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Are we better off today than 40 years ago?

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY The big campaign question for the presidential election is, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" While that's certainly an intriguing political question, the bigger issue is whether we're better off today than we were decades ago.

If we're going to question whether we're on the right path or not, let's face it, four years isn't much of a time horizon to get a clear perspective on how we're doing as a culture. So think back a couple - or three - decades and ask yourself: We live longer, but are our lives more healthy and fulfilling?

We certainly worry more about personal happiness and productivity, but are we really happier and more productive at home and at work?

As consumers we have more choices, but do we really need 9,000 different brands of soft drinks?

The products we make are far more complex and sophisticated, but are the results -- 24x7 communication and access to information anytime, anywhere -- worth the price we pay?

Do we really need all those lawyers to uphold the law, or is there another reason why we sue each other at the drop of a hat?

Look, I'm not writing this to prove a point; I'm writing it because we have some fundamental principles in the business world that, if we apply them to our culture, might provide some insights into whether we're really moving civilization forward or not.

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In business we often say that less is more. We say keep it simple. If you use Apple's products or shop at a Trader Joe's market, the wisdom of a minimalist approach becomes evident. And yet, most aspects of our lives have become far more and unnecessarily complex.

Well-run companies employ strategic planning. They have visions or goals and strategies to accomplish them. They don't just put one foot in front of the other and hope for success. Hope is a terrible strategy that only works as well as a random coin flip.

Now, I understand that human culture marches to the beat of its own drum. You can't run it like a business. I get that. On the other hand, businesses and corporations play a role in where we go and how we behave as a culture. And I, for one, don't wish to be a part of leaving this world in a bigger mess than I found it in when I got here.

Before I leave you to your thoughts and comments on this decidedly philosophical topic, I'd like you to consider some very specific questions. Do you remember when or, if you're too young, did you know there was a time when...

- You could pick up the phone and someone you actually knew would always be on the line

- We only had 7 TV channels and somehow that was plenty

- You could eat food that's not great for you without feeling guilty

- You could compliment or touch a coworker without being sued

- You didn't have to worry about how you say everything and who you might offend

- Kids could go out and play without parents and helmets

- We didn't need to have so many things

- Healthcare was affordable

- We didn't feel the addictive tug to constantly check our email and Twitter page

- Life was simpler, slower paced and less stressful

- We didn't coddle our children

- Everyone wasn't on some sort of medication

- Air travel was fun

- Shopping wasn't filled with so many mind-numbingly unnecessary choices

Yes, I'm well aware of how this sounds. It sounds reactionary, probably annoyingly so. Which is odd considering I spent over 20 years in the high-tech industry and definitely prefer a MacBook Air to my old Underwood typewriter.

Still, when I run a business or consult for a company, I'm not interested in amorphous or mixed results. I want to have clear goals and I want to achieve them. I want to look back and feel good about what we accomplished. The problem is that, these days, I have very mixed feelings about what we're achieving as a culture. And that just doesn't sit well with me.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Pop Culture Geek

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