Toyota Goes Down
OK, I know, it isn't buying American, but for the past nearly thirty years I have been very happy with Toyota cars. The largest vehicle I've bought from them was their moon buggy van in the mid 1990's. Otherwise they've all been compacts. My current car is a Corolla that got me 35+ MPG on my trip to New York and back, and that was doing 70+ MPH on significant stretches. I've been happy with these cars because Toyota's quality has been superb, along with excellent engineering. So what has happened?
I just finished reading Profit Beyond Measure: Extraordinary Results through Attention to Work and People by H. Thomas Johnson & Anders Broms, in which the authors laud Toyota's manufacturing management approach, contrasting it with American auto makers, and demonstrating why it has been superior in all respects. Indeed many people have thought Toyota was something of an iconic institution, standing for quality and value. Now the shine is off. The latest revelations about its quality and design issues, along with the behavior of the CEO not becoming of the family name, Toyoda, show that even this former paragon of virtue can no longer be counted on.
Which leads me to ask the question: Are any long standing institutions in our societies working?
A Who's Who of Formerly Trusted Names
Let's start at the top. Congress? Both the Senate and the House are mired in such partisan political maneuvering that they are failing to enact any meaningful legislation. Look at the recent situation in the Senate with one senator holding up all of the presidential nominees for government jobs. Does this really sound like a functional government? And what about the 60-vote rule to avoid a filibuster? Now it seems to apply to everything. The irony is that not one of those senators or congressmen think they are doing anything wrong. I wonder how many of them actually think at all.
And then there is the Supreme Court. The decision to allow corporate monies to flow into political campaigns (or close enough for effect) is outrageous. Free speech by a legal person entity??? And wasn't it Chief Justice Roberts who promised not to be an activist judge? We see how far that got.
Finally (at the top) we have the President of the United States (POTUS). Look how effective the health care reform has been. What did he accomplish in Copenhagen (at the climate conference not the Nobel awards)? Just mentioning his financial advisory appointees is enough to tell you how well that institution is holding up. Summers, Geithner, Bernanke (all right he already had the job, but he got re-upped), do I need to go on? Look at the mess they have made of the financial bailouts. Anyone know where the money went? Goldman-Sachs gave theirs back? That is what they claim anyway.
Speaking of banks and Wall Street, how do you think those venerable institutions are doing? Supposedly, profit-wise, some of them are doing OK, the ones the Feds haven't closed down for insolvency. But are they doing what they were supposed to have done with the bailout money? You know, make loans? It appears not. Businesses are still struggling to make payroll let alone contemplate creating new jobs because they can't get loans. And Wall Street has been on a roller coaster ride. Right now they are down (the DOW closed below 10,000 the other day). They almost recovered from the slide in 2008 before starting a long descent. Hope you cashed out your 401K while they were flying high(er).
Education and schools are descending into the pits of despair. Ever since society implicitly decided that education was all about jobs, and high paying ones at that, the whole American education system has been declining in producing truly educated citizens who can think critically. Indeed, I would argue that this decline in critical thinking skills in the general populace is what is at the base of the dysfunctional political process that has lead inexorably to the conditions I mentioned above. Now the arguments heard from high and low, from both right and left, decry our pathetic math and science education because our "leaders" see us as not being able to compete in the global marketplace since we don't have as many scientists as, say, the Chinese. More of the same pathetic thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. It never has occurred to anyone that more is not better, Better is better. Not every human being is cut out to be a scientist or even be mathematically inclined. And yet we force students from an early age on to conform to those expectations. We now have a country of mostly unhappy people who struggled with the technical courses in the name of mammon and never really learned much about life and living. What a tragedy.
Let's see. Democracy on the slide because we have a less than well informed and educated citizenry. Oh yes, why are they less than well informed? Could it be the press has fallen down on the job? Do the mainstream media actually inform us or do they merely entertain those who, since they haven't learned to think critically, actually believe they are watching "the news", and are grateful that it happens to be titillating?
Well, surely the wealth production engine of this great country is intact. Surely free enterprise, capitalism, and the economic system are in good shape.
If you think so, I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. We seem to have entered an era when companies like Enron are more the rule than the exception. CEO pay has gone through the roof compared with the average worker, even when those same CEOs are driving their firms into the ground. How does that sound functional?
The most pernicious thing about capitalism and the economic thinking behind it is the way in which its practice is raping the natural world, producing pollutants and CO2 and persists with beliefs that endless growth and greed are good things. I mean, and this always drives me nuts to think about it, these people actually do believe this! It doesn't matter how much evidence you put before them, they persist in their cherished beliefs. Oh, I forgot, they went to the same school system I was just complaining about. Well, no wonder.
Seriously, though, what has capitalism done for you lately? We shipped the high paying jobs off to other countries. Today it takes two breadwinners working extra hours just to keep even with adjusted income levels from the mid 20th century. The middle class is rapidly disappearing and the proportion of the population, in the US, that has to get food stamps to survive has gone way up. What happened to the promises (I can still hear Ronald Reagan talking about 'morning in America')? Why aren't we all truly rich? Don't think the cheap knock-offs from China you bought in WallMart counts as showing how rich you are.
As I sit here this morning, enjoying one of the warmest Februaries on record in the Pacific Northwest while folks on the east coast are digging out of record snows (global warming isn't just about warmer mean temperatures, it is also about increasing anomalous weather patterns), I really wonder what institutions are actually working as intended. Have the environmental NGOs been successful? I used to give contributions, for example to the World Wildlife Fund, to help save the world, or maybe at least the whales. But as I read the articles on species extinctions and the fallout from them, I wonder. Have the climate NGOs influenced the governments to really do something about CO2 emissions? They have succeeded in getting the leaders to flap their lips, but so far no real action.
What is working?
To be honest, I cannot see anything that we would recognize as an institutional part of the US (and many other OECD countries) as working as intended, or as we always thought they did. The whole globe is in decline because we are running out of net energy to power those very institutions that comprised our global societies. The only thing I think we can count on as working is our human bonds with a small group of others, our communities insofar as they actually exist. I live in a neighborhood, not a community. I envy those who have opted for small, intentional communities based on sharing and caring for one another ala the small towns of yesteryear. No they were not perfect. People get into squabbles and don't behave well some times. But overall, the small community is the kind of social environment that we humans evolved within. We actually do work best in that environment, on average.
In the end, that is what will save those of us fortunate enough to be a part of a community situated in the right geographical location (climate and isolated from climate refugees, etc.) focused on food growing and light manufacture of essentials (like candles for light at night!) As far as I can see that kind of arrangement is the only institution that will work in the long run.
[EDIT: Thanks to a reader, Rudy, I fixed the egregious number for the DOW stock price. I had said 9,000, but, of course, meant 10,000. Freudian slip? I wonder.]