America

Leading across cultures

Cultural differences in leadership styles often cause unexpected misunderstandings. Americans, for example, tend to consider themselves egalitarian and think of the Japanese as hierarchical. But American leadership can be confusing. Though American bosses are outwardly egalitarian—asking subordinates to use first names and to speak up in meetings—they can be extremely top-down in the way they make decisions.

I find that it’s common for people from different countries to grapple with mutual incomprehension. In this case, it is usually because managers fail to distinguish between two important dimensions of leadership culture.

Will US hedge funds go bankrupt?

An interesting situation has emerged in the American stock market. It has caused the stock of several companies to be extremely volatile.

Hedge funds in the US have opened so many short positions—basically, they have bet that stock prices will fall. Now it is believed that they have short sold more than the number of shares available on the market.

However, savvy retail traders noticed this. They started to buy up these shares in large volumes in the hope to push up the price.

Trading has been so aggressive that the share prices have wildly fluctuated and multiple brokers have been refusing to even allow purchases. The situation has gotten lots of attention, with multiple members of congress showing interest in the behaviors of brokers and hedge funds. Some have called for congressional inquiries.

It isn't clear what the aftermath will be. Only time will tell.

Changing the role of the police

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept America, one of the many calls has been to change the role of the police. One complaint has been that police officers often use excessive force when subtle methods would be more beneficial. A few specific ideas have been put forward. 

First, specialized nonviolent officers could be trained to deal with nonviolent issues. One simple proposal is for traffic police to be unarmed and trained in resolving conflict on the roads. In America in 2015, 50 million people came into contact with the police. Of them 25 million were pulled over in a car, and another 8 million were involved in a car accident. 

Other ideas include mental health workers to deal with mental health concerns, or community mediators to handle conflict resolution between people who live in the same community. A further idea is for communities to police themselves—officers would live locally and have a relationship with the people they protect. 

Women workers united in the 1800s

The city of Lowell, Massachusetts, was famous for its textile mills during the Industrial Revolution. In the 1830s, around 8,000 women worked at the mills. The working conditions were terrible. The air inside the mills was full of dust. Women worked 13 or 14 hours a day for very low pay.

In 1834, the mill owners decided to pay the women even less. The women were angry and joined together to fight the owners. They went on strike (refused to go to work) until they got their wages back. But the owners wouldn’t agree, and the women had to go back to work. 

The women kept fighting for better pay and working conditions for the next few years. They never won, but they were the first women's union in the country and they inspired many other workers across the country to organize. At a time when American women couldn’t even vote, the Lowell textile workers showed the world how strong women can be when they join together.

Preventing gun crime in Japan

In 2014, there were just six gun deaths in Japan (≈0.00000004% of the population), compared to 33,599 (≈1.0% of the population) in the US.

Buying a gun in Japan takes patience and perseverance. First, you need to attend an all-day class, then sit a written exam and pass a shooting-range test with a mark of at least 95%. There are also mental health and drugs tests to pass.

Afterwards, your criminal record is checked and police look for links to extremist groups. They even check your relatives and co-workers. Police have the power to deny gun licences and sweeping powers to search and seize weapons. In addition, handguns are banned outright. Only shotguns and air rifles are allowed.

The perfect-sized coffee cup

Most Americans love to buy a lot of coffee—I learned this when I traveled through the country with an 8oz* reusable cup. That's the amount of coffee takes about 10 to 15 minutes to drink, by the time you reach the last drop, it's almost cold but not quite. I think that's a perfect size. But, the cafe staff I met did not. 

In the San Diego airport, I asked for "this cup, full of coffee." The staff examined my cup like a foreign artifact. He wondered aloud how big it was. When I told him 8oz, he looked confused, and then charged me for the smallest size they have—12oz. I paid and didn't say anything.

Then in the Los Angeles airport, I asked for the same thing. The young woman working there was equally surprised by it. She looked at the till, frowned, and then looked over her shoulder, and said, "They're just gonna overcharge you." So she took the cup and filled it with coffee for free. I guess, to her, that's fair. I said thanks.

Art crosses borders between people

The California-based architects Virginia San Fratello and Ronald Rael have transformed a stretch of the border fence between Mexico and the U.S. into an international playground. The pair installed three hot pink seesaws between the slats of the fence where Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, abuts Sunland Park, New Mexico, allowing people on both sides of the increasingly militarized border to play together.

In an Instagram post, Rael said, “The wall became a literal fulcrum for U.S.-Mexico relations, and children and adults were connected in meaningful ways on both sides with the recognition that the actions that take place on one side have a direct consequence on the other side.” He added, “The joy that was shared this day on both sides is something that will stay with me forever.”

[See Ronald Rael's Instagram post here.] 

Any shoe is better than a wet shoe

When 25-year-old Addy Tritt went to her local Payless shoe store in Hays, Kansas, last week, she didn’t intend to walk out with the last of the store’s inventory.  

The store was going out of business and had slashed its prices. When the last 204 pairs of footwear dropped to $1 each, Tritt figured she could buy some and donate them somewhere.  

“My pile just kept growing bigger and bigger,” said Tritt. She finally went up to the sales associate and asked, “Can you get me a deal on all of these shoes?”

After a few phone calls to the Payless corporate office, Tritt was in possession of all the remaining shoes, valued at approximately $6,000. She purchased them for about $100.

“I’m a college student. I don’t have a lot of extra money to be throwing around,” she said. “I don’t know why I did it―I just did. It’s part of being a human.”

Are bans on plastic bags harmful?

It was only about 40 years ago that plastic bags became standard at U.S. grocery stores. This also made them standard in sewers, landfills, rivers and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They clog drains and cause floods, litter landscapes and kill wildlife. The national movement to get rid of them is gaining steam, with more than 240 cities and counties passing laws that ban or tax them since 2007. But these bans may be hurting the environment more than helping it.

According to research by economist Rebecca Taylor, the introduction of plastic bag bans in California in 2016 reduced the state's plastic waste by 40 million pounds per year. But people who used to reuse their shopping bags for other purposes, like picking up dog poop or lining trash bins, still needed bags. "What I found was that sales of garbage bags actually skyrocketed after plastic grocery bags were banned," she says.

Different standards for the wealthy

In the US, the widespread belief that the poor are simply lazy has led many states to impose work requirements on aid recipients—even those who have been medically classified as disabled. Limiting aid programs in this way has been shown to shorten recipients’ lives, creating a difference of more than 20 years in life expectancy between the rich and the poor.

When the wealthy are revealed to be drug addicts, philanderers, or work-shy, the response is at most a collective shrug. At the same time, behaviors indulged in the rich are not just condemned in the poor, but are used as a justification to punish them, denying them access to resources that keep them alive, such as healthcare and food assistance.