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    Toyota Prius: the Suzuki Samurai of the ’10s?

    Posted by Sean at 13:28, February 6th, 2010

    The lead editorial in the Nikkei today carries the headline “Response from Toyota [that] will determine trust in Japanese products.” It’s about, of course, the recent spate of accidents, attendant recalls, and public questioning of what the hell Toyota thinks it’s doing:

    In the background of the quality issues are changes in the structure of the industry. In the last ten years, the globalization of automobile production and parts procurement has expanded greatly. Toyota itself has more than doubled the number of units it produces overseas, from 1.75 million in 2000 to a peak of 4.30 million in 2007. Hasn’t quality assurance been neglected in the process of this rapid expansion? Rethinking and inspections will be indispensable.

    Additionally, there’s the increased level of technology. Even in the world of automobiles, which were products of mechanical engineering, the relative importance of electronic controls that employ IT (information technology) and software technology has increased recently.

    The issue of recurring complaints related to brakes, which affects the Prius hybrid car that’s become Toyota’s representative line, had origins that lay in electronic control systems. It won’t do to be smug about past successes; it’s necessary to have new quality-assurance mechanisms that fit the electronic age.

    The company’s capacity for crisis management has further been severely questioned. The trigger for this string of problems was a Lexus accident in which all four members of a California family were killed last summer, but Kindness itself would be hard-pressed to call Toyota’s response rapid.

    While one issue smolders, the next pops up, and the situation gradually worsens. If a full stop isn’t quickly put to this negative cycle, the pulling away from Toyota by consumers will gain ground globally.

    In the United States, the epicenter* for the issues, a midterm election will be held this fall, and portents that protectionism could raise its head have emerged. There’s also a possibility that a pushback against foreign manufacturers could gain in power.

    Correspondingly, Toyota should respond to consumer unease and criticism of the company head-on, by swiftly adopting response policies with the CEO and other top managers at the lead. A clear and powerful message about the company’s path forward from here on must also go out to Toyota employees and shareholders.

    Toyota is an enterprise that represents Japan, and the possibility cannot be discounted that its vacillating could lead to a lost of trust in the Japan brand as a whole. Additionally, there are environmental shifts common to many Japanese enterprises, such as globalization of production, and we’d like to see others also take the current situation as a lesson and channel their capabilities into quality and safety assurance.

    Yes, we would, wouldn’t we? But consumer-product safety has been a thorny issue since the Japan, Inc., era, and the only reason it’s caught so many people by surprise in the West is that previous scandals have involved makers that don’t sell outside Japan (except for Bridgestone and, to a lesser extent, Mitsubishi Motors). On the one hand, the Japanese thrive on competition and are detail-oriented. On the other, the Japanese don’t have a culture of individual responsibility, and there’s a pervasive, if nearly always unspoken, belief that if no one noticed you doing it, it didn’t happen. (I believe that shame culture has many qualities that recommend it over guilt culture, but that isn’t one of them.) Hence the super-scary revelations in the ’90s and early ’00s about lax enforcement of safety procedures at nuclear facilities, hence the dumping by hospitals of indigent patients whose social insurance has run out, and hence the years that the Hidetsugu Aneha (along with others) was able to palm off bogus structural calculations for buildings that didn’t meet earthquake codes on government agencies.

    It’s hard to know what the source of the problem here is. Electronics and cars are highly complex and sometimes have defects even when those who designed and manufactured them knew what they were doing and were working in good faith. But what starts with an honest mistake can end up being a dishonest cover-up when it’s handled with blame-shifting and stonewalling. Toyota is not alone among Japanese organizations in favoring blame-shifting and stonewalling as a response to accusations of bad work, and while its international reach means the organization is more sensitive to the expectations of non-Japanese audiences, it’s not surprising that it began by taking the usual approach of issuing vague statements about “unfortunate occurrences” and the like. We’ll see whether Toyota deals with the immediate problem and renames a few divisions or, if there turn out to be deep organizational problems at work, actually roots them out.

