What’s Wrong With America?

I spent the past month in Colorado, helping to start a new coffee shop in Longmont called Red Frog Coffee. It’s a partnership between my sister and me, she the talent and I the capital. Starting a new business is always challenging, but coming to this one from Japan, where I live and work, provided perspective on challenges that are uniquely American, and they’re not encouraging.

For starters, the work ethic in the US is abysmal. Contractors and other vendors simply don’t show up. We went through three electrician appointment no-shows before finally getting a large firm to drop by and provide us with a quote. It was far too expensive. We called contractor friends with a question: Do you know any electricians who will show up and quote a fair price? We finally found one, but after too much effort.

Among the contractors we did use, several showed up sloppily dressed with unkempt hair, spoke to us impolitely, and did their jobs poorly. Formerly clean walls were scratched or scuffed, wires were left exposed instead of being tucked away properly with cable ties, holes were cut unevenly, and so on. One particularly galling episode involved the property owner’s maintenance team replacing ceiling tiles after an exterminator cleaned up a mess left by birds that had entered our leasehold when it was vacant. The original tiles were a rich, brown color and in immaculate condition. The maintenance team spray painted a different shade of brown on new tiles, and put only a thin coat at that. Worse, they stacked them together when the paint was still wet, so bits of white tile and other debris stuck to the paint. Then they slapped the tiles into place with broken corners and in a checked pattern of mismatched colors.

We hit the ceiling, so to speak, over that. Several phone calls and arguments later, we finally located one member of the maintenance team who would (A) acknowledge that the colors were different and, (B) agree that broken corners and bits of debris were not acceptable and, (C) commit to fixing the problem. Over a couple of days of careful, slow work to repair the damage done, he made it right. Why couldn’t it have been right from the start?

Our point-of-sale system emerged as the best choice after online research. It had the most features, a good price, and boasted solid technical support.

It was delivered by a man who knew nothing about it. The first thing he told us was that we’d need to install an ethernet cable under our coffee bar, something his company had failed to mention when we bought the system. Had we known about that requirement, we could have included the cable in the bar’s construction plan. Instead, we needed to work quickly to install it across the ceiling, down the wall, and under the bar in a way that was attractive and safe.

Then, the “tutorial” commenced. I’m not exaggerating in the following example of how it went:

“To start, you just click here to — oh, wait a minute. That’s not supposed to happen.” Click, click, search, confusion, at last a screen pops up. “Here’s where you click, and enter your ID.”

“What’s our ID?”

“Oh, it’s just 1 for now.”

We enter 1 and go to a screen that was supposed to be pre-populated with the shop’s menu that my sister had submitted to the company in advance. Instead, we saw buttons to order roast beef and other generic restaurant items, without an espresso, latte, or drip coffee in sight.

“Now just touch the buttons when the customer orders and you’ll be all set.”

“This isn’t our menu.”

“Right, but the remote team will get that going for you soon.”

“When? We open in a couple of days and want to practice and train our staff.”


“What about reports?”

“Oh, just click here. Wait a minute. That’s not supposed to happen. Hold on.” Click, click, scratch head. “Actually, I’m just part of the sales team. I don’t really know much about this software, and it’s a massive, complicated program that you guys are going to just have to play with for a while. I mean, everything works, I know that, I just don’t know how it works.”

No kidding, that’s how badly it went. On our grand opening day, the machine still didn’t accept credit cards, run reports, or properly display orders to customers. We kept calling our two contacts in an effort to get the thing running, but it was always “just a couple of hours” away from working. They were always “90% there” but never finished. My sister and her staff struggled to run the shop without an operational POS system, which we all viewed as no longer standing for point-of-sale but, rather, piece of —-.

After a few luckless days with our Keystone Kops support squad, I finally called the corporate main number to get a different crew on the task. The president of the company told me that the representative who’d sold us the system had been fired from the company a few weeks prior to our purchase, stole the equipment, and sold it to us fraudulently through their local partner in Denver, who was now in violation of his reseller agreement by working with a person no longer affiliated with the firm.

What? Can you believe this sequence of events?

I contacted the local police, who put me in touch with the Internet Crime Complaint Center to begin an investigation that would cross jurisdictions, in our case from San Diego, where the POS company is based, to Denver, from where it had been delivered, to Longmont, where our shop is located. Less than a week after opening our new business in America, we were already filing fraud claims with the FBI. Nice society.

