Wednesday, October 24, 2007

American Values

About decades ago, I saw an image on the news that troubled me. A grown man was standing atop a Toyota, taking a sledge hammer to its hood as a small crowd cheered him on. The reporter called this pastime "Japan-bashing," and said it was growing in popularity.

You may recall that in the 1980s, most Americans assumed Japan was poised to take over the world. The Japanese seemed to be smarter and have a stronger work ethic than we did, and their high-quality products were steadily crowding out our homemade versions. American anxiety was understandable, but what bothered me was that people didn't respond by studying and working harder. They simply took out their frustration on an inanimate symbol of someone else's hard work and commitment to quality.

Fortunately, the car-smashing fad was relatively short-lived. I had always assumed that was because the Japan's financial bubble burst, and consequently it didn't knock us squarely off our superpower pedestal. I learned on the radio today that there was a little more to the story.

This afternoon, NPR aired a piece on the car manufacturer Toyota. Apparently many of the folks wielding sledge hammers years ago were American auto workers fearful of losing their jobs (as well as a fair number of politicians currying favor with the masses). Toyota executives responded to the Japan-bashing by stepping up plans to build factories among the very people that vilified them. By providing so many jobs in the U.S., they apparently allayed workers' fears of unemployment and the furor died down.

Fast forward two decades. American car makers are still struggling to compete with Japanese quality, and earlier this year Toyota finally supplanted GM as the top international car seller. There were no riots; no destruction of Corollas or Celicas. Apparently Americans don't mind mediocrity as long as it doesn't impact our bank accounts.

Japan may not have overtaken us yet, but sooner or later they or someone else will if Americans as a rule maintain a comfortable sense of entitlement, rather than the commitment to work and innovation that put us on top in the first place.


Serena said...

It's Called American Laziness. THe rich want more money and want to make it without paying employees or working. So, they have the Japanese do everything for them.
We will soon have a recession, if they don't wake up.

Caitlin said...

A few things. 1. It always upsets me when people smash perfectly good things. Instruments, cars, whatever. Something in me just thinks it is wrong. 2. I am a huge NPR geek and proud of it. 3. I just read an article about a Florida town trying to ban funds from the city going toward purchases of manufactured goods from China. The article itself isn't what upset me, but the comments of the readers really got me going. I am on the other side of this debate. My husband imports professional grade tools from China and sells them here in the US. Like Japan in the past, many have vilified China and believe that it should be stopped. Trying to stop progress is like trying to stop the tide with your arm. Some of the comments argued that buying from China is supporting their communist government. I believe differently. My husband works very closely with Chinese citizens who run the factories as well as workers within the factories. These people are mothers and fathers, just as we are. These manufacturing jobs have pulled them and their families out of poverty. Electricity is available to most homes. Health care is getting better in rural areas. Children are able to go to school instead of being forced work menial jobs to keep starvation at bay. Chinese communism is backward, repressive, and ripe with corruption. There is no doubt about that. However the human beings who live there are not to blame. My husband works closely with a man named Percy. His wife recently had a c-section, a procedure that wasn't available a few years ago in his town. He would have lost his son and wife had it occurred back then. My husband has talked to Percy at great length about the Gospel and Percy has been receptive. In fact, Percy made the comment that if communism ever fell, he would join our church. The Chinese are a culture of family. Their genealogy goes back thousands of years. They are a beautiful people who want nothing more than we want, to provide a good life for their family.

Here on the other hand, unions don't want to see these jobs outsourced. I believe that unions were once very beneficiary to workers. I don't feel that way now. I don't think that it is smart business to have things manufactured in the US where the cost is 150% higher than in China. Period. It is simple math. Some unions feel that it is a right to have their health care paid for, be paid ridiculously high wages, and then have a pension waiting for them when they retire. If we paid preschool teachers what factory workers make, there wouldn't be such a high turnover in the field. If you want something, you go get it. No one in this world owes you anything. We have never had a job with benefits. We pay our own health insurance, we save pennies for our own retirement. I feel that education is the only way to insure your future. Relying on a corperation to do it for you is ludacris.