    * Fellow Japanese geeks: don’t bother telling me that 震央, not 震源, means “epicenter.” I know. In English, we don’t talk about the “focus” of a crisis. Well, we do, but we mean something else by it.

    Added later: An argument that the problems with quality control are more complicated than just complacency and slacking off (via Instapundit and Kausfiles):

    Obviously, we need to know a lot more about the specifics of Toyota’s recent quality woes before we can establish causal links between the rise of lean product design in the 1990s and the current rash of bad news. The fact that Denso-built pedals do not appear to suffer from the same problem as CTS-supplied pedals indicates that this might be a supplier-specific problem, rather than the result of a systemic de-emphasis on quality at Toyota. Still, the Toyota practice of working closely with suppliers in the development process indicates that there’s more than enough blame to go around.

    The real extent of this cost-cutting, decontenting and “design leaning” won’t be easy to quantify, but the fact that it’s been taking place since the early nineties and is only now yielding negative effects suggests that it’s been relatively well-managed. But Toyota’s reputation was built on those “fat” products of the mid-80s to early-90s, and it won’t be returning to the old practices that created them anytime soon due to their competitive disadvantages. This seems to suggest that, once damaged, Toyota is unlikely to ever recover its former quality halo.

    A working-class hero is something to be

    Posted by Sean at 23:18, February 4th, 2010

    Ann Althouse cites this piece by John B. Judis in TNR, which in turn takes the writer of this WaPo article to task for getting his facts about President Obama wrong. What I find really interesting is the way Judis catalogues the numerous reasons to believe that Obama grew up with a sense of entitlement and flitted from occupation to occupation in exactly the way shallow people obsessed with power and prestige do…then, out of nowhere, finishes like this:

    Barack Obama is, by any fair measure, a great American, and he could turn out to be a great president. But he is not yet a great politician. He has not been able to transcend the political limits of his own social background. And that has been one of his problems as he attempts to extricate America from the mess he inherited.

    But the limits aren’t just political; they’re experiential as well. Judis is at pains to argue that Obama “clearly was not obsessed with making money, but with performing a public service,” but he (Judis) seems to have no comprehension whatever of the degree to which a lot of actual working-class people tend to perceive “public service” positions like his (Obama’s) as out-of-touch condescension, geared less toward helping the disadvantaged to clear a path toward achieving their own goals than toward making the public servant feel good about his own magnanimity. It’s the modern version of the manor-house-ladies-visiting-food-and-moral-hectoring-on-the-cottage-dwellers routine.

    Perhaps Obama did doubt that he was “accomplishing much” as a community organizer, in the sense of serving people in need. Or perhaps, like seemingly thousands of other Ivy grads each year, he decided that what he was doing wasn’t fast-track enough and, as a humanities/social-science major, that his best shot at giving himself a grad-degree boost was law school. And when I say “fast-track,” I’m not just talking about money; power, influence, and image figure into a lot of people’s calculations of self-worth as much as money does. (Judis does recognize that.) New York is chock-a-block with cutthroat lawyers who imagine they’re more moral and civic-minded than the bankers downtown—just because, as nearly as I’ve ever been able to tell, they don’t work for banks.

    There are two major problems in perceiving these things clearly, I think. One is that there’s a serious class divide in America based on expectations. Obama grew up, it appears, among people who saw going to a hoity-toity college and then bossing people around for a living as the natural progression of things. Working-class people do not. (I say this as the son of a steelworker and a high-school dropout who later got a GED and a data-operations certification. My parents and their friends were optimistic and happy, but the idea of wanting to devote your working life to lording it over people would have been very foreign to them.) I’m sure Obama had times when he had to struggle—difficult exams and all that—but he was following the same path as his peers, and one that his elders were presumably easing him along. That doesn’t diminish his actual accomplishments, but I suspect it does make it pretty much impossible for him to imagine what life is like for people who have succeeded by working their way up.

