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Columbia to Colombia -- a digital journey
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Last week, I took a trip to Colombia, South America, with my son, J.P., a senior at the University of South Carolina (USC) in Columbia, S.C. In addition to being a great father-son trip that we will both long remember, a number of things happened along the way that reminded me of how the Internet and new technologies are changing the world -- and how we in South Carolina need to understand this new and changing world if we don’t want to be left behind.

For too many of us, when we think about Colombia, we only think about cocaine traffickers and Juan Valdez and his coffee. While cocaine is still a problem, there is a lot we can learn from Juan. Consider the following:

Item one. As we stood in line to get our passports stamped after arriving in Cartagena, a young man turned to me and asked, “Are you Phil Noble with the South Carolina New Democrats?” Obviously stunned, I said I was and his reply was even more surprising. “I live in Bogota but my family is from Columbia, South Carolina, and we’ve always been interested in politics,” he said. “I watched a debate online when you ran for Chairman of the S.C. Democratic Party and I subscribed to your email newsletter.”

As we worked our way through the customs line, we talked a few minutes about South Carolina politics and it was obvious that he was better informed about current South Carolina developments than most people I meet on the streets of Charleston. As we reached the end of the line and separated to go our different ways, he casually said, “Keep up the good work and let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” He made the comment as if he were living in Goose Creek or Rock Hill. I’m planning to call on him to help with a couple of things.

In the Digital Age, Tip O’Neil’s famous maxim that “all politics is local” is truer than ever -- but with a twist. You can live in Colombia, South America, and be active in local politics in Columbia, South Carolina.

Item two. We had dinner one night in Bogota with a successful young lawyer that I had worked with on a project several years ago. We talked about U.S. and Colombian politics and business and out of the blue he asked me about Mark Sanford’s congressional race. We both shook our heads at the outcome.

Then he said, “Not long after his Appalachian adventure with his Argentinian girlfriend, I was meeting with a Brazilian multinational company that was thinking about making a big investment somewhere in the U.S. and South Carolina was on their list of possible locations. When all that stuff happened, they started looking closely at your state. After they made several jokes about your politicians acting like a banana republic, they told me they struck you off the list.”

In the Digital Age everyone knows everything, but we’ll never know how much Sanford and other Palmetto Sate politicians have damaged -- and are today damaging -- our state’s global image with their stupid and foolish behavior.

Item three. My lawyer friend had been a deputy minister in the last national government of Colombia and had negotiated his country’s free trade agreement with Switzerland. We talked about how the basic industries of a country or state can change so dramatically and quickly these days. Then he dropped this bomb shell: “Today, Switzerland exports more coffee than Colombia.” How is this possible I asked?

He told me of how a company in Switzerland had developed the new coffee machines that use the little single serving containers to brew individual cups of coffee with all sorts of specialty coffees and flavors. “Today, they import huge quantities of coffee from around the world, process it into those little white cups and then export them worldwide. They export more coffee than we do.”

He continued, “We spent a fortune creating the Juan Valdez brand globally but they developed a new brewing machine and technology and devastated our traditional coffee economy.” And his next comment was just as true for South Carolina as for Colombia. “A new business model can trump a whole country’s traditional economy.”

Item four. Another person we met in Bogota was the editor of the city’s only English-language newspaper. And before I could say, “Son, what happened to law school?” he and J.P. had cooked up a plan whereby my son, in his final semester at USC, would write some articles, become proficient with the software that drives the newspaper’s website, and then possibly work himself into a part-time job with the paper in Bogota after graduation.

In the Digital Age, anyone can work from anywhere. You can live in Columbia, South Carolina, and have a virtual internship with a newspaper in Colombia, South America.

As Thomas L. Friedman, the Pulitzer-prize winning columnist for the New York Times, wrote in his bestselling book on this phenomenon, The World is Flat, “[W]hat the flattening of the world means is that we are now connecting all the knowledge centers on the planet together into a single global network, … which could usher in an amazing era of prosperity and innovation…. [T]he great challenge for our time will be to absorb these changes in ways that do not overwhelm people but also do not leave them behind. None of this will be easy. But that is our task.”

Friedman’s right, of course. Getting ready for this new world won’t be easy, particularly here in South Carolina, where political dysfunction and a weak public education system have long put our children at risk of being overwhelmed and left behind. But if we can just find a way to get our leaders in Columbia to start thinking a little more like Flat Worlders and a little less like Flat Earthers, the “amazing era of prosperity and innovation” that Friedman describes could also be an amazing era of opportunity and success for the people of South Carolina.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)