James Fallows, one of the most respected authorities on modern China, spoke last night at the University of Oregon in Portland to an audience of about 50 local China wonks, including businesspeople, academics and Chinese expats. His point was clear: most Americans have a simplistic understanding of the Chinese and we’d do best to educate ourselves in order to “become comfortable with the idea of a world in which China plays a major part.”
American politicians and media love to talk about China as a threat to American superpower. One favorite narrative holds that China co-opted American manufacturing and is now beating us out on renewable energy innovation as its economy clips along at 8% growth every year. That’s a compelling story, but not a very nuanced one.
I took a trip to Shanghai in February, hoping to get a glimpse of the China behind the hype. One of the books I brought was Postcards From Tomorrow Square, a collection of some of Fallows’s essays about China. Fallows has been writing about national issues, foreign policy and Asia for 25 years for the Atlantic and he spent the last few years living and reporting in China.
I don’t do this often. And by this I mean interject myself into the editorial realm of magazine publishing. I know some publishers do, but my style is to hire editors I trust and let them do their thing so I can do my thing, which is to run the business.
I read Oregon Business managing editor’s Ben Jacklet’s blog post last week about the “phantom exodus” of Oregon companies after the vote on tax Measures 66 and 67 as a business strategist, not as the magazine's publisher. And I responded as many of those who have commented did — with anger.
But after some deep breaths, re-reads of the column and a conversation with Ben, I realized the disconnect.
Who among us — at least those of us who are “of an age” — has not sat before our computer and watched in bewilderment as it performed, unbidden, some bizarre function we couldn’t understand, couldn’t use and couldn’t correct?
It gave us pause to hear Toyota executives say with certitude that there is nothing wrong with the electronic throttle system of the cars that have experienced unintended acceleration. They said they know because there is no evidence. Despite testimony of an automotive sciences professor that he was able to induce a similar malfunction in the system, the head of sales in the U.S. insisted that this was not a “real world” situation, it wasn’t one that could occur during normal driving activity, and therefore it didn’t amount to evidence. Toyota was sticking to the tangible evidence surrounding the accelerator pedal assembly.
It is possible that we will never know for certain why the often tragic and always terrifying runaway engine incidents happened. In the 1980’s the Audi 5000 was plagued with a spate of runaway accelerations that resulted in injury and death. Audi’s initial and unwise response was to blame the drivers, suggesting that some drivers mistook the accelerator pedal for the brake pedal; the harder they tried to brake the car, the faster it went. The actual cause of the incidents, if they were not driver-initiated, was never found. No evidence. And it is possible the folks at Toyota are right. They are a technically pragmatic lot. The eventual Audi “fix” was to require the driver to press on the brake pedal before the car could be shifted into gear. But public confidence in the brand was lost and Audi sales dropped for a decade before the company regained its place in the high end of the market in the U.S.
In a recent blog, Robin Doussard, using a West Side Story analogy, described me and Pat McCormick, the primary spokespeople for, respectively, “yes” and “no” on Measures 66 and 67, as the “Bernardo” and “Riff” of that battle. At the close of the blog, she expressed hope that Bernardo and Riff could, at some future date, join together in a “rumble against Kicker Boy.”
Is Doussard dreaming an impossible dream? Let’s think about it.
In the year 2000, I had the honor of working for a business-labor coalition that defeated a massive Bill Sizemore tax cut for high-income Oregonians that would have gutted the state budget. Although organized labor contributed the lion’s share of the money, the business contributions were significant, with Phil Knight personally putting $50,000 toward the effort, despite the fact that Sizemore’s measure would have given him a huge tax cut.