    The other problem is that Obama has a fundamentally performative personality, as we would have put it back when I was majoring in comparative literature. Oratory suits him. Earthy spontaneity doesn’t suit him, and it shows. Perhaps that means he’s uncomfortable in his own skin as a human being, or perhaps it means that he’s growing into himself as a politician. My sense is that, like a lot of people who’ve been able to dodge failure their entire adult lives, he’s skittish about doing anything obviously risky, and it’s that skittishness that makes him seem withdrawn. (Say what you will about W’s plummy background—by his own estimation, he’d crashed and burned as an alcoholic and sinner, and he’d gained in gravitas by pushing through that.)

    I very frequently agree with Althouse, but when she says of Obama’s disconnect with the middle-class, “[I]t is a struggle to figure this out when you are getting your facts so wrong,” I think she’s a little off the point. Background matters, but sensibility matters more. I knew I was going to live in New York from the time I was a small boy. It never occurred to me in high school that I wouldn’t be applying to Ivies like my more comfortably-off friends. (I have my parents to thank for that, BTW. They would have been perfectly justified in informing me that it was my responsibility to work my way through college. Instead, they took out parent loans so I could spend four years daydreaming about Japanese literature for a Penn degree.) I go back to my hometown, and much as I love spending time with my parents and other relatives, I’m an outsider there.

    In a way, it breaks my heart. We all want to feel close to our origins, and I’m far more distant from mine than the two-hour drive might suggest. In another way, though, this is the richness of America: you the individual do not have to be what others assume you were born to be. Though I won’t pretend I don’t like money, I don’t value the way I live because I make more than my father does; I value it because it suits my personality. Happily, I’m not a politician, so I don’t have to go back to Allentown and pretend unconvincingly to be sunk in and at home there. If President Obama wants to succeed more with regular folks, maybe he could stop trying to act like one of them (seriously, man—no…just, no) and be frank about being an outsider and politician. If he adopted the posture of a public servant who wanted to know their reality, and then started really listening to them tell him about it, he might realize that Washington knows too little about it to micromanage it. And then it would matter a lot less whether So-and-so at the WaPo got the chronology of his life story straight.

    Added on 7 February: Thanks to Eric for the link; while I’m sorry to have gotten him worked into a froth, the post that resulted is a good one as always. There’s one statement Eric made that, while perfectly accurate, might benefit from some elaboration:

    Sean sees Obama as an insecure poseur, and thinks that he should try being honest about his background.

    I think one of the big problems is the labels themselves. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard Obama describe himself as explicitly “working-class,” and I don’t have the two books of his I forced myself to read (see? I’m a true child of the working class living a life of struggle!) in front of me, but I don’t remember that being the tack taken there, either. The media like to stress the “humbleness” of his beginnings, but there are plenty of anonymous solidly middle-class folks, too.

    The point I was trying to make was more that Obama depicts his life as one of overcoming obstacles, and in the sense that we usually mean it when talking about a politician’s life story, I don’t think that’s really true. Obama’s not from an insider family the way, say, Harold Ford, Jr., is, but he had a lot more than his own determination and our open society helping him on the way from Punahoe to Occidental to Columbia to Harvard. His family was full of educated people who knew the system.

    All of which is to say, I don’t think that President Obama is being dishonest in the sense of covering things up. I just think that his background says less, in and of itself, about how much grit and determination he needed to get where he is than the media and the rest of his claque seem to think.


    Posted by Sean at 09:58, February 2nd, 2010

    Via Instapundit, this collection of headlines about the NHS in the UK. I’m not sure what they’re supposed to show about how worried we Yanks should be, though. Take this one: “Did hospital pull plug on mother to save cash?”


    Everyone knows that President Obama only promised not to “pull the plug on Grandma.” Who’s worried about Mother? That old bag can fend for herself—she’s still feisty.

    I’ve lifted the veil; I’ve walked through the fire

    Posted by Sean at 08:10, February 1st, 2010

    Frank Rich uses his NYT perch to make the complaint, common among cultural as well as political commentators, that equates “Americans are not united behind my coterie’s political wish list” with “Americans are not united in any meaningful way, and that’s dangerous.” Naturally, we need a big, strong man to show us who’s boss.

