Sep 17, 2009

Getting Cranky about Patriotism

All Rights Reserved © 2009 Thomas W. Day

In an extended email conversation with a reader about positions I've taken in this column over certain motorcycle brands, motorcycle styles, and motorcyclists, I found myself getting downright belligerent over some issues that I really don't care about at all. When that happens, you have to wonder "why"? I did the wondering, but it took me a while to figure out the why.

Our conversation had devolved into a question of patriotism vs. owning and riding motorcycles. His side of the discussion included a lot of terms like "Jap bikes" and "rice burners" and that always puts me on edge. In a way, those terms are childishly humorous and the users of the terms tell us a lot about themselves, unintentionally, when they are so relaxed about one set of derogatory terms and wouldn't think of calling another collection of motorcycles "Wop bikes" or "Kraut bikes" or even "Yankee bikes." In self-defense, I've taken to calling a certain group of motorcycles, "cheese burners."
After getting past that, we got into why he was so encouraged by my mechanical problems with my KL250 Kawasaki Super Sherpa. He was more than pleased to know that I was less than impressed with how Kawasaki (and lots of other manufacturers) retain the countershaft oil seal. Somehow, his several-thousand-dollar problems with his American-made motor were less irritating knowing that I was wrestling with a $5 oil seal.

All through this bit of our conversation, I found myself becoming more irritated than the subject warranted. The next morning, I awoke knowing why: I don't care if a product is "made in America," but what I do I want is American products that are made really well. I go out of my way to buy products like those made by Aerostich because they are made better than the equivalents produced elsewhere. It doesn't hurt that Aerostich is made in Duluth, but if the stuff was crap I wouldn't be a customer.

A couple of decades ago, I worked for a pro-audio company that proudly advertised their products were "Made in California." The legend on the box was intentionally printed to resemble the labels on foreign manufactured products. Every product was designed and assembled in California and we were kicking the snot out of Ramsa (Panasonic), Yamaha, and other imported products in our market. We used Texas Instruments and Motorola parts (many of which were manufactured in Singapore, even in 1983), Japanese passive components, and locally built chassis parts. It was a great company and we made terrific products. I left in 1991, because I'd had all of southern California that I could stand, but I still loved working for that company making those products. We were state-of-the-art in a mid-tech business with extremely demanding customers.

Today, that same company has all of its products fab'ed and assembled in China. I'm glad I'm not there to have been part of that transition. The sales and marketing bozos were always bragging that "we're a design and marketing company, not a manufacturing company." They are probably happy as pigs in crap that the company no longer has the skills to build its own products. Our designs were driven by customer requirements and our close connection to the manufacturing floor. Our marketing was embarrassing, at best, and if the products hadn't been exceptional most of our rock and rolling customers would have avoided our products so as to not be connected to our foolish advertising. You only have to be a brilliant marketer if you suck at design and manufacturing.

Now that the economy has caught up to the reality of our national unproductive output, a lot of people are complaining that Americans don't know how to build products that Americans or anyone else wants. American labor builds products just fine, but American management couldn't manage a lemonade stand without government assistance. Last year when the economic "experts" were claiming that the economy was solid because "home sales were strong," I thought these morons were on crack. How can an economy survive when it is based on people leveraging the places where they live for food, clothing, and transportation? I should have put more of my money where my mind was, because it's now obvious that national economies have to be supported by something real: manufacturing, farming, research and development, and services that actually produce wealth instead of just moving mythological wealth from bank to bank.

I'd love to buy an American-made motorcycle (although I'd probably have to buy it used to fit my own economic situation), but I want something designed for the 21st century, not some silly-assed replica of the overweight, underpowered crap street riders put up with in 1955. Yeah, I want an American-made motorcycle, but I want a great American-made motorcycle, not just a few decrepit frame parts that were welded around a collection of Asian electronics and an imported motor. My American motorcycle would have to be light, reasonably quick, able to negotiate dirt roads and poorly maintained two-lanes all day long , and reliable. I wouldn't be buying it for the image or out of some phony patriotism, but because I thought it would take me where I want to go the way I want to go there. Anything short of that would just be disappointing.


Anonymous said...

My thoughts exactly! In my business, we really try hard to patronize other local businesses or at least ones in the U.S.A., but sometimes you just can't put out your own quality product if you do so. Some miffed vendors will then complain to us that we are not supporting local jobs when their product is not as good and costs twice the price, plus they can't deliver it as fast. Make a great product, price it well, and deliver it on time and U.S. companies get my business every time.

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this and wonder why more people aren't aware that the
US is turning into France - a place with a light film of manufacturing,
but which is mainly a farming nation. I can still buy a US-made board,
a loaf of bread, and lettuce that has traveled 3000 miles here from The

Patriotism and all the rest of it have devolved into people shouting
slogans and acting aggressive. This is disappointing.


T.W. Day said...

Thanks Kevin. That means a lot coming from you.

I think some of the reason that we seemed to have lost touch with how little is actually done here is that it happened so slowly and right after so much was accomplished. At least to me, since I was in manufacturing during the period, the 80's were a time of accomplishment for a lot of American manufacturers. What was left of American manufacturing embraced quality control and management techniques. We were even a point of quality manufacturing for a collection of Japanese companies. The late 80s and early 90s seemed to be a moment of comeback for American manufacturing and innovation.

Management, however, didn't care much for that period because all of the concepts that were being applied required management focus, hard work, and ability. The touchy-feely Tom Peters crap and all of the Harvard MBA idiocy was pretty much worthless to companies that actually made products and managed inventory and trained workers and engineers. The impact made by a charismatic Finance doesn't require any skills other than the ability to "invest" in politicians and a half-baked plan to fudge accounting numbers.

NAFTA and the end of the 90s felt a lot like giving up on all those hard won lessons and the American working class. It's hard to feel sorry for the workers and their lost or unwanted skills, since they seem to regularly vote against their own interests. What we are capable of now, compared to where we were heading, is also disappointing.

It appears that Japan is going down similar crooked paths. In his book, Made in Japan, Akio Morita predicted that Japan's second or third generation away from the great manufacturing founders of the 1950s would be as useless and uncompetitive as Henry Ford IV.

Life On Two Wheels said...

Used to be that if you wanted a GREAT American made bike you could buy a Goldwing, that is until Honda closed their plant in Ohio. We can't even grow our own vegetables now because the geniuses in DC have shut down the water supply to most of the farms in CA for a Smelt...and for the last 6 months we've been importing vegetables from China. We can't even grow our own crops. Some great "Change" going on here since the last election.