In short, it isn't the Chinese that are threatening us, it is our own greed. The Chinese are a good and hard working people. When communism falls, and it will fall in the near future, there won't be enough missionaries to fill the demand that will rise in China. I am glad that you brought up this hot button issue and hopefully I have shed some light on the other side of this debate. Here is a link to that article, just take out the space I put in.

PS Did you hear the story on the LDS immigration lawyer in Georgia on NPR? Fascinating.

Caitlin said...

I apologize, that was way longer than I intended it to be.

Science Teacher Mommy said...

Hey; I love that tee shirt.

My issue with the American people right now is wrapped up in the war stuff. If we are at war, it needs to be paid for. Period. The same politcians who want to keep the Americans in Iraq indefinitely are also the ones who want to cut taxes. That isn't right.

I think the discussion on China is very interesting. I also agree that American greed is the problem. We want lots of cheap products so badly that we are willing to put American companies out of business if they can't produce goods cheep enough. Walmart, who started as a very pro-America, only buy American made stuff has gone just the opposite direction.

In the Church we talk so much about self-reliance, but our country as a whole is not very self reliant. As we make fewer and fewer of our own products and import more and more food from great distances, there will be an imbalance that will be difficult to recover from.

I have no issues whatsoever with the Chinese people or even their government, which I think is a great model of a peaceful change over to capitalism and eventually democracy, but I do think the loss of American manufacturing is greatly disturbing. The Chinese middle class has been created at the expense of the American one.

Serena said...

I'm all for helping other countries have a flourishing life, but if we continue helping others and going into debt while doing it, while american rich guys live Happily and our children are starving, fathers unemployed, families being poor, and neglecting our country will only end in disaster. Because all that leads to depression, which leads to sometimes psychosis and desperation, and then we have thieves, murderers, abuse, addictions, and the most filled Jails in the world.

Serena said...

Education is very important ofcourse, but if there are no job openings or oppurtunities to start your own busines, because of working outside this country, what good is our education? We have to keep our country open and full, even if we work with the rest of the world,

Anonymous said...

This is such a sticky issue for some of the very reasons that are brought up in these comments. There are several factors that are at play in global economic development--not only economic factors, but issues of values and morals and ethics as well. Do we base our labor decisions on a purely economic model and send jobs where labor is cheapest? Or do we take a "our home first" stand and decide to keep jobs here to employ Americans? If we take the first route, we get lower-priced goods and people in other countries are able to have manufacturing jobs (though I hesitate to say that those jobs are always beneficial to them. Research manufacturing plants in Mexico, Indonesia, and even China. Working conditions are usually quite horrendous and those who are benefiting are in the minority. Remember, one person's experience does not generalize to the whole.) But I wonder whether, without manufacturing jobs in the US, we will even be able to afford those low priced goods. On the other hand, state-based economies are now very intertwined, and the currency market is tagged to the American dollar, which means that if we're doing poorly, it affects the rest of the world. This might lead to the conclusion that it is better to keep manufacturing jobs here so that we can maintain a standard of living and thereby keep a strong economy which influences more than just our own populace. The flip side to this argument is that it encourages us to think of ourselves differently than other people, i.e. "us vs. them." In addition, it also exacerbates migration and immigration issues. If people, particularly younger people, perceive that they might have a chance at a better life somewhere other than where they live, they are going to do what they can to get there because ultimately, we all want the same things, even if we define them differently. I wonder whether migration and the concommitant issues that follow (economic strain, xenophobia, etc.) would be a problem if everyone the world over had the opportunity to live a rich and fulfilled life right where they are. And this is about more than just material well-being. It is kind of difficult to achieve personal satisfaction and maintain your dignity if you're forced to dig through trash to feed your family, or if you can't actively engage in political discussion for fear that your life will be targeted. I know that this brings up a whole new can of worms, but that's what life big knot of issues, and if we're going to try to make the world a better place, we have to understand that unraveling one knot reveals two more.

