Friday, November 14, 2008

Socially Liberal Corporate Telepresence Settlements: The Outstate Project

The electoral systems of the US, most states, and many foreign democracies (notably Japan and Europe) have a pronounced rural bias. Historically over 90% of the population lived on farms, but with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, people moved to the big cities looking for higher paying factory and services jobs. Today the rural population is a few percent, and talented young people are constantly leaving rural areas seeking opportunity in urban areas.

The US Constitution and most state constitutions provide for an undemocratic Senate with representation based not on population, but by state, county, or other legacy districts. Also voters living away from large cities may be less educated, more community and family centered, and more "bitter" about the lack of good paying jobs and/or the exporting of those jobs overseas.

Constitutional reforms are not being discussed seriously, thus far, because enacting them would require these over-represented voters to give away their privileges. Thus we are treated to the spectacle of the state or nation being driven by political forces originating from the least educated, most disenfranchised voters, who are more easily swayed by false, erroneous, or parochial viewpoints, and fail to see the value of social liberalism and progress.

There is, however, something Corporate America could do to improve conditions and increase the number of educated voters in conservative outstate districts, which is to create satellite offices, equipped with high-definition video conferencing systems, in lower-cost regions of the state or nation and provide credible career, housing, and transportation options to facilitate employee migration.

Preferably these should be offices, rather than employees working out of their homes; bringing them together will foster teamwork, counteract loneliness, and assure they work the expected hours. However, the benefits to both employers and employees would be considerable, most notably because home prices and the cost of living are considerably less in these areas. Employees can buy (or build) better homes for the money, and major employers could capture some of this value (by paying these workers somewhat less).

Ubiquitous telecommunications and computing mean that most high value office work need not be performed at a central site. Therefore, rather than export jobs offshore, corporations can "onshore" them to lower-cost areas. If this were done on a large enough scale, it would --
  • allow employees to realize much lower cost of living,
  • ease congestion and out-of-control housing costs in coastal cities,
  • eliminate gruelling commutes on choked urban freeways,
  • promote development of depressed areas,
  • provide opportunities to allow talented young people to remain there,
  • raise the educational level of voters and community leaders,
  • help liberalize social and political values in outstate areas.
Many business leaders have been frustrated that a few industries, such as agriculture, energy, and minerals, have disproportionate influence in Congress and state legislatures, with the result that prudent policies have not been enacted. In a word, our political system has failed.

Yet with the rapidly falling cost of high-definition video conferencing systems a solution may be at hand, one that does not require amending the federal or state constitutions and can drive significant operating expense reductions.

This proposal is not without its problems. Outstate and red-state areas may lack amenities such as infrastructure, health care, and good schools. However if companies got together in teams they could funnel enough investment into selected areas to get basic services in place, and if HR departments put on their thinking caps they can devise solutions (e.g., flexible real estate arrangements) that will let them continue to compete for the best talent.

Planning must be undertaken to assure that total miles driven actually falls, since rural commutes can be longer.

Employees may fear they will lose mobility and opportunities for advancement. New idioms and modalities of video and electronic communication must continue to evolve, to reduce the "HQ bias" problem, that ambitious employees must be located at headquarters to have any serious chance of advancement.

Telecommunications carriers and equipment suppliers should support this initiative, as it will drive sales growth, and corporations everywhere would benefit from better educated, more socially liberal voters. The "outstated" employees should tend to become community leaders, since those with better jobs and incomes will be better respected, thereby guiding community development.

And it provides a feasible strategy to address the long overdue need for constitutional reform, with major long term benefits for corporations and investor groups resulting from a more literate electorate and lower total employment spend.

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