Just over a decade ago, a little lightning in New Mexico upended the cell phone business. Nature, not government, picked winners and losers. That storm determined the cell phone device race until another dynamo, the iPhone, came along and changed everything again. Now, weather in Thailand--and the tsunami in Japan--threaten to upend American politics in the 2012. Your economic future could hang in the balance.
Nokia vs. Ericsson, 2001
The Wall Street Journal story spellbound me.
Caused by a lightning bolt, the blaze in an Albuquerque, N.M., semiconductor plant burned for just 10 minutes last March. But far away in Scandinavia, the fire touched off a corporate crisis that shifted the balance of power between two of Europe's biggest electronics companies, both major players in the global electronics industry.
How could that happen? In 2001, how could a tiny fire have such an amazing impact on the fastest-growing industry in the world? And how could Asian weather this year change American politics in 2012 and beyond?
In March, 2001, Ericsson of Sweden and Nokia of Finland were locked in a battle. Each wanted to dominate the cell phone market just as cell phone sales skyrocketed around the world.
Both manufacturers bought a key radio frequency chip from the same chip supplier in New Mexico. The difference: Ericsson relied solely on the New Mexico plant, while Nokia worked with multiple suppliers.
Thailand Floods Dry Up Hard Drives
Central planners consider efficiency the supreme objective. Hitler’s Final Solution was, in his mind, an efficiency project, as wereStalin’s collectivization atrocities. Efficiency pays no regard to right or wrong--only to minimum cost in time and material to accomplish some objective.
Efficiency is often the enemy of safety and common sense. The drive to reduce “waste” often increases risk by putting lots of eggs in one basket.
Ericsson’s one-source solution was efficient. So efficient that by the end of 2001, Ericsson abandoned the cell phone market it nearly dominated in March of the same year.
Likewise, the United States has shipped hard drive manufacturing to Thailand. More efficient. Thailand has the plants and the labor force to produce more drives faster and cheaper than American manufacturers.
Until it rains. A lot.
This year’s monsoon season ravaged Thailand. Flood waters fill over 1,000 factories in the central part of the country (source NYT).
Best Buy customers already feel the impact.
St. Louisan Lee Presser tried to buy a new hard drive for his wifes computer this week. The price was double what he’d expected.
Lee went home to shop around on the internet. There he found prices even higher than those at Best Buy. So he returned to buy the last hard drive in stock.
“The Geek Squad guy told me it was because of flooding in Thailand,” Lee told me.
Prices for the most popular specifications have nearly doubled since November 1.
Jack Welch and Automation
Lee continued, “Which reminded me of that thing Jack Welch said.” Lee referred to the former CEO of General Electric.
Mr. Presser had seen Welch in an interview talking about the problem automation has presented to the job market. “We just don’t need that many people to make products anymore.”
Which brought Lee to his epiphany.
“So why can’t make hard drives here in the United States? Why should we be dependent on a country in Asia when we can manufacture them right here with machines?”
There are many obvious answers to Lee’s questions. To me, the most obvious is the long-term plan by the kingmakers to grow economies in underdeveloped countries. But that expensive policy of dubious return is fodder for another blog.
The answer that concerns us here is political, and comes as another question: How many candidates for any office care a lick about flooding in Thailand or lightning in New Mexico?
How many politicians really get how all this stuff works? How many really care?
To be honest, I’m afraid even some of our favorite Congressmen and candidates probably fell asleep before they got to this sentence. That’s because many (if not most) politicians have thought little about purpose of American life. They think, instead, about getting elected.
Not life. Not biological or spiritual existence. But American life. About why and how what American life is.
Instead, the modern politician focuses on one thing: getting elected. They can’t be distracted with Lee Presser’s search for a hard drive unless thirty-one percent of registered voters of a particular party also want cheaper hard drives.
How many politicians ever ask the simple and profound question Lee asked rhetorically today: why can’t we make hard drives in America?
Wouldn’t it be refreshing to meet a candidate who knows what he’s going to do the day after his swearing-in.
Challenge a Candidate
As Tony Soprano would say, “Wadda ya gonna do?”
Here’s what I say: let’s put candidates on the spot.
Not just candidates we’re not sure about. Not just candidates we’re uncomfortable with. And not just candidates from the dreaded other party.
Challenge our candidates. Our favorites.
At some point, we need to restore American pride. Becoming CEO of Conglomerated Widgets, Inc., does not end one’s Americanism. Leading a company is no excuse for shirking duties to the nation that made one’s career, built his company, and gave its customers the wealth with which to buy its widgets.
And today our candidates for office, from City Hall to Pennsylvania Avenue, owe us their attention to restoring American manufacturing.
Politicians owe us a clear message to multinational corporations that we are out of the business of subsidizing your operations. As states, we’re done bribing you to stay here. As a people, we’re done apologizing to the world for coming up with the best ideas again and again.
It’s time to elevate the practice of politics beyond getting elected, just as it’s time to elevate the practice of business above maximizing profits in the current fiscal quarter.
We built America for long-term success, sustainability, and prosperity. Arbitrary three-month spurts of greatness are not enough for us. They should satisfy no one.
Let’s harness our grassroots energy. Let’s use the tragic floods of Thailand, not to damage the Thai economy, but to rebuild our own.
We begin by making politicians talk about big ideas for which they may not have complete answers. It’s okay if they don’t. These are difficult questions, as most important questions are.
But we must be sure we’re voting for people who know why, how, and what America was, is, and could be.
That’s why men and women run for office. And that’s an awesome responsibility.