Why Jim Clifton is Really Smart. And a Little Wrong.

Gallup CEO Jim Clifton keynoted the Omaha Chamber of Commerce annual meeting this week. It was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to hear him speak, and two things became very clear early in his address: 1) he’s an extremely witty guy that would be an absolute treat to sit and have a beer with, and 2) he is unbelievably sharp. Neither are a surprise, of course. He is the CEO of Gallup, after all, and has brought the organization to new heights since taking the helm in 1988.

His comments on Wednesday were based on his most recent book, The Coming Jobs War, an exploration of how every countries’ ability to create jobs and grow their economy directly affects the success of their nation in many other metrics. While I’ve not read the book (yet), Clifton provided a great overview of the issue and touched on what business and government leaders should be doing to win the jobs war. I’m an economics geek, so I found it fascinating. Let’s explore a bit further, shall we.



Priority #1: A Good Job
First, it’s important to understand just how important jobs are not only for Americans but for all the world’s inhabitants. Several decades ago, Gallup polling found that most Americans’ top priorities were peace and family, which makes perfect sense given that we were fresh out of WWII. But a major shift has occurred in our top priority: it’s now having a good job. This changes everything, Clifton explained, because nearly every big decision people make is impacted by their desire to have a good job. How many kids to have, where to live, when to get married, etc. And it also impacts how business leaders manage their employees because people are now defined by their job.

The shift in priorities is not unique to the U.S. Gallup found that of the world’s 5 billion adults, 3 billion said their primary desire in life is a good job, yet there are only 1.2 billion jobs in the world. Again, at the global level, this is huge. It alters geopolitical strategies. It increases tension in nearly every country, especially those that are a bit unstable. Clifton explained that the last several decades have seen about two revolutions per year. We’re blowing that average out of the water these days (Arab Spring, anyone?).

The United States as the (current) world economic leader
The next important element to keep in mind is the United States’ position in the world economy hierarchy. We are head and shoulders above everyone. It’s not even close. Our GDP is around 15 trillion. China’s is 5 trillion. Our military spending alone is about the same as Russia’s entire GDP. This affords us the ability to basically run the show. Economic dominance, Clifton said, equates to world dominance. And he’s right. Every country wants to do business with us. If they upset us, we drop a few economic sanctions (or just the threat of economic sanctions) on them, and we get what want. Lickity split. In other words, it’s really, really important that we maintain our position as the world’s economic leader.

But that’s not so easy, and many economists are predicting that in thirty years, China will overtake us. That spells trouble. The remainder of Clifton’s comments focused on what business and government leaders should be doing to ensure that the U.S. maintains its position as the world’s economic leader (as measured by GDP). The long and short of it is: 1) we need to support entrepreneurs, not innovators; 2) good policies help businesses create customers, not jobs; and 3) we must help one another in our paths to success. I agree with him on all accounts.

So by now, if you’re still with me, you might be wondering how all this relates to sustainability. An excellent question.



I’m not trying to fool anyone into thinking that I’m as intelligent or knowledgeable as Jim Clifton. I’m not. But I do have three beefs with our current economic model.

The idea of constant growth is flawed
It seems that everyone is always out for more growth. Businesses. Cities. Economies. Children. It’s a flawed concept. Sometimes growth just for growth’s sake is highly counter-productive. Should businesses always expect 5% growth every year? Is it always ideal for a city’s population to grow? The United Nations projects that the U.S. population growth rate will continue declining and will be just a hair above 0% by the end of the 21st century. If population growth slows to such a snail’s pace, can every city really expect to continue growing? Assuming that everything must constantly be growing ignores one of the most fundamental rules of the world: in order for growth to occur, we must have the resources necessary to support it. Resources are limited, folks, and at some point our growth might outpace how quickly natural resources are replenishing (if it hasn’t already).

The U.S. GDP relies too heavily on consumers and consumerism
Our nation’s economy is one that relies heavily on consumers to keep it afloat, and we do that by buying lots and lots of stuff. If we stop buying, the economy slows down dramatically. But that pace of consumption means that we’re always buying unnecessary stuff. In April 2011, the Commerce Department reported that American consumers spent an annualized $1.2 trillion on non-essential stuff. The unfortunate part is that, as I noted in a December post, buying all that stuff doesn’t make people happy. Experiences make them happy. And even worse, the environmental impacts of all that stuff are severe. The real question is whether or not we can keep our economy moving forward while buying less junk? I don’t have the answer but we need to figure it out.

GDP doesn’t equate to happiness or well-being
Gross Domestic Product represents the total dollar value of all the goods and services produced over a certain time period. While it’s the best measurement we have for the size of an economy, it doesn’t measure how well off a country is or their citizens’ well-being. Yes, it’s important to have at least enough income to life comfortably but having (and spending) more cash doesn’t translate to being happier. Turns out The Notorious B.I.G. was right when he crooned Mo Money Mo Problems. In fact, in the research paper, Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer?, the  authors reported that “although average life satisfaction in countries tends to rise with GDP per capita at low levels of income, there is little or no further increase in life satisfaction once GDP per capita exceeds $12,000”. Ours is $47,000. While we were at the 2011 Aspen Environment Form, we heard British economist Charles Seaford talk about the need to bag GDP and consider a different metric that measures the extent to which people flourish. Love it. And even better, it looks like he’s already working on it.



Jim Clifton is spot on correct. If our economy isn’t the biggest, baddest thing in the world, we are at risk. We need to pay attention to what he’s saying and ensure that we don’t fall behind. We must also consider other factors rather than just GDP when determining if our nation is successful. I’m sure the world isn’t going to discontinue paying attention to GDP anytime soon, but maybe we ought to actually be working towards making people happy rather than filling their wallets so that they can buy more unfulfilling stuff.


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