Sunday, June 05, 2011

Christopher Caldwell slips into the Fallows Fallacy on China

Noting that toilet maker Kohler has a global hit with an ultraluxury $6,400 toilet that was designed in large part to cater to Chinese tastes, Christopher Caldwell sees "a harbinger of trouble for the U.S":
A stubborn myth, in fact, holds that US creative exports are a more robust foundation for prosperity in the global economy than heavy industry ever was. Anyone can build a car, but Americans’ gift for innovation is ineffable. It is a kind of creative magic that is hard for the country’s sclerotic, overly bureaucratised trading rivals to match. How can you fight what you can’t fathom? Who can compete with a je-ne-sais-quoi?

America’s rivals are much less backward than its cheerleaders assume, however, and the country’s creative dynamism is much less mysterious. Taste tends to follow wealth. It should not surprise us if it turns out that people want US design only so long as the US is perceived as the richest, the best, the hegemon. True, there will always be American products that mix glamour and craftsmanship. But certain US exports are based on glamour alone, and will collapse as US prestige does.
At first read I thought that Caldwell was onto something profound here. And maybe he is, long term.  But I think he's overselling the troublesome toilet as a signifier that we're in deep shit now on the design-and-style front. This may well be an episode of what James Fallows calls the " "I just rode the bullet train to Tianjin, and holy shit, we're doomed!" approach to China's rise:

Lots of things work in China. Lots of things don't. We understand that kind of balance immediately when it comes to America -- it's a huge success, with huge failures. China is a similar woolly package, with the difference that it's still full of hundreds of millions of poor people, and is in the middle of environmental catastrophes that dwarf the local challenges in Europe or North America.
One globally popular luxury product that reflects a measure of Chinese sensibility is not necessarily a harbinger of much of anything. The U.S., after all, has never had a monopoly on products with international cache; if China enters the field, that does not spell the end American trendsetting any time soon.

For perspective, too, it's worth keeping in mind that the Chinese are not sui generis in their search for excretory ecstasy.  The Japanese have been nuts about toilets for decades. Here, for example, is a somewhat more workaday precursor to Kohler's luminous Numi, noted in the LA Times -- in 1999:
It's got wings, it's sensitive, it's smart. It cares, it knows when you're around, it bleats when you arrive. Ignore it and you could be sorry. Treat it well and it will comfort you in your old age.

A new kind of house pet? No, it's the Japanese toilet in all its glory. And if you believe its makers, it's only getting better.

Japan has an enduring fascination with the toilet, replete with cutting-edge intelligent-toilet research, toilet Web sites, symposiums, antique toilet museums, solid 24-karat-gold johns and official Toilet Days. Nowhere else on Earth do so many people spend so much money on such expensive thrones.

Japan's enthusiasm is largely lost on foreigners. In sharp contrast to their receptiveness to the Japanese cameras, autos and Walkmans that have taken the world by storm, few Americans or Europeans seem to covet Japan's super bowls--some of which can cost $4,000.

Now major Japanese manufacturers hope to change that by creating something with more universal appeal. Their latest project: a toilet that doubles as a doctor's office.

At Matsushita's research center in Tokyo, scientists explain how they are working on embedding technology in the porcelain that will catch a urine sample, shoot it full of lasers and in short order test it for glucose, kidney disease and eventually even cancer. (Sorry, no link: "Japan Is Flush With Obsession," by Mark Magnier, Dec. 13, 1999.)
The Japanese are still pushing hard on this front, as we learn from an AFP tale that appeared in The Independent on Aug. 28, 2010:
In Japan, the global leader in high-tech toilet design, the latest restroom marvel should come with a health warning for hypochondriacs - it doubles as a medical lab that can really spoil your day.

Japanese toilets have long and famously dominated the world of bathroom hygiene with their array of functions, from posterior shower jets to perfume bursts and noise-masking audio effects for the easily-embarrassed.

The latest "intelligent" model, manufactured by market leader Toto, goes a step further and isn't for the faint-hearted: it offers its users an instant health check-up every time they answer the call of nature.
What stopped my head nodding on my course through Caldwell's column was his recourse at the close to Tyler Cowen's recent stab at a general theory of U.S. malaise:
Expertise is hard to acquire, and innovation is much harder than Americans realise. Tyler Cowen’s recent book The Great Stagnation describes the way Americans have picked all the “low-hanging fruit” – the easily attained economic gains – of modernisation. Pentagon scientist Jonathan Huebner has shown that western innovation peaked around 1873. Stanford economist Charles I. Jones calculates that between 1950 and 1993, about 80 per cent of growth came from previously discovered ideas. “Contemporary innovation,” Mr Cowen writes, “often takes the form of expanding positions of economic and political privilege.” For 30 years the US has enjoyed a lucrative near-monopoly in kitting out the world’s economy to behave like its own. The Numi toilet that is wowing the Chinese may not seem like much, but it is a sign that this era of US advantage is spiralling towards its close.

First of all, Cowen's thesis is not really that the U.S. is in decline. It's that the world economy -- admittedly fueled primarily by the U.S. -- is stalled on a "plateau" on which there is a relative paucity of world-changing technological breakthroughs, compared to those that changed the world from about 1870-1970-- and that the most dramatic recent breakthroughs have improved life but not created enormous revenues or a lot of jobs. Luxury toilets, wherever they take their inspiration, are irrelevant to that thesis -- unless they whisk us like a Star Trek transporter across the globe.

Second, I do not really buy Cowen's theory, for reasons I have laid out at some length.  I think that computers have transformed life, manufacturing and the world's economy in a thousand ways that Cowen does not consider -- he writes as if consumer enjoyment of the internet is the only truly transformative effect of the umpteenfold increase in processor power over the past forty years. Over that period there has been a good deal more innovation and transformation, a disproportionate share of it American, than either Cowen or Caldwell credit.

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