    [O]ur union is not strong. It is paralyzed. Many Americans were more eagerly anticipating Steve Jobs’s address in San Francisco on Wednesday morning than the president’s that night because they have far more confidence in Apple than Washington to produce concrete change. One year into Obama’s term we still don’t know whether he has what it takes to get American governance functioning again. But we do know that no speech can do the job. The president must act. Only body blows to the legislative branch can move the country forward.

    Well, yes, plenty of Americans would like to inflict some body blows on the legislative branch—just not everyone in the way Rich means it.

    The thing is, that’s not a problem that a strong president can make go away. Disagreement, on deep-rooted principles, is part of the fabric of American society and will always have to be factored into political prescriptions. It doesn’t represent “paralysis” unless you conceive of most problems as lying in the political realm and being the business of the United States Congress. Sometimes it really is necessary for the federal government to steamroll over possible objections. (Congress has the explicit power to declare war; we don’t take a plebiscite.)

    But on many issues, the option of allowing for differences among states and municipalities enables individuals to vote with their feet and make the trade-offs they prefer. Insisting that Washington legislate them, by contrast, foists the same trade-offs on everyone from on high. Well, everyone but the insiders and lobbyists who come out with most of the pork and gravy. If Americans aren’t behind the mammoth new health-care or jobs program or eager to hear the president disgorge more of his trademark orotundities about it, that may be because many of them suspect, based on precedent, that it won’t work as promised. At least Steve Jobs was going to tell them something useful. And if their representatives in congress have picked up on their mood and are spooked, so much the better.

    Added after coffee: That original first sentence was unnecessarily obnoxious, so I took out the nastier parts.

    Added on 3 February: When I compared Frank Rich to Chief Wiggum, I thought I sounded like a jerk (which is why I deleted that part). When Eric does it, he sounds charmingly prankish. He manages to work in a doughnut reference, too, which is always welcome.

    Kiss and say goodbye

    Posted by Sean at 23:44, January 31st, 2010

    I didn’t know until the Grammys did the obituaries section that Kate McGarrigle had died a few weeks ago. How sad. I liked their ’70s albums as a child, but I loved Heartbeats Accelerating all through college and beyond. I have no idea what she was like as a person, but as a musician she was generous-hearted, mischievous, heart-gripping. RIP


    Posted by Sean at 08:10, January 28th, 2010

    Via A. Nicholas at Ghost of a Flea comes this report on one of the delightfully bizarre ways extremes sometimes meet. The photographs have a spooky beauty, too:

    When presented with oat flakes arranged in the pattern of Japanese cities around Tokyo, brainless, single-celled slime molds construct networks of nutrient-channeling tubes that are strikingly similar to the layout of the Japanese rail system, researchers from Japan and England report Jan. 22 in Science. A new model based on the simple rules of the slime mold’s behavior may lead to the design of more efficient, adaptable networks, the team contends.

    Every day, the rail network around Tokyo has to meet the demands of mass transport, ferrying millions of people between distant points quickly and reliably, notes study coauthor Mark Fricker of the University of Oxford. “In contrast, the slime mold has no central brain or indeed any awareness of the overall problem it is trying to solve, but manages to produce a structure with similar properties to the real rail network.”

    Initially, the slime mold dispersed evenly around the oat flakes, exploring its new territory. But within hours, the slime mold began to refine its pattern, strengthening the tunnels between oat flakes while the other links gradually disappeared. After about a day, the slime mold had constructed a network of interconnected nutrient-ferrying tubes. Its design looked almost identical to that of the rail system surrounding Tokyo, with a larger number of strong, resilient tunnels connecting centrally located oats. “There is a remarkable degree of overlap between the two systems,” Fricker says.

    Travelers on the Tokyo commuter rail systems often compare themselves to sushi packed in tight, so perhaps this whole ferrying-of-nutrients parallel isn’t so odd after all.

