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The Book of the Week is “The Silent War, Inside the Global Business Battles Shaping America’s Future” by Ira Magaziner and Mark Patinkin, published in 1989. When Magaziner worked for Boston Consulting Group, he would conduct extensive research on industries, markets, businesses and people in order to generate reports that would presumably help his clients (consisting of big-name companies). He argued that America was economically falling behind the rest of the world because it was resisting global trade and because its federal government wasn’t financially assisting business and industry.
One time, in the mid-1970’s, Magaziner’s report’s conclusions contradicted those of his client, a big steel mill company. He asked where the executives got their information. Each one’s source material, “… was all the same– all based on one original study done a few years earlier by some professors.” The executives’ groupthink and herd mentality in relying on old, faulty data led to financial trouble for their industry.
In another case, in the late 1970’s, when General Electric partnered with Samsung to make microwave ovens, they struggled to arrive at the most profitable arrangement for both of them. One major cultural difference was that the South Koreans (unlike the Americans) worked sixty to eighty hour weeks because they believed in making sacrifices for future generations. Incidentally, they sent their children to universities in the United States to be educated, and taught them the value of hard work.
Obviously, Americans too, wanted better for their children, but their labor unions and a different mentality prevailed in their workforce. South Korea eventually became an economic powerhouse, not just with the help of American financial aid, but also through maximizing its exporting of goods.
In the 1960’s and thereafter, Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew, tried a few different territory-wide economic initiatives that failed. One included legislating a 10% wage increase for all workers. Foreign companies, with all the then-availability of sweatshop labor, simply moved their factories to Thailand and Malaysia, where workers were paid less so that goods could be produced more cheaply.
One successful economic program Yew executed was to train his citizens’ factory workers in connection with an Apple-Computer partnership in the 1980’s. The workers made the sacrifices to attend night-school (tuition-free) after a long day’s work two to three times a week, for two to three years. The benefit for the partnership was that the workers’ experience allowed them to submit innovative ideas to improve manufacturing efficiency. Again, in the United States at that time, labor unions discouraged new ideas lest workers automate themselves out of jobs. Which happened to them, anyway. But the non-unionized Singaporean workplace was such that workers weren’t laid off– they were retrained for higher-level positions.
Yet another reason the United States began to economically trail the rest of the world in the latter half of the twentieth century, was that its securities markets accelerated impatience in America’s corporate psyche. American industry became unwilling to finance and do the hard work of, continuing research and development and take a loss in bad times to keep pace technologically with Asian competitors. It wanted to prop up stock prices instead and make its executives rich quick. Still does.
One company that bucked the trend was Corning. In late 1983, (finally, after sixteen years of losses!) it had the cutting-edge technology in fiber-optics for telecommunications, ready to deliver finished products to its first big customer, MCI, to turn a profit. Corning did it on its own– receiving scant financial help from the United States government.
Times have changed little since the 1980’s, when photovoltaic scientist Paul Maycock remarked, “I hated the whole concept of buying oil from the Persian Gulf and spending $50 billion a year defending that part of the world.” He wasted a lot of time and effort on environmentally-friendly business initiatives. Sadly, those were incompatible with the United States’ strategic interests. The start of the Reagan Era saw the Department of Energy nix further funding for solar-technology research. The solar panels (installed during the Carter administration) on the White House roof were removed.
Further, since in the 1990’s (after the book’s writing) there has arisen an orgy of patent litigation in software and computer hardware. Technologically inexperienced patent clerks and court personnel have made legal decisions that have been economically damaging to the country. Additionally, the American government has a history of eagerly funding innovations that have military applications while denying funding for innovations that have commercial applications.
And yet, astute perpetrators of American foreign policy have damaged other nations’ economies not only by waging war, but also through dispensing bad advice on “shock capitalism” and other subtle (“classified”) methods of indirectly causing mass destruction. So the United States remains the economically dominant nation in the world, despite suffering its share of financial crashes and certain sectors’ damaging policies that weaken it economically as a whole; sectors such as healthcare and education.
Anyway, read the book to learn: of additional business cases that related to the aforesaid themes, and the four major reasons the Japanese technology sector achieved great success in the past.