Tag Archives: history

Stuff we got wrong in the ’90s: Ebonics

One thing that has always baffled me, as a journalist and as a person, is how America decides what to freak out about.

It’s a big country: Weird and wild and ridiculous things happen all the time. But every year we choose 10 or 15 of them, we put them on our front pages and we lose our minds debating them. Sometimes it’s a dead gorilla, sometimes it’s missing white ladies, sometimes it’s a dress code on airplanes. By the time we circle back to the facts behind them, we’re surprised to find that they no longer match the opinions we’ve formed.

The first of these flare-ups I can remember is the “Ebonics” controversy of 1996. I was 14 at the time, just starting to notice things like late-night monologues and the op-ed page of my local paper. Suddenly both of them were filled with the story of this school district that had decided to teach African-American Vernacular English—”Ebonics” is what the linguists called it; “black slang” is what the columnists called it—as a foreign language. Teachers in Oakland, heads in little boxes on CNN told me, would be teaching “we be happy” as a perfectly acceptable alternative to “we are happy.”

The Oakland School Board’s decision was almost perfectly designed to transcend its circumstances and become a metaphor for How We Race Now. Within days, editorial boards across the country denounced the decision. Within weeks it was condemned by the Clinton administration. Within months it was investigated by Congress.

As usual, the first thing to disappear underneath all the outrage was the event that precipitated it. Nearly everything we heard about the Oakland School Board’s decision in 1996 was wrong. And even worse than how we talked about it then is how we remember it now.

Here, finally, is what really happened:

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The Changing Nature of Conflict

Buried  in a stack of boring institutional documents, I came across some paragraphs that could have been printed in The Economist:

The nature of conflicts has changed markedly in the late part of the twentieth century. The state-against-state model is becoming the exception: of the 56 major armed conflicts registered in the decade 1990-20005, only three were of an interstate nature; all others were internal conflicts, even though in 14 of them foreign troops were engaged on one or the other side. Moreover, while the first half of the century was dominated by warfare between rich states, most contemporary conflicts take place overwhelmingly in the world’s poorer countries, with Africa and Asia accounting for the greatest number of internal conflicts in the past decade.

Civil wars and conflicts are indeed a major cause of development failure in the developing world, a point that is increasingly being emphasised by aid donors and international agencies. Easily tradable natural resources -particularly minerals- can be used to finance warring parties, instead of nurturing development, and “development efforts are not only halted or damaged, but actively targeted and undermined”.

Technology has always been used to renovate and diversify the array of weapons and other means of violence used in conflicts. Arms-rich conflict areas and state disruption fuel the dissemination of weapons of all kinds, and the deadly violence of conflicts appears to have escalated with technology. However, the spread of small arms is also having devastating effects in disputes over land and pastoral issues, even within countries that are not considered to be in conflict.

[…]

Internal conflicts, be they of an ethnic or revolutionary nature, or associated with a failure of the state or disruptive changes in regime, emerge where politically organized groups, national, ethnic or other minorities, or warlords and other violent elements in society, rebel against governments, often also fighting among themselves. This pattern of conflict makes it increasingly difficult to identify who are the protagonists, and which are the lines of authority through which to seek to mediate and put an end to the conflict.

In this new environment it becomes difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians. Combatants are no longer uniformed soldiers under state control. Nor are the combatants the main victims of conflicts: peaceful citizens -women, children, and the elderly- become the major target (possibly 90% of the victims) of the warring parties.

In addition to those killed or wounded, up-rooted populations run to millions – about 22 million in 150 countries by the end of 2001, including refugees and asylum seekers outside their home country, as well as returnees and others.

The international mechanisms that had been developed to control, prevent and resolve conflicts were created to deal with the conventional state-state model of conflict: they have great difficulties in adjusting to the new patterns of collective violence, which mostly takes place within a sovereign territory, with the responsibility of the government being sometimes unclear. At the same time, however, many of the current conflicts have significant regional and international dimensions and implications. Even though the’zone of turmoil’ is largely located in developing countries, the industrialized ones are not entirely insulated.