Meanwhile, I helped my sister find an apartment near the shop so she wouldn’t need to drive 45 minutes from our hometown in the mountains. At each place, I was told that she would need to undergo an extensive background check for homicides, sex-related crimes, drug charges, and other offenses that would not be tolerated. Anytime you include the general public in America, that’s what you get. Again, nice society.

Then, the taxes and regulations. We needed to register for business identification with the federal government, state of Colorado, and city of Longmont. We needed an insurance policy with $2 million worth of coverage in case somebody sues us for sipping hot coffee, then we needed a worker’s compensation policy in case anybody gets injured while making espresso, and unemployment insurance so we can pay a former employee’s benefits when they stop working at the shop. We need to show business results to the landlord who spelled that out on one of the 62 pages in our contract, pay quarterly taxes to three different offices, pay taxes on behalf of our workers every two weeks, and file more forms than you can imagine to more offices than you knew existed. Nice free market.

Want to know how it would have gone in Japan?

The lease agreement would have been one, at most two pages. I know because I asked a ramen shop owner to show me his after I worked my way through ours. All it says in Japan is how much the shop needs to pay each month, how much advance notice of termination is needed, and that the tenant will clear any major construction with the owner before proceeding. That’s it. Our 62-page whopper included passages like this:

“Gross Sales” means the aggregate of the prices or rentals charged for all goods, wares and merchandise sold, leased, licensed or delivered and that charges for all services performed by Tenant in, at, from or arising out of the use of the Premises and internet sales which are either originated at terminals in the Leased Premises or picked up by customers at the Leased Premises during each Lease Year, whether by Tenant, sub-Tenant, licensee, concessionaire or  other person, whether sold or leased on credit or paid by cash, check, barter or otherwise, whether the merchandise is delivered or the services rendered from the Leased Premises or elsewhere, including sales or leases across the counter, orders taken on the telephone, mail orders, sales or leases from mechanical devices or vending machines, deposits not refunded to customers, and layaway sales; except that the following shall not be included as Gross Sales, or if previously included in any Lease Year, may be deducted subsequently from Gross Sales reported for such Lease Year…

And so on. That one sentence in its entirety is 239 words long. The whole contract, minus attachments, is 35,200 words long. Good luck, entrepreneurs. No wonder private sector job growth ended 10 years ago.

In Japan, every contractor would have been on time, in uniform, well-spoken and polite. The work would have been completed on time and within budget, with all walls, floors, and other affected areas left cleaner than when the team arrived.

Our point-of-sale system would have been delivered and installed by a representative who knew it inside and out. Our menu would have been pre-installed, as agreed, and the representative would have walked us through each step of a typical day at the machine. If we had had any questions during the first week, somebody would have come in person to help us. It goes without saying that the machine would not have been stolen and that the police would not have needed to get involved.

As for an apartment for my sister, not one would have required background criminal checks or other insulting steps reflective of a society gone wrong. Criminals are extremely rare in Japan, so rare that it’s not worth the effort of assuming everybody is one of them. In America, we have to assume the worst because we get it so damned often.

As far as taxes, we would have had one point of contact at our local city hall. Two copies of the same two-page form are all that’s required: one for the town and the other for the country. Once we filled those out, we would have received the only business identification number required. That’s it. Done. Once per quarter, we would have gone to city hall and paid taxes in person, or arranged for somebody to visit our shop to collect the funds.

As for insurance, Japan doesn’t suffer petty lawsuits the way America does. Nobody ever gets sued for serving hot coffee, for slips and falls, and other tried-and-true techniques used by America’s growing loser class to get a free lunch. Japan’s unemployment system is provided and managed by the government with tax funds. Businesses don’t have to worry about it.

In short, business owners in Japan can focus on the challenges of their business, not the challenges presented by a society off the rails. America has lost its pride, and lost the spirit of free enterprise. It’s pathetic to do a bad job, sell stolen goods, amass a criminal record, and look for short-cut ways to get money, such as suing innocent businesses or claiming unemployment fraudulently. Yet, these are daily occurrences in America.

The corrosion starts early. I drove by Longmont high schools in the morning and saw slovenly kids standing around light poles in awful clothing, smoking cigarettes and even pot one time. My car window was cracked open and the smell of dope wafted in. You know what I see when taking a morning walk past Japanese high schools near my office? Kids in pressed uniforms carrying backpacks stuffed with the homework they completed the night before. They say good morning to me when I pass by. When I hear them chatting, it’s frequently about test scores because they’re all trying to get into the best schools possible to create the best careers possible. When I hear American students talking, it’s about ways to beat the urine analysis tests they’re required to take as part of their school probation.

