And those questions are left unchecked as we popularly display our opposition to American culture. And to not be misunderstood, I regard American culture as the ideas which I call so profound. Ideas drafted in Our Declaration, enshrined in Our Constitution, and fortified in Our Bill of Rights.

To return to Nietzsche, how is our cultural pessimism questioning this? We are looking to cultures that managed their response to the pandemic with greater infection-rate declines. We look at Korea, a very centralized government and orderly culture. We look to western Europe, cultures that rely more heavily on the State. Notably, all of these are much smaller geographies, which makes governance and centralized authority more effective and cost efficient. The sign above Plato’s Academy read “let no one ignorant of geometry enter here.” For Plato, ignorance to basic physical facts of the world prevented one from engaging in philosophy. It could just as well be said that ignorance to basic geography prevents one from engaging in political philosophy.

But our facts are selected. And with that, it is easy to say that American culture is wrong. In this season. It is with risk, perhaps, that I defend these notions. If the reason were only my preference that the risks of too much liberty are more acceptable than the risks of too little, I wouldn’t feel cause to write.

Yet I do so because the flower of government – its policies, programs, and interventions – grows from a seed of culture and law.

The more our cultural pessimism grows, the more our legal principles will fall into the mere words they actually are. The flower that grows from it, with time, will be very different.

Time is a better judge. And the history future writes, like so many histories already written, will be authored less by truth, justice, or liberty, and more by the victor.

“The Prince” for the Chief Executive – Ch 14 Para 1

An executive ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for their study, than profit and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to the chief executive, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who inherit corporations, but it commonly enables people to rise from poverty to wealth.

And, on the contrary, it is seen that when executives have thought more of the comparatively trivial and simple tasks than of profit they lose their jobs, or their companies. And the first cause of loss is to neglect this art; while what enables you to maintain a company is to be master of the art. Many people, through becoming profitable, from garages came to create more wealth than many nations. After a generation, virtually all of these corporations were lost, through avoiding profit by following popular fashion, from simple lack of ability, or the bondage of the innovator’s dilemma.

For among other evils which being unprofitable brings you, it causes you to be ignored, and this is one of those ignominies against which an executive ought to guard themselves. Because there is nothing proportionate between the profitable and the unprofitable; and it is not reasonable that they who are profitable should negotiate on the terms of those who are unprofitable, or that the unprofitable should be equal and fair party to an agreement of the profitable. Because, there being in the one no confidence and the other no merit, it is not possible for them to find fair exchange and mutual benefit. And therefore an executive who does not understand the art of profit, over and above all other concerns, cannot be successful, cannot create wealth, and cannot provide prosperity. The executive ought never, therefore, to have out of their thoughts this subject of profit, and in a profitable quarter they should addict themselves more to its exercise.

This can be done in two ways, the one by innovation, the other by process improvement.

Here is the original text.

A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study, than war and its rules and discipline; for this is the sole art that belongs to him who rules, and it is of such force that it not only upholds those who are born princes, but it often enables men to rise from a private station to that rank. And, on the contrary, it is seen that when princes have thought more of ease than of arms they have lost their states. And the first cause of your losing it is to neglect this art; and what enables you to acquire a state is to be master of the art. Francesco Sforza, through being martial, from a private person became Duke of Milan; and the sons, through avoiding the hardships and troubles of arms, from dukes became private persons. For among other evils which being unarmed brings you, it causes you to be despised, and this is one of those ignominies against which a prince ought to guard himself, as is shown later on. Because there is nothing proportionate between the armed and the unarmed; and it is not reasonable that he who is armed should yield obedience willingly to him who is unarmed, or that the unarmed man should be secure among armed servants. Because, there being in the one disdain and in the other suspicion, it is not possible for them to work well together. And therefore a prince who does not understand the art of war, over and above the other misfortunes already mentioned, cannot be respected by his soldiers, nor can he rely on them. He ought never, therefore, to have out of his thoughts this subject of war, and in peace he should addict himself more to its exercise than in war; this he can do in two ways, the one by action, the other by study.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter 14