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America, the resourceful
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Forsyth County News
Over the years as I’ve traveled abroad, I’ve often heard comments that have epitomized, for me, an important part of the American spirit. They go something like: “You Americans are amazing. You solve any problem that comes along. All you need is duct tape and WD-40.”

Obviously, this refers to problems of a mechanical nature, but the statement relates to American resourcefulness and the ability to resolve sticky issues using a minimum of resources. And don’t forget, American ingenuity created these two versatile substances.

Duct tape was developed in 1942 by 3M Company (then Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing) to keep moisture out of army ammunition cases. It was originally called “Duck Tape” both because it was waterproof, like a duck’s back, and it was made using cotton duck. In no time it was applied to hundreds of other tasks, eventually for sealing heating and air conditioning duct work — with a change in color and name.

In 1953, Rocket Chemical Co. attempted to find a rust-prevention solvent that would protect the outer hulls of aircraft by displacing water. The 40th trial gave them what they were looking for, and Water Displacement 40, or WD-40, was the result. Again, the uses for the product blossomed, constrained only by limits of the users’ imaginations.
Today, unfortunately, the solutions to many of the problems we face require a bit more than duct tape and WD-40.

But the spirit is the same.

America’s history is full of inspiring responses to the challenges that faced the nation. The creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression of the 1930s was one of them.

The incredible mobilization of this country for World War II was another.

And we’ve placed men on the moon, and we’ve transformed the world through the development of computer and communications technologies.

The list of amazing accomplishments goes on and on, not only relating to material things. We have made great strides in blunting racial discrimination. And no other nation has come close to developing the philanthropic activity that exists within the United States.

Focusing on past achievements and the obstacles that had to be overcome could create enormous confidence in the future, and in our ability to deal with the sticky issues we face. But in recent years, that sense of confidence has eroded.

One of the keys to our past success was education. At the elementary and highs school levels, we exceeded or held our own with most of the leading countries of the world. Our universities were the envy of all. We have fallen way behind in the former and are losing ground in the latter. We desperately need to address our educational system, particularly since the impact of change takes many years to be felt.

Another was a willingness to sacrifice for the good of the nation, giving up comforts or actually putting oneself in harm’s way. Today we see more hedonism and feelings that seem to say: “let someone else worry about it.” We need to create a greater sense of concern for our fellow citizens and a spirit of contribution.

A universal service program could do a great deal in this regard, and programs similar to the CCC could do much to revitalize the country’s infrastructure while spurring the economy, providing training and employment, and building optimism for the future.

I have always believed that companies should view themselves more as families than as cold, calculating entities, run for the primary benefit of owners or top managers. A well-run organization receives maximum effort from each of its members.

But when the going gets tough, we tend to undermine loyalty by releasing employees, rather than tightening our belts and seeking creative ways to weather the storm. This is a failure of management. Families do not lay off children when things get rough.

Layoffs add to national problems, as workers lose their income (and purchasing power), as despondency sets in and as the national spirit tumbles. We need to increase worker mobility, as obsolete industries die and jobs shift from one location to another, and we need to help companies innovate and move aggressively into new areas rather than cut back and only delay their inevitable demise.

Entrepreneurial startups have been the engines that have driven our economy. New ideas and new job creation comes not from the giants (maybe “dinosaurs” is a better word — companies that were once the backbone of our economy like U.S. Steel, AT&T, PanAm, RCA, and now perhaps General Motors and Chrysler), but from new ideas and risk-takers. We’ve got to find ways to stimulate this process of innovation and job creation — which means, financing, education and reducing red tape and risk, among other measures.

In essence, we need to focus on the positive, and to use our resources, government and private, to create an environment that allows positive thinking to become the prevailing attitude in the nation. Lots of changes are needed for this to occur, especially within the media.

We may have less to fear from disruption by external terrorists than we do from the disruption caused when the news media stimulates fear and uncertainty within the nation.

Too many times the media seems to glory in negative stories. Day after day the news presented is negative, adding to any malaise that already exists, and undermining the idea that we can successfully attack the causes of the problems. To a great extent, the problem lies with us. Negativism sells.

The answer isn’t to gloss over the negatives, but to direct more attention to solutions. The media must focus on successes in dealing with the problems; on illustrations that will stimulate others to think and act creatively; and on restoring that “can-do” spirit that has been such an important part of this nation’s growth.

The election results have provided new leadership for the nation. We can’t just sit back and see if “they” rise to the challenge. Everyone needs to pitch in. That’s the only way it will happen.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at