The distinction between intra-state and inter-state wars is therefore no longer straightforward. Most wars occurring within a single state tend to transcend its boundaries – affecting neighbouring countries, or with some external or transnational parties located far away from the site of the struggle. Negative spillovers to neighbouring nations result from collateral damage from nearby battles, severance of input supply lines, disruptions to trade, heightened risk perceptions by would-be investors, and resources spent to assist refugees.

In most cases, people flee across immediate borders, sometimes destabilizing entire regions, leading to further conflict and more refugees. Accelerated flows of refugees and asylum seekers, escalating costs of international or regional peace-restoration and maintenance efforts, international terrorism and destabilisation of the global economy affect all nations, rich or poor, close to or far away from the war scene. 

As Tyler Cowen would say, ‘interesting throughout!’

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Germany’s Only Natural Resource Is a Bunch of Whiny Nerds. And That’s a Good Thing.

This week I’m reading Michael Porter’s The Competitive Advantage of Nations. It’s an investigation of why countries are good at certain businesses but crappy at others. Why is Switzerland  good at making chocolates, South Korea good at making TVs and the United States good at making laptops in China?

There’s a whole chapter on Germany. We’re gonna need a bigger highlighter.

In Germany, the engineering and technical background of many senior executives produces a strong inclination toward methodical product and process improvement. […] These characteristics lead to the greatest success in industries with high technical or engineering content (for example, optics, chemicals, complicated machinery), especially where intricate and complex products demand precision manufacturing, a careful development process, after-sale service, and hence a highly disciplined management structure. 

Porter says Germany is a rock star at high-grade manufacturing (think BMW, Bayer and Merck) because as far back as the 1890s, German labor was expensive, so companies had to train workers and automate production to get the most productivity for their money. Germany still has years-long apprenticeship programs, and factory floors are apparently more likely to resemble a Bjork video  than a Dickens novel.

Another reason for Germany’s tech-nerd prowess is its lack of natural resources. Without an infinite spigot of oil, minerals or farmland, German companies got good at wringing every last mark out of their imports. When the rest of the world began to demand conservation and efficiency, German companies were there to meet it.

So Germany is a world leader in high-level exports not because it had natural advantages but precisely because it didn’t:

Disadvantages, […] such as high labor costs or resource disadvantages, have created further beneficial pressure. […] A good example is in the agricultural field, where farmland is scarce and labor expensive. The result is a pressing need for high productivity, and Germany had the greatest number of combines per harvestable hectare in the European Community in 1983. German agriculture also placed a very early emphasis on fertilizers as far back as the nineteenth century.

So where does Germany suck?

[…] An area where Germany has serious weaknesses […] is in the consumer sector. The historical lack of television and radio advertising (the major television channels can show advertising only about 20 minutes per day, with commercials all bunched together, and not on Sunday), coupled with the technical orientation of most German managers, means that image marketing skills are poorly developed.

[…] It is rare that a German firm succeeds in an industry in which intangible brand images and mass communication are important to competitive success. This is in stark contract to the case in America, Italy, or even Japan.

Porter’s book was published in 1992, so the specifics are out of date, but the general point still stands. Germans are visibly less image-oriented than their Italian, French, Scandinavian or British counterparts.

My personal theory on this is that the total eradication of social structures after World War II basically took the class system with it. The primary reason people are interested in fancy clothes, reflective shoes and asymmetrical haircuts is to demonstrate their class status, and in Germany that concept doesn’t really exist anymore. In France and Britain all of your consumption, from your clothes to your groceries, is class-coded. In Germany everyone pushes a cart around the dollar store in their sweatpants on a Saturday afternoon regardless of their income.

I think this still holds true too:

German buyers, both in households and in industry, are sophisticated and extremely demanding. Quality is insisted upon, and no one is bashful about complaining if it is not delivered. Buyers in the United States are often early buyers of new products or services but are not particularly demanding by international standards. German buyers may be somewhat later, but are among the toughest in the world.