    We belong

    Posted by Sean at 00:30, January 28th, 2010

    Instapundit says that Lech Walesa will be campaigning for a Republican gubernatorial candidate—literally. I didn’t see anything on Adam Andrzejewski’s website to indicate it, so I wondered whether Glenn Reynolds might be making a Polish joke. Apparently not, which is very cool. OTOH, I still think it’s worth mentioning that another famous American springs readily to mind when you think “Andrzejewski.”

    My bottle of Laphroaig and I are watching the SOTU

    Posted by Sean at 21:17, January 27th, 2010

    21:12 or so: “The government has been unable or unwilling to solve many of our problems.”



    I wonder which one it is.


    21:25: “When you talk to small-business owners in Allentown, Pennsylvania,…”

    …you realize that you don’t know crap about economic reality and should stop trying to manipulate it?


    21:27: “…the infrastructure of tomorrow.”

    Oh, no—here comes the choo-choo train.


    21:28: Offshoring is evil. Shifting jobs abroad may do things like give low-income consumers cheaper goods to buy, but who cares about trivialities like that?


    21:32: “Look, I’m not interested in punishing banks.”

    I’m just going to impose a fee on them that’ll get passed on to their depositors and debtors…at least, if the banks are big. Being a big business is almost as evil as offshoring. Or maybe more.


    21:36: “And, yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill.”

    There was a doubt that these people were thinking of problem-solving in terms of a comprehensive [fill in the blank] bill? Oh. I was not aware of that, actually.


    21:37: “We need to export more of our goods.”

    Doesn’t that mean other countries are offshoring jobs to us and are therefore all kinds of venal and stuff, then? Or are we only going to export things no one else makes?

    Every time you give a non-American a job, God kills a kitten.


    21:40: Color me skeptical that any education reform, bipartisan or no, will be undertaken in a way that spanks non-performing assets ensconced in the NEA or AFT and keeps them from screwing over kids anymore.


    21:41: Watch for college tuition to increase by an average of US$2500 a year once that tax credit goes through.


    21:47: “As temperatures cool….”

    WTF? I thought there was scientific consensus around global warming?


    21:56: “Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades…”

    …you should face that it’s time to STFU and do what my fellow-travelers and I want anyway.


    21:57: Did you know that lobbyists had been excluded from policy-making jobs in Obama’s administation? ‘Cause I didn’t know that lobbyists had been excluded from policy-making jobs in Obama’s administration. And naturally, he and his fans are for the Incumbent Protection Act McCain-Feingold.


    21:59: You know, I care about earmarks, too; but I care even more about whether congresscritters actually know what’s in stimulus and health-care legislation before they vote on it. It’d be nice if they posted that on a single, accessible website, too. Maybe I’m weird that way?


    22:00: You were the one whose triumphant line was “I won,” buster. And the “permanent campaign,” as it used to be called, started under Clinton. IIRC, he was one of yours. Also, if you don’t like hearing people blame the other side all the time, maybe call a moratorium on the Bush-blaming?


    [ongoing]: Laphroaig, why you so good to me?


    22:09: “North Korea is more isolated than ever.”

    Brrrr…it frightens me just to think about it. I mean, if North Korea supposedly idealized something like…oh, I don’t know, “self-reliance,” then maybe it’d be different.


    22:12: “If you abide by the law, then you should be protected by the law.”

    And if you violate tax law, but you have a cool resume, then you should be in my cabinet.


    22:14: The DADT thing sneaked in—Eric was saying it would.


    22:16: “Cynicism”? Uh, no. Just not child-like faith that government can solve everything by butting into it.


    22:19: You know, I hate to sound like a jerk, but the idea that that little boy thought his allowance should go through Washington to get to the needy in Haiti, and that Obama finds that stirring, is telling.


    22:33: I’m watching at whitehouse.gov, where a bunch of aides are sitting around a table fielding questions submitted electronically. My primary feeling is that every one of them really needs a good lay.