Japan is still a proud society. Workers are proud of the job they do well, students are proud of the tests they pass with flying colors, and citizens are proud of the lives they’ve created through achievement. The society welcomes new businesses, and makes it easy for them to get up and running in a way that helps the local economy.

America is lacking both ambition and pride these days. From the coast-to-coast disaster that happened when people without income signed up for homes they couldn’t afford, to the electricians in Longmont who don’t even show up to a job they agreed to do, to dope-smoking students whose only goal is to beat their next urinalysis, evidence of America’s rotting core is everywhere.

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  1. chad
    Posted May 17, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    “Regulation” means keeping the status quo. It means keeping stakeholders alive. Because, its easier to keep an entrenched stakeholder placated than politicking with 5 new ones. Ones, that you have no idea how they feel about you, or your policies. So, its much, much more EFFICIENT to create laws that keep NEW stakeholders from forming. Its so much easier to keep a relationship going than it is to create a new one. That goes for city, state, and federal……….See how hard it is for your average city councilman these days………..?

  2. Posted May 17, 2010 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    Concerning “What is Wrong with America” I have a few ideas that I would like to share. The comments posted so far have argued for and against the theory that something is wrong with our culture. I would say that both sides are correct: That is, if you believe things are awful, they will be. And if you believe that the world is your oyster, it is.

    It is really up to each individual to make the most of his/her life here in the U.S. If you want to work hard, save, and invest – chances are good you will succeed. If you find solace in complaining, moaning, and remembering every problem your ever encountered in the work place… well chances are good you will fail. Misery begets more misery, and optimism is infectious. I would rather be infected with hope and optimism than weeping, crying and hopelessness.

    If someone thinks the pay at Walmart or Staples is not high enough, simply, please, do not apply to work there. There is higher pay available working for the local, State or Federal government. Construction pays higher, so does about 10,000 other jobs. Go search out a better paying job, and when you land this job, work you ass off so the boss never wants to let you go. Gosh, that is a simple formula for success.

    I was upset when the price of gas doubled a few years back. I drive a big gas slurping pickup truck. I could not steal gas, I could not make the big, bad oil companies roll back their prices. So what I did was invest in the stock of a few oil companies. The increasing value of my investment more than paid for my gasoline. I let the oil company pay for my increase in the price of gasoline. It gave me pleasure to solve my concern in that manner, but I could have just as well invested somewhere else to make the funds needed. Simply, there was a need for more income and I worked to meet that need thru smart investing. I could have just as easily got a part time job to pay for the more expensive gas.

    Life is game, it has rules, and one just has to work hard to stay ahead. Work as many hours as you can, spend less than you make, and save and invest. Find someone you admire who is doing well, and copy what they are doing. Hang out with winners, and your chances of success will improve dramatically. Spend absolutely no time complaining about anything, as complaints never move the train down the track.

    Good luck.

  3. Posted May 18, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    I’m familiar with portions of this picture. My experiences with contractors have been pretty good, and I never smelled pot at San Clemente High School when I rolled the window down even though the place was/is kinda run-down and populated by slovenly surf/hispano/gnarly kids. Sure, lawyers should be gathered in the next purge and sent to re-education camps and shorn of their hair (if they have any), and stuff like that.

    But the basic gist–I don’t disagree. But this is what I think and ponder–during our beloved countries “golden years” was it so much different? Look at that painting The Happy Flat Boat Men. Torn clothes, uneducated riff-raff, no shoes, idle, daydreamers, probably smoking raw unprocessed tobacco. Or we can switch to the great metropolis NYC turn of the century–well, probably supported by street urchins, chislers, wall street scammers, corrupt politicians, racist entitled elites, thieves, beggars, scum.

    You know where I’m going. Machine in the Garden. Moby Dick. The Scarlet Letter. Ash heaps in the Great Gatsby. Like it or not, that’s who we are–maybe we are slovenly, unkempt, uneducated, impolite, selfish. If we’re just a little bit removed from The Forest, I’m ok with that. If we’re just a little bit removed from white trash in western North Carolina, not so bad. Or blacks–er, African Americans–slurring up some lingo and gumbo and hollering and whatever other cliche goes on… Like, whatever. We don’t have to be perfect; we didn’t make a bargain to be perfect, bud. We got space, dude. We got the next horizon, the next wave to catch, the next dream to dream etc. We got the road. We have Eden to get to. And we got, most importantly, something that is trying to get us there in whatever imperfect, ugly, god-forbidden way we can, which might be why we get so high and drunk and divorced, etc. So chill. We have that different drummer to listen to–go get with your folks, we don’t mind.

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