Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

The power of groceries in projecting national strength 1 – setting the stage for this discussion

Posted in macroeconomics, Web 2.0 marketing by Timothy Platt on May 9, 2014

I recently found myself thinking back to an event that took place early in my professional career. I began my work life as a biologist and a research scientist, first working in the field in the United States and in Latin America, and then in laboratories in the United States. I was working as a postdoctoral fellow at a medical school in New York when the laboratory brought in a new graduate student from what was then still the Soviet Union: Irena.

I met Irena as the airport when she first arrived in the United States and brought her back to the school campus and to student housing. And on the way and particularly when we reached the area of the school, I began telling her where places were that she would find useful, including where the local grocery stores were. Student apartments came with small but well laid out efficiency kitchens and most students there primarily prepared their own food to help control costs.

Irena had just arrived from a now crumbling last-stage Soviet empire on a flight from Moscow. The Warsaw Pact was actively breaking apart as several of its member states had already fallen to be replaced by new western leaning governments. It was clearly more a matter of when more than it was of if, for the ending of their old system as a whole. And deeper and deeper cracks were showing in the Soviet Union itself too. But this narrative is not about any of that; it is about this drive from the airport back to the Bronx and to what would become Irena’s new home for as long as she stayed at the medical school as a student in their PhD program.

Irena made it very clear, very quickly that she was not Russian. She was Tatar. He father was White Russian but her mother was Tatar and she was Tatar too. She looked around in curiosity of course but the store window displays and the flow of cars and trucks did not faze her, as didn’t the buildings. Then we stopped at a small market – mid-way between supermarket on the larger end and convenience store on the smaller. It was easy walking distance from student housing and a popular grocery store and I wanted to make sure that Irena had something to eat in her new apartment. And that brings me very specifically to why I still remember this story all so clearly.

Irena’s eyes opened wide and she was dumbfounded by the diversity and availability of such plenty in this local grocery store – and with everything neatly laid out and with everything clean and fresh. She asked me where the lines were and most certainly when we reached the small meat department and she saw its range of offerings, all there for her to choose from. She asked if anyone could buy this as she tentatively touched some of the wrappings over those items. Irena learned fast and quickly became comfortable selecting and buying whatever she wanted, and both there and at a much larger supermarket farther away. But that evening she limited herself to buying the smallest package of bologna that she could find along with a small assortment of vegetables, tea and milk, bread and the like. It was not a matter of money; I offered to buy for her as a welcoming gift on this, her first grocery shopping trip in this new land and she insisted that she could and should pay for her own food. And she did have the money needed, and was getting a stipend to cover her expenses. The real issue what that absolutely anyone could walk into this store or any other like it and buy whatever they wanted and in whatever quantity they wanted, no permissions or special standing with anyone or with any organization required. And she could do this and buy everything fresh without having to wait in lines. This showed me the power of the mundane and simple and of the grocery cart and in ways that my reading about Kennedy and Khrushchev and their kitchen debate never quite did; I actually saw the impact of this revelation of plenty in the United States in comparison to what was available for meeting basic needs in Irena’s Russia. And I have found myself thinking back to this evening many times since then, and particularly when I see those show of strength military parades with all of their soldiers and weapons out on display – and particularly from more repressive governments.

Such displays of governmental strength are made to given warning to other governments that a repressive one can take care of and defend itself from outside challenge. And these displays of force capability are also offered to deter dissent and any potential for challenge from within and from a repressive government’s own people by showing how much power can be brought to bear on those who disagree. But you cannot cloth yourself or your children with guns and bombs; you and your family cannot eat a tank or a missile rolling by in that parade formation. Ultimately, these displays simply just show weakness, and particularly when other nations’ analysts can dissect and evaluate all of the film footage and other documentation developed to cover these displays, reducing the leveraging power of uncertainty as to what that repressive government actually has at its disposal that it could use militarily.

Ultimately, we are all more impressed by signs of strength in areas that directly impact upon our own lives and on those of our family and neighbors than we are by signs of strength that can only remain distant abstractions, baring a societally disrupting fall into armed conflict. If you want to convince a people that your way of life and your system of governance that protects it is stronger, do not show them your guns and bombs; show them your supermarkets and how well your people eat and how well your system of governance can meet their basic human needs. An awareness of a significantly higher standard and quality of living under other, competing systems can do more to undermine a repressive government in the eyes of its people, in ways that no displays of force of arms power ever can, and certainly when that means display of power and capability that do not reach out to day-to-day lives and that never can.

This experience was more telling for me than was word of any Kenney, Khrushchev debates. First, I was a child when they happened. And second and more importantly, I was living in the have-nation participating in this event and not in Khrushchev’s have-not nation. Word of this particular debate and the spread of its images of plenty as to what average Americans had in their kitchens and on their dinner tables, was electrifying in Russia and throughout their Soviet empire. And the message that Khrushchev brought back with him, and even with his claims that this was just a “Potemkin kitchen” became as poison in the Soviet Union, helping to undermine its credibility as that country’s government claimed to offer better to its people than the West could.

I have told my basic story here, but I have not put it into context yet. I am going to continue this narrative in a second installment where I will address that. And in anticipation of that, I will write about the rapidly and I add disruptively evolving nature of communications and of information sharing, and how differences in how two parties in a debate understand and use new media and communications options can mean everything. Then I will look into at least some of this from an economics perspective, along with a sociopolitical one. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at Macroeconomics and Business and also at Web 2.0 Marketing.

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