    22:59: Good grief, stop saying, “That’s an excellent question.” They’re all hand-picked. We know they’re all hand-picked. Nothing that isn’t considered a strategically good question for some reason or other is going to figure into this dog-and-pony show. Affecting any surprise at all at the perspicacity of the question you’re called upon to address fools no one. Just once, I want one of these Ken dolls (or the one Barbie in the group) to show some spirit, look unblinkingly at the camera, and say, “That’s the dumbest f***ing question I’ve ever heard in my life.”

    Added later: Eric sort of ended up live-blogging; his verdict is here.

    808 State

    Posted by Sean at 18:53, January 27th, 2010

    Is this thing on? Super. And for Pete’s sake, good thing they’re letting me have the TelePrompTer considering all the FLAK I’ve been taking after that school thing. I mean, seriously? Second Assistant was all, like, “Mr. Prez, I realize that you’re used to giving speeches to segments of the electorate that are no more sophisticated than middle-schoolers, but that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to use the ‘PrompTer in front of an actual classroom of sixth-graders!” Oh, snap, Second Assistant, snap! Like I’m supposed to be able to figure these things out anymore.

    Speaking of which, you people drive me up the wall sometimes. Why bother electing me president if you’re going to throw a fit every time I actually try to PRESIDE over something? I keep trying to introduce some European enlightenment into this place—FINALLY!—in fact, “Light Bringer” sounds like a cool nickname. Wonder what it is in Latin? ANYWAY, I TRY these European things you said you wanted when you voted me in, and then what do you go and do?

    Well, okay, Massachusetts just went and elected a senator who once posed nude for a national magazine, which is sort of like what happens in maybe Italy, but that’s not the Europe I mean. I mean France and Germany, geniuses. They have national health systems, and they’re all kinds of cool.

    For a while there, I was heartened by the whole “Tea Party” thing I was hearing about from my staffers whose job is to look out the window sometimes. The UK doesn’t consider itself part of Europe, really, but it may as well be, and they have tea parties there. Class-act tea parties. Then Anderson Cooper told me you were actually “Tea-Baggers,” and I was like, Blech! BAG TEA? What is America now—one gigantic rest-stop diner? Seriously, your personal assistant can learn to make tea from proper loose leaves. You’ll love it. Serve it in Limoges. And then you’ll really be worth partying with! Almost, dare I say, European.

    But really, it’s not even just Europe. Let’s talk Japan. (Actually, am I supposed to call that Prime Minister guy soon? I need to find out from someone.) Japan invented sushi and Kurosawa movies, and you’re fine with those, but Japan also has a national health service, and you’re all up in arms because I might want to give you something like it. Who knows—maybe once we have a national health service, our countrymen will come up with better food and movies, and you in the hinterlands won’t all be stuck eating at Taco Bell and watching crap from James Cameron.

    Okay, fine. That’s fallacious reasoning. POST HOC ERGO PROPTER HOC. I know all about that because I went to Harvard Law School. Just, look, forget what results…don’t you want to be more like the Japanese? Remember: sushi! Kurosawa!

    Oh, yeah. Japan also has that bad-news economy that totally wasn’t helped by those stimulus packages. Meh. Let’s think about Europe again.

    If you’re in a snit and not going to take the national health care system—which, let me be perfectly clear, the people in Washington would totally have a plan completed for sometime after the bill passed and before the first bureaucrat manning the help line put a citizen on hold—maybe you can take something else France and Germany have (and hey, Japan, too!): a super-zoom-zoom-fast choo-choo train! Those of us who get around on private jets have been totally trying to get you to assent to one of those for for-flipping-EVER. Seriously, que es el holdup?

    On the other hand, I can’t say that I like the way the AP talks about it here (via Reason, where people keep insisting on pointing out that they did NOT VOTE FOR ME):

    A day after delivering a State of the Union address aimed at showing recession-weary Americans he understands their struggles, President Barack Obama intends to award $8 billion in stimulus funds to develop high-speed rail corridors and sell the program as a jobs creator.

