peteg's blog - noise - books - 2019 07 28 Halberstam TheReckoning

David Halberstam: The Reckoning.

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The other respect in which America was ill prepared for the new world economy was in terms of expectations. No country, including America, was likely ever to be as rich as America had been from 1945 to 1975, and other nations were following the Japanese into middle-class existence, which meant that life for most Americans has bound to become leaner. But in the middle of 1986 there seemed little awareness of this, let alone concern about it. Few were discussing how best to adjust the nation to an age of somewhat diminished expectations, or how to marshal its abundant resources for survival in a harsh, unforgiving new world, or how to spread the inevitable sacrifices equitably.
— Halberstam's closing paragraph.

Kindle. Before longform journalism we got (flabby, repetitious, under-signposted, invaluable) doorstops from the likes of David Halberstam. This is the third of his history-like writeups I've read (after the classic The Best and the Brightest and the minor Ho). It maps out the rise of industrial Japan as a direct function of Japanese culture and post-World War II US intervention, resulting in some shaky years of decline for the US automotive sector (colloquially "Detroit") up to 1986. Apparently he wanted to sound a warning and thought this angle provided a telling vehicle. Of course Robert S. McNamara provides a bridge between fascinations old and new.

The book cleaves into tales of America and Japan. I found his choice to focus on Nissan a bit weird; his afterword justifies it by the parallel with Ford, being the #2 company. (He chose Ford as GM was always well insulated and Chrysler perennially cactus.) For mine Honda and Toyota are both more interesting: Honda for being an unusually innovative Japanese company, and Toyota for its famous Total Quality Management, quality being a big concern here. As you'd expect it's the personalities on the American side that come through most vividly: the recently-passed sales wizard Lee Iacocca and man of duty and large appetite Henry Ford II in particular. I liked his portrayal of founder Henry Ford's conception of work as enjoyable production and not parasitism, though of course that attitude can't last in the times of automation and plenty, or perhaps the capitalism in general that Ford himself did so much to promote. The boom and bust of the unions and their co-option in both the USA and Japan surprised me less than Halberstam wanted it to.

I came away wondering if Japan was ever receptive to anything except technical know-how; Halberstam suggests they were not particularly interested or open to democracy or substantive cultural or societal reform (cf his software/hardware comments). This made me think that Mitsubishi, a zaibatsu that zombie-shuffled through the war, would have made for a more interesting topic: the intransigence of the old ways in the face of proven gaijin superiority and occupation, with some motivation to make this situation transient. That the Bank of Japan owns so much stock in 2019 makes perfect sense in such a controlled economy and society.

From a thirty-year perspective Halberstam's analysis looks accurate, except by curious timing Japan fell away soon after this book was published, and now the USA is again the world's largest producer of oil. (Halberstam himself passed before things really came unstuck in 2008; also Japan's "lost decade" has become two or three, depending on who's counting.) More broadly I felt he could have expended more pages on other points: the financialisation of everything, the rise of the service economy (which in an aside he speculates may be parasitic on the realer forms of industry), the apparent failure of the Japanese computer industry outside gaming, the geopolitics of the oil and green revolutions, and an even broader sketch of the macro forces of the day.

As far as I understand it, nothing has changed for Detroit: Government protection is what kept them alive then, what's keeping them alive now, and we all know what happened during the GFC. More zombies than ever are shuffling across the US corporate landscape: as it goes in Japan, so will it be for the rest?

Reviews are legion. John Kenneth Galbraith. Goodreads. An interview of sorts at the time on C-SPAN.