Monday, December 03, 2012

American Quasi-Exceptionalism

"They'll never meet U.S. requirements," said the old, experienced, savvy guys in construction. The they were Asian heavy-equipment makers and the reqs were onerous and seemingly highly technological safety specs.

The pretense was that particularly Japanese companies could sell their junk excavators, track-mounted tractors (bulldozers in the vernacular), and graders outside this country and Europe. They'd never meet our much higher standards.

My boss, John Rehfield, editor-in-chief of Construction Equipment, would smile benignly when he heard this common wisdom. He told me as the junior on the staff in my first full-time job in New York after J-school that it would be a matter of a few years, certainly under 15 before the Asian companies mastered the manufacturing, design and regulatory steps.

A fine writer, legendary punster, and insightful business sort, John was right as usual. He had to update me on such silliness. The only experience I had in the field was on a carpentry crew building townhouses in Pittsburgh in the summers. John had been smart enough to hire me because I was a good writer and not for being steeped in construction. What I didn't learn writing articles, he told me.

What was telling about the 1970s attitudes is how pervasive it was in other areas. The they-won't-ever fantasy comes right back to American exceptionalism. That jive trips us up again and again.

Whether it's warring or tech or fashion, we do it better than anyone, many of us hold. Despite myriad proofs that we are not necessarily unique, we keep at it. Exceptionalism is the beat of the bobble head. The corollary that others in those different nations will never come up to our level is where we blunder worst.

Let us not touch on stupid, needless wars that have cost us many thousands of American lives and billions, no trillions, of dollars that should have bettered our lot. Instead, think of the business angles.

Reaching back personally again, as an infant into my kindergarten years, I was an accessory to the Occupation Army in Japan. We returned to the United States with some treasures purchased or given. My sister and I still have some kimonos, ceramics and paintings, truly fine art.

At the same time, despite thousands of years of such craftsmanship, the Japanese were ridiculed by many Americans. We had destroyed their cities and factories during the war. We then laughed at what we called pitiful attempts to restart their economy, only we pretended that was the best they could ever do. MADE IN JAPAN quickly became synonymous with cheap crap, like glow-in-the-dark crosses, woven reed finger traps and wee toys suited for Cracker Jack box prizes.

That war was not fought in U.S. cities and our industrial base emerged stronger than ever after the martial manufacturing years. I don't recall anyone who disdained Japanese goods noting that their factories were gone, that these plastic tchotchkes were small stepping stones for an economic recovery.

In our house, we could see, touch and admire the artistry and craftsmanship of Japan. That though was an artifact of our accidental contact. The Army sent; we went.

No you can't. Yes, I can.

Americans though played out the Annie Get Your Gun lyrics, anything you can do, I can do better, with other nations too. One exceptionalism fantasy was that if the Japanese, Koreans, Chinese or anyone competed with U.S. companies it was only because they mimicked our products. Whether it was consumer electronics, computers or cars, they were too ignorant and stupid to be in the game at all were it not for reverse engineering.

We should have learned our lesson. There was Sony revolutionizing portable music, numerous Korean firms skunking us on semiconductor technology as well as pricing, and on and on.

One might think at some point that Americans might pay attention to the obvious.

The savvy observers here and in Europe eventually admitted companies in Asia were far beyond mimics. A few spread the panic that Japanese (and now Chinese) industry would dominate the world economy and crush us old-school sorts. Instead, we did rouse ourselves on a corporate and governmental level to keep ahead of or at least with the pack.

I'm not at all sure the hearts and heads of most Americans made any of these switches. We love this exceptionalism mirage.

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