Would you walk 21 miles each day to go to work? A Detroit man has defied the excuse that opportunity is too far out of reach with his unbelievable commute. His story also reminds us that Americans come together independent of government when one of our own needs help – in a big way.

A 56-year-old Detroit man named James Robertson has gained a lot of attention recently and with that has come offers of free stuff including some $320,000 in cash. Robertson walks 21 miles each day to and from work as part of his commute to a $10.55 an hour job. Because buses don’t cover the full distance between his home and job, he walks 8 miles to work and 13 miles home, five days a week. A story about his unique commute was published in the Detroit Daily Press and has shuttled this simple factory worker into national spotlight and acclaim for his work ethic.

Then, a 19-year-old complete stranger was touched by his story and set up an online crowdfunding page to raise money so that Robertson could purchase a vehicle. The goal was $25,000 but as of Sunday night, the campaign had raised over $300,000 through donations from around the world at $10, $25, $200, and even $500 increments. Then there are the offers: bus tickets, bicycles, free rides to work, used cars, and chauffer services.

To ensure that his new earnings will be used wisely and the tax implications considered, some are donating their professional financial advice and services to Robertson.

The Detroit Press reports on the outpouring of support:

A Downriver car dealership offered to give him a 2014 Chevrolet Cruz or Sonic. "He gets to choose," said Angela Osborne, customer service specialist at Rodgers Chevrolet in Woodhaven.

More than a hundred others offered cash for a car, or their own cars, as well as bus tickets, bicycles and even daily chauffeur service for Robertson.

"Monday is gonna be some bad weather and I don't want him making that trek," said Stuart Sutherland, a student at Oakland University who offered to donate cash in an e-mail.

Joe Coppola, a technical recruiter for Optomi, wrote: "I want to give him my 2004 Chevy Cavalier. It runs well and is certainly better than not having a car."

Honda North America, and David Fischer – owner of the Suburban Collection – offered "to keep Mr. Robertson in the Honda family by donating a vehicle to him."

A man in Evanston, Ill., said he wanted to pay for a car and several years' worth of insurance. A self-employed man in Madison Heights said he would drive Robertson to work and home, each day, for free.

As for the possibility that a new federal program, available from Detroit's bus system, might provide a small-bus service that would pick Robertson up at home and deliver him directly to his job temporarily, he said: "I'd rather they spent that money on a 24-hour bus system, not on some little bus for me. This city needs buses going 24/7. You can tell the city council and mayor I said that."

On Sunday, [Blake] Pollock said he planned to set up a board "of several professionals" to oversee the donations rolling in for Robertson.

"Putting a car in his driveway and just handing James the keys or filling his pockets with cash is not the answer. But with these resources now, we should be able to do something very positive for the guy," said Pollock, a vice president at UBS.

"I think the hundreds of donors want this to go to James and not have this go out of his hands. So, if we can set up this little board to manage his money, I think that can happen.

What’s amazing but not surprising is the reminder that when Americans see someone in need – but particularly someone who is trying to help themselves – they are willing to open their wallets to help.

America is the most generous nation in the world. We give over $300 billion each year -twice as much as the second most generous nation (England)- to sundry causes from rescuing puppies to feeding the working poor to fighting for changes in Ferguson, Mo. American philanthropy is a hallmark of our nation. Because we believe so strongly in the individual and private voluntary action, we don’t wait for government to step in to solve our problems.

It’s a fundamental difference in our view of government’s role. We don’t want to cede our paychecks to the government and expect the government to supply a basic provision of everything we need from shelter to food to education. We’d rather keep more of  our dollars to use at our own discretion in ways that make our lives and the lives of our families, friends, neighbors,  and worthy people such as James Robertson better. That spurs innovation and creativity in the marketplace to meet our ever-changing desires and need.

What’s absent from this story is the government. If anything there’s a transportation failure on the part of the public transportation system. What is not needed is a new government program to crowd out the largess of Americans. Private funds and the guidance to manage them are far better than a government aid program that will do its best to meet the need of Robertson and others like him, but end up either overcompensating some at the expense of others, or failing to deliver anything long term.

This is a good reminder that the greatest friend in times of need is our neighbor or sister or brother, not a bureaucrat in Washington. It’s when government is not in the way that Americans are free to express their philanthropy in targeted and powerful ways.



R.I.P. Chain Stores

Online shopping and lower-priced retail has booted many chain stores out of business.

Do you remember the days of shopping at chain stores? The announcement by Radio Shack that it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week is a reminder that the innovation in the marketplace is constantly changing how we shop and how we get the goods and services we want.

Our generations probably reflect fondly on them the way our grandparents lament the days when they shopped at individual mom-and-pop stores for their grocery needs. They bought fresh meat from a butcher, vegetables from a grocer and got their shoes mended by a cobbler. We on the other hand grew up going to chain stores like Radio Shack and Wet Seal or all-in-one box stores that tout the convenience and savings of shopping all under one roof like Target and Wal-Mart. Now, we’re seemingly swinging to a hybrid model of Wal-Mart neighborhood stores in urban areas.

In a nostalgic look at retail chains that have disappeared over the years, CNBC flips through some of the stores that we flocked to for Christmas shopping but have all since disappeared.

What’s driving the disappearance of chains like Radio Shack, Blockbuster, or even teeny bopper stores Delia and Wet Seal? Changes in consumer behavior. Gone are the days of going to a store to rent a limited number of DVDs when technology now allows you to stream unlimited movies or tv shows right to your television. Similarly, a trip to Tower Records to sample and find new music is no longer necessary as iTunes and music swapping services deliver curated options on your smartphone.

Some of the changes have nothing to do with technology but consumer taste. Teens and young adults are no longer craving the over-priced brand names from a decade ago such as Abercrombie & Fitch. International chains like H&M, Zara, and Forever 21 offer cutting-edge fashions at deeply discounted prices at all times. Its cooler to make a social statement than it is to promote a brand name. Companies that built their businesses on name brand are now  struggling to stay afloat.

While we may mourn the store closings of our past and the lost retail jobs from cashiers to store managers, our changing shopping patterns create new opportunities in different industries. We also get closer to a better shopping experience as a customer.

Forbes provided interesting analysis from a year ago that is just as true today as it was last February:

Today’s consumers lead busy lives and shopping takes time. Often it is a task. Consumers find researching and shopping on the Web far more convenient than brick-and-mortar visits. Although in-store excursions can still be fun, in many ways shopping online or via a mobile device offers a better overall experience, whether from the couch after the kids are in bed, on a mobile phone during a quiet moment at lunch, or on the go.

In many instances, customers have access to more information online than when talking to an in-store sales associate. Online reviews and price comparisons enable them to feel more confident in their buying decisions and free shipping offers are a fixture of the online marketplace, especially during the holidays. Returns have even become easier than ever before.

As consumers increasingly engage digitally and make fewer trips to stores and malls, there are serious questions about how brick-and-mortar stores that were once the center of consumerism will transform. Certainly retailers may close underperforming stores and consolidate locations, but more fundamental changes also must occur…

Retail is in crisis. But it’s a crisis that can stimulate transformational change. Retailers who understand their customers, leverage technology to evolve the customer experience, and focus on their differentiators and assets have the opportunity to thrive. However, for retailers that ignore opportunities for transformation, the writing is on the wall.

Right before our eyes is the demonstration of the unseen hand of creative destruction driven by innovation. Old ways of business are replaced by new methods that in aggregate make the consumer and the economy markedly better. It forces companies to compete by innovating or being left behind. It means that we customers get more and better of what we want.