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.