‘Early adopters’ in present-day Germany are the people with two-way pagers.

Porter blithely notes that Germany’s dominance in high-end printing presses as far back as 1900 was partly due to the tendency of German consumers to complain to newspapers if they got ink on their hands. American readers didn’t put pressure on the periodicals, who never put pressure on the printers.

So in conclusion, according to Porter, if other countries want to emulate Germany’s success, all they have to do is torch their farmland, dismantle their oil pumps, overpay their workers and start complaining. Maybe Europe has a future after all.

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My Years With General Motors: A Roadmap to an Obsolete Destination

I forget why, but last week I read My Years With General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan, the guy generally credited with taking GM from the 1920s hodgepodge of bickering car companies to the 1950s unified, profitable Godzilla we know, love and bankrupted.

My Years With GM was published in 1963, three years before American auto sales began their steady decline. Sloan was CEO from 1923-1956, so the book deals mainly with the string of wins the auto industry racked up between WWI ending and the Greatest Generation moving to the suburbs.

The book is apparently considered a classic, and it’s fascinating not only for its sober principles of corporate governance, but for how much of a fucking dinosaur it is. The world has profoundly changed since people like Sloan ran it, and there’s no better embodiment of this change than a 50-year-old book describing a 90-year-old company.

It’s not just what it’s about, but how its about it. Here’s all the reasons Sloan’s book would never get published today:

  • It’s written for adults. Today’s business books are required to be punchy, simple and interrupted by headlines and graphics every 13 words so businessmen can read them on airplanes. Getting to Yes, as much as I enjoyed it, has the grammatical intricacy of IKEA instructions.
  • It’s long. My Years With General Motors is a positively literary 522 pages. It’s full of intra-company memos printed in their entirety, and contains precisely two charts, both of which contain financial info printed at squinty font size. Even the fucking title is a warning that Sloan is not going to make this easy for you.
  • It’s not about the author. Sloan spends precisely half a paragraph on his biographical details on page 19, and never mentions himself again. He doesn’t write about his wife or his hobbies or his hometown. He never uses childhood anecdotes to illustrate his management style. No sentence begins with ‘like my dad always told me…’ or some such. This book is free of folk wisdom. Most modern business gurus put their own narrative at the center of their business success, and it’s jarring to read an entire book that never breaks character.
  • It glorifies profits. Sloan is famous for coining the phrase ‘the business of business is business’, and you get the feeling that if he had to sum up his life’s achievement in two words, he would say ‘shareholder value.’ Much of the book deals with Sloan’s dedication to making return on investment the sole criterion for which GM projects were developed and assessed. Considerations like community development, environmental sustainability and GM’s role in relation to the obligations of government are literally never mentioned.
  • It doesn’t give a shit about employees. Part of Sloan’s sniper-like focus on profits is also reflected in his evident lack of interest in substantively addressing the aspects of management that deal with the human species. The only individuals mentioned by name in his book are executives, and issues like unions, wages and working conditions are described exclusively as macro issues to be calculated on the basis of costs, never categories that contain actual people.
  • It contains no recommendations. Sloan describes his experiences at the company like he’s writing a police report. He never generalizes, he never uses the second person and the words ‘how to’ do not appear in that order for the duration. Sloan just describes what he did at GM. If there are any lessons, it’s up to you to find and apply them.

I don’t know if  executives are more enlightened nowadays or if they’re just better at faking it, but at least the business community gestures at the fact that companies are made up of people, and that they impact their consumers, communities and host governments.

Perhaps the weirdest thing about Sloan’s book is that I totally fucking loved it. I started it not expecting to finish, but there’s something about Sloan’s peculiar mix of Don Draper and Harry Truman that made me want his monologue never to end. I never quite agreed with his worldview, but at least I got a tour of it while it lasted.

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