    Excuse me? I don’t have to “sell” anything. That railroads create jobs is, like, manifest. The song isn’t called “I’ve Been Underemployed on the Railroad,” now, is it?

    The official said the projects are expected to create or save [Like that? I came up with it myself.–Yr. Prez] tens of thousands of jobs in areas like track-laying, manufacturing, planning and engineering, though there is no time frame for how long it will take for those jobs to develop. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak ahead of the president’s announcement.

    Okay, if a certain Anonymous Official had said what he’d actually REHEARSED, he would have left out the part about “no time frame.” I mean, sheesh—do you have any idea how many unions we’re going to have to massage? Where do people think jobs are supposed to come from, entrepreneurship or something?

    With that in mind, Obama will spend about two-thirds of his speech on the economy, telling Americans in specific terms that he understands their struggles. He’ll reinforce that message in the coming weeks by laying out a number of job creation initiatives, the first of which will be the high-speed rail grant awards to announced Thursday in Tampa.

    Trust me, I lobbied hard for Palm Beach. Who the hell goes to Tampa? But those staffers of mine are total martinets.

    Even experts who favor high-speed rail question whether the awards Obama will announce Thursday can turn into the job generators the administration is hoping for. Because the U.S. has never had the kind of bullet trains found in Europe and Asia, there are no U.S. engineering companies or manufacturers with experience in high-speed rail. Anthony Perl, who heads the National Research Council’s panel on intercity passenger rails, said that means much of the technology will have to be purchased abroad.

    And that’s a problem? At least the ignoramuses may end up letting me import SOMETHING, I say.

    So anyway, yeah, more jobs and a sophisticated, environmentally friendly, employment-providing new set of transportation systems. What could be better? And I’ve been looking to get away from all the bankers and car makers, too. With this project, I can leave all these industries whose reputation has been sullied by decades of greed and inefficiency behind and just settle into working with, you know, railroad magnates and transportation authorities. Can’t wait.

    Dont’ worry ’bout my recovery

    Posted by Sean at 04:07, January 27th, 2010

    Unlike Eric, I don’t feel much pressure to live-blog the State of the Unions…er…Union address, and therefore plan to give it a dyspeptic listen in private. I will just note here, re. the Wall Street Journal article Eric links to, that this drives me bananas:

    The point people for the small-business initiatives will be embattled Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Small Business Administrator Karen Mills, administration officials say. Thursday, Mr. Geithner will travel to Minneapolis to tour a Honeywell factory and have a roundtable discussion with local business leaders.

    In the poll, just 11% of Americans feel positively about the Treasury chief. Nearly one in five have negative feelings about him, while more than half said they didn’t know his name or weren’t sure.

    Melissa Sharp, a spokeswoman for the National Federation of Independent Business, the small-business lobby, said the Hatch-Schumer proposal may be a step in the right direction. The organization, though, would like to see a broader measure—one that doesn’t just apply to the longterm unemployed.

    Hiring tax credits have been controversial. Some economists worry businesses could fire then rehire workers to claim the credit, or divide a full-time job into two part-time jobs.

    Yes, the best way to encourage entrepreneurship is to make the tax code more complex. People with big dreams and modest means love that, because there aren’t already enough little decision-distorting little rules plaguing their lives to begin with.

    I mean, don’t misunderstand: I’m for lower taxes as much as I’ve ever been. The part that drives me wild is that this is yet another example of the government-as-handyman approach, in which it’s assumed that Washington’s role in the economy is to push through yet another set of micromanage-y dicta to “help” enterprises of this or that description. I suppose I should be grateful that Sharp’s lobby isn’t powerful enough to wangle a bailout for its more luckless members. And along those lines, how is it we hope to help small businesses by visiting a Honeywell [!] facility and talking to people who are already business leaders in a major urban area? I’m aware of the distinction between long-running small businesses and start-ups, and I suppose the discussion could be intended to elicit ideas about what small businesses need in order to succeed. But, as Virginia Postrel was pointing out around the time of our last health-care policy-push fiasco, it’s hard for even economists to figure these things out in a way that produces “helpful” policy:

    Small business is, apparently, the opposite of the weather: Everybody praises it, and everybody does something about it. But all this posturing is based on bad economics and worse politics. Contrary to endlessly repeated conventional wisdom, small companies do not account for the vast majority of new jobs.