Also, I understand about the self-reliance thing. Although I did not grow up in a family in which this was an issue, I am very uncomfortable depending upon others for things that I feel I should be able to obtain myself. An extreme focus on self-reliance, however, belies the fact that we are all actually quite interdependant and the Mormon church is a fantastic example of this. Certainly, each person is to work and provide for their own nuclear family and little quarter would be given to someone who wanted something for nothing. But the fact is that there is a wealth of, well, wealth, in social capital among Latter-day Saints that I think goes largely unrecognized by those preaching self-reliance. If someone needs a job, there are people who are already established who can help find an opening. If someone needs an apartment, there are networks to find something that is reasonable. When there is a Mormon-owned business, I have seen the loyalty that encourages other Latter-day Saints to patronize that business. These are advantages based on interdependence and a recognition that in fact, we cannot do things on our own--we need others just as we need to help others. And I don't believe there is anything wrong with that. It is this philosophy, a focus on the group, rather than the individual, which characterizes Chinese culture. And Japanese culture for that matter. You sacrifice for the group and the group sacrifices for you. Now again, I think taken to an extreme, such interdepenence can be detrimental, but American individualism and insistence on self-reliance has hurt our society in ways that result in the very thing Kim has written about.

The last thing that I want to mention is a personal pet peeve of mine. China's political and economic system is not communist. I know that this term is used in the vernacular to describe it, but communism refers to a utopian society in which there is not governmental structure and all commodities are shared, as is all labor. Think of the word commune. This was Karl Marx's vision, not the state-controlled society and economy that China developed by Mao. That system is actually a strong form of socialism (there are weak forms). This may seem like I am nit-picking, but words are powerful. In the 1950's, calling someone a communist could get them blacklisted or thrown in jail, and we engaged in all kinds of military actions simply because of the connotations that were placed on this word, communism. And even now, just calling something "socialized" demonizes it even before people have the opportunity to understand what it means or what its potential benefits and effects might be.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

Regardless of whether outsourcing is good or bad for us, I believe it’s a reality we’ll have to deal with. I think the best hope for Americans is to adapt by getting an education that prepares them for jobs that are unlikely to be outsourced (nurse, chef, lawyer, etc.).

Unfortunately, that’s a hard idea to sell in manufacturing communities where good wages, benefits, and pensions have been guaranteed for generations, and higher education is viewed as something for rich, snobby folks.

As for the benefits of new factories in rural parts of the world, Siobhan makes a good point – manufacturing does not necessarily improve workers’ lifestyles. In many cases throughout history, sweatshop factories have been far worse than the rural poverty workers left. Many were hired away from villages as children, so they had no way of getting home. Hopefully that is not generally the case in China, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.

Regarding self-reliance, I think many Americans embrace the diametric opposite of “sacrifice for the group and they’ll sacrifice for you.” Many in our country seem to feel entitled to get a lot from the group (be it a pension, social security, or whatever), but don’t feel obligated to give much back.

The comment about demonizing socialism reminded me of a high school economics class where I was shocked to learn that England has a rather socialist government system (universal health care, big safety net, etc). I was used to thinking of socialists as undemocratic bad guys, so I was surprised to hear that a country that shares much of America’s heritage and global goals has a government style I’d always assumed was “bad.”

Of course, we could have a lively debate about whether their system is better or worse than ours, but I don’t think any of us would label them as evil anti-capitalists.

Kimberly Bluestocking said...

P.S. Caitlin, I'm an NPR geek, too, but I only listen to it in the car (if I turned it on at home, I would utterly neglect my maternal and domestic duties).

What was the immigration lawyer story about?