Letter from America: the strange business of going big

We are a big country. With a big economy, huge markets and some of the biggest global enterprises. As the saying here goes, Go Big or Go Home.

Observers of American thinking and behaviour may already be well aware that to Americans, bigger is virtually always better. The extent to which this notion permeates various aspects of US culture may however be less obvious.

Given that size and might are the underpinnings of current controversial American positions and actions on the global stage, it is opportune to revisit the central place size occupies in our psyche.

Let’s begin with the importance of big at the personal level. To Dream Big is a core element of being an American. We are encouraged to ‘Dare to dream’, with the implicit message that the sky is the limit. If one’s desire and tenacity are similarly large in magnitude, there should be no reason for the dream not to be realised.

Dream Big is an attitude as much as an aspiration. The role of cognitive ability, skill or luck may be implicit but deemed secondary to the right mindset, attitude, effort and focus.

Size also matters when it comes to one’s material possessions. Living in a large single family home is a central element of the American Dream and the imprimature of success in life. Many Americans see a six-litre engine as inherently better than a three-litre one, even if the better engineered smaller engine produces equal or better performance.

TVs, refrigerators, washers and driers can’t be too big.The idea that something, for example a diamond, can be too big and deemed vulgar or ostentatious, is alien to most Americans.

The size of food portions in the US shocks many visitors, but more is better (and good value) in the eyes of most Americans. Taking home a doggy bag containing what one hasn’t eaten is routine. Even when it comes to personal weight, describing someone overweight as big is acceptable, while the word fat is considered offensive. In sports like boxing or football, athletes are lauded for their size and the momentum it can create as they move to ‘crush’ their opponents.

Go Big is also the overarching principle when collective activities are concerned.

Many around the world are all too aware of this dictum when it comes to US military might and its deployment. First, the size of the US military, its hardware and budget, larger than the combined expenditure of the next seven powers, including China and Russia.

Then, the way US military might is typically deployed, the concept of overwhelming force, embedded in phrases like “shock and awe” and widely associated with the application of already superior American fire power.

Even today, when cyber warfare is increasingly important, the US focus on building ever bigger conventional capabilities remains central dogma.

The military mindset described also applies to the way US corporations and their investors prefer to do business. Having big ambitions, taking big risks ,including making large investments to aggressively establish, grow or take market share, are hallmarks of how American companies operate.

Going big, the importance of size and might, is a philosophy equally applicable in other, less obvious areas of American life or thinking.

For example, our healthcare system is also fundamentally built on the principle of overwhelming force – the focus on acute illness and the application of every intervention that might conceivably help overcome the condition, irrespective of cost or probability of success.

When an American’s health is at stake, we want everything possible to be done to cure us or at least make us feel better .The expectation that providers of healthcare will use every tool at their disposal and leave no stone unturned as they bring resources to bear in their quest to overwhelm the disease and make us well again, is deeply embedded in the American psyche.

Similarly, when a storm ravages part of the country, a road traffic accident occurs or a highway needs to be paved, Go Big is the overarching mantra.

Anyone who has witnessed the invasion of utility vehicles deployed to restore power after a storm or flood, the number and variety of emergency services vehicles at the site of a collision or the fleet of construction equipment and crew deployed to pave a stretch of highway will have seen that philosophy in action.

Historically, the fascination of Americans with size may have been associated with large infrastructure projects, be they buildings, stadiums, bridges, roads and the like. It is self evident that, in these areas, going big is no longer a uniquely US ambition. However, in other aspects of life, such thinking remains a uniquely American hallmark and at the root of so many of the country’s contributions and successes.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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