    That notion stems from the work of David Birch, a former MIT researcher who now runs a consulting firm called Cognetics. In the 1980s, Birch claimed to show that most new jobs came from small companies. His findings were trumpeted by small-business advocates, notably the Small Business Administration and my former employer, Inc. magazine. It seemed impolite to subject Birch’s research to normal scientific checking.

    But Birch has now recanted. He says, “The relative role of smaller firms in generating jobs varies enormously from time to time and place to place … Most small-firm job creation occurs within a relatively few firms–the Gazelles.” These “Gazelles” are, quite simply, high-growth companies. That growing companies hire more people than non-growing companies is hardly surprising. The “Gazelles,” says Birch, represent every sector of the economy and are extremely unstable.

    As a celebration of a dynamic, entrepreneurial economy, Birch’s vision is appealing. It holds up on anecdotal grounds. Birch cites such Gazelle successes as AST Research and Federal Express. But his research has absolutely no predictive value. You identify a Gazelle by looking at its past growth, not predicting its future prospects. The implication of Birch’s research is that no one, including David Birch, knows where new jobs will come from.

    Not that that’s going to stop them from pretending they do.

    Speaking of big dreams and the inability to engineer the future, Sarah Hoyt has another guest post up at another blog, this time discussing whether current science fiction deserves more readers than it gets:

    The other part of this is that no one can cast a future world without thinking through things like economics, sexual roles, politics, mass movements. No one can write a world no matter how bubblegum—oh, all right, maybe seventies French sci fi porn (I only read it for the spaceships)—without putting his or her thoughts into it. If you don’t believe me, go and analyze Star Trek. Or even better read one of several volumes of serious analysis that already exist. Messages are not what you think. Moral fables with pre-determined outcomes are rarely entertaining and besides, if you have children, go and look at what they read in school. They’re immersed in these “the world is unjust and we must wallow in it” screeds. Full up. If anything this turns them off reading. Why should they go looking for more of this boring stuff on their own time?

    I’d like to say these are my very reasonable and reasoned suggestions, but I feel more like all this has been simmering for years (and panels) untold and now it’s 1517 and I’m Martin Luther, nailing my theses to the door. I fully expect a storm of excommunication. But some things are worth saying.

    Relax your grip around science fiction, gentle ladies and kind gentlemen of science fiction publishing and critique. Allow writers to dream and they will. Allow stories to inspire dreams and the readers will come. And perhaps one of those young people attracted by the “impossible” FTL process will be one who invents a way to travel almost painlessly to and amid the distant stars. Because his high school teacher will say it’s impossible and our reader will be mulish enough to prove it all wrong. Perhaps one of the young women who just missed out on reading another screed on how she is oppressed for being female, will create bio-wombs that will free women from the physical hardship of pregnancy. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

    Stop trying to push people toward dreams you’ve envisioned for them, yes.

    On a not-entirely-unrelated note, the three youngest kitties in Mark Alger’s household were born a year ago last week, at the very dawn of this era of hope, change, and promotion to executive-branch positions after non-payment of taxes. Happy birthday to them.

    On a bizarrely not-entirely-unrelated note, here’s Olivia on rejecting high-handed attempts to help with “Recovery”:

    Added later: Combining the themes of Sarah Hoyt, not pigeonholing people, and kitties, Sarah has a post up about cat names. Priceless sentence: “Dead cats aren’t particularly safe.”

    Added on 29 January: I knew I had a photograph of my parents’ Romeo and Ludwig in full superiority-complex mode:

    The dryer wasn’t even running, BTW.