Proud(ish) to Be American

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Gross

Maybe we aren't doing so badly.

When I visited Toyota's Tsutsumi plant in Toyota City last summer, it was as if I'd entered a bizarro auto world. Back then, America's carmakers were effectively wards of the state, technological laggards operating at a fraction of capacity. Yet here was a solvent, fully automated factory running three shifts, churning out Priuses--some equipped with solar panels in the roof. The welding shop looked like a scene from The Terminator.

But these icons of Japan's superior manufacturing practices have turned out to be clunkers. In a development that has brought much distress to pockets of America (like Cambridge, Mass., and San Francisco), Toyota has recalled Priuses to fix malfunctioning brakes--just after an image-marring recall for faulty accelerators on other models. The only thing more shattering to the bien-pensant world view would be news that Chez Panisse in Berkeley uses Crisco.

In the past couple of years, Americans have been down on themselves for having failed at the practices they're supposed to be really good at: creating jobs, innovating, growing, getting things done. In 2008 and 2009, America's competitive advantage seemed to melt away, and our loss was other countries' gain. London was eating New York's lunch in financial services. China was assuming global economic leadership. We came in third--third!--in the 2009 World Baseball Classic tournament.

But recent events suggest the cleat is on the other foot. Japan was supposed to have a huge competitive advantage in high-quality manufacturing. Well, not so much. The biggest beneficiary of the Prius debacle is likely to be Ford, the last truly independent U.S. automaker, which has already been taking market share from busted domestic rivals.

In the same vein, much of Prius-driving America believed Europe had a competitive advantage over the U.S. because of its greater social cohesion and careful coordination--at both the national and transnational levels. The Old World's safety net provides health care to all, and doesn't leave those down on their financial luck to fend for themselves. As a result, Europe weathered the economic downturn without suffering the mass bankruptcies, foreclosures, and rising hunger the U. …