Like so many, both inside and outside the academy, I tend to mark the passage of time by the books I read. For me, the 1980s opened with a book by Ezra Vogel, entitled “Japan as Number One,” which foreshadowed all the worries about our loss of industrial supremacy that would come to haunt that troubled decade. In the book Japan seemed superior to America in every way: its government and corporations were as efficient as they were efficacious, increasing productivity while preserving social welfare; its politicians reigned over a stable polity as its bureaucrats wisely figured out everything from controlling crime to alleviating the energy shortage and reducing pollution. Meanwhile, its citizens were highly educated, amid all the uproar about why Johnny can’t read—and Fumiko can.
By the end of the decade the country had grown weary of hearing about what was wrong with us, and wanted some assurance that uncultured, inefficient, and undereducated as we might be, we still had our heads screwed on right where our fundamental values were concerned: our liberalism, our democracy, our respect for privacy, and individualism. A perfect expression of this new zeitgeist was a book by James Fallows, called “More Like Us” (1989). That book, in my view, marked the end of the 1980s and ushered in the 1990s. The book celebrated American virtues—individualism, creativity, that can-do attitude—and turned every sow’s ear in American culture into a silk purse: if our social order was disorderly, it was because we had a “talent for disorder,” the sine qua non for creative excellence; every misstep was an opportunity to improve ourselves because America was a country of second chances, a forgiving culture. A prescient work by one irritated man, the book heralded what could only be described as the roaring ’90s, as the microelectronics revolution, engineered and fueled by the collective talents of can-do and derring-do geeky pioneers, many of them immigrants, rode the crest of a flood of innovation that soon transformed our economy, with huge leaps in productivity—leaving Japan in the dust. Soon Japan slid into the economic doldrums that have continued to this day.
The jaw-dropping recall of Toyota vehicles in the past month, the largest recall in automotive history, makes one ponder the meaning of Number One. Japan wanted to be number one, and with Toyota, it did become the number one carmaker in the world, surpassing General Motors, which had held pride of place for nearly eighty years. Toyota wasn’t simply big, it was profitable; just as the news of massive recalls were hitting the media, it announced that it was expecting to post a $900 million profit for the year that ends in March (a figure that will surely be revised). The irony is not lost on those of the reading public who came of age in the 1980s. In 1986, David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-winning reporter, best known for his book on the early days of the Vietnam War, “The Best and the Brightest,” wrote a door-stopper of a book called “The Reckoning,” a magisterial history of automobile firms in Japan and the United States. The trouble with the American automakers, he argued, was that their executives came from finance, not the assembly line, were obsessed with the bottom line, and always had one eye on the stock market. In contrast, their Japanese counterparts hailed from the ranks of engineers, knew the business of manufacturing machines down to the marrow of their bones, and both understood and were committed to quality. If Halberstam were alive today (he died in an automobile accident in 2007), he would say that race is not to the swift, but “the reckoning” happens to us all.
Until the Congressional hearings, we won’t know whether or not the Japanese have become more like Detroit over the years, putting profit over quality; even then, we may never know, since a modern car is an infernally complex beast on wheels with as many as a hundred microprocessor-controlled devices. “Quality control” is far more complicated today than it was a quarter century ago when Halberstam was looking under the Japanese hood.
What is undoubtedly true is that it takes more than a good product and the largest market share (or becoming the largest auto market, as China is now is) to become and to remain Number One. It takes leadership, entrepreneurship, accountability, and the ability to communicate—not just to a national but to a global audience. As the bad news began breaking, the flustered chairman of Toyota finally held a brief news conference—on a Friday evening, in a place two hours from Tokyo—hoping to shake off the journalists beating down his door. He said nothing new and communicated nothing, only a formulaic apology devoid of meaning. He might as well have been the Roger Smith character in Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me,” the emblem of shirked accountability for the ruin of the city that Buick built, Flint, Michigan. It is a sad irony that the first indication of the current Toyota trouble can be traced to Flint, where a 77-year-old former GM employee was driving a 2005 Toyota Camry when the accelerator stuck. She died in the ensuing collision with a tree.
To be Number One, James Fallows argued that we had to remember how to be “more like us,” and less like Japan—or China, or Asia. As he extolled and recounted the virtues of this country, virtues hidden in the shadow of all the sackcloth and ashes of the 1980s, he also condemned what he said were the Asian qualities that were seeping into the American culture, compromising its entrepreneurial spirit. He called it the Confucianization of America, meaning the meritocratic tendency centered on examinations and credentials, fostering excessive competition.
Leaving aside the accuracy of this caricature of Asian education, there is perhaps something to the argument that we as a nation have become excessively focused on credentials. Here at the College, I sometimes discern this tendency in the steadily upward trend in multiple majors over the past decade. The requirements for more than one major can be strenuous, crowding out the flexibility for students to venture out to new fields, experiment in ways that push the limits of knowledge. In the College, we offer some three thousand course sections, and I wonder whether something essential is lost when students trade in a broad liberal arts curriculum in order to satisfy the new requirements for an additional credential.
Regardless of whether students graduate with one major or two, it remains a fact that our educational system is the best in the world. And regardless of who is number one in auto sales, it is our educational system that is our best comparative advantage. It keeps foreign students flocking to our shores, especially from Asia. In the long run, these students will, in one way or another, be more like us, and I think they will be better for it.