Bullshitting in The Economist: Homage to Fernando Flores and Harry Frankfurt

In the November 8, 2007 Economist we find a “Briefing” entitled “Toyota: A wobble on the road to the top.” It is a well-crafted article for someone who is not thinking. However, Greg and I were surprised to see an article like this, without attribution, in The Economist. Who is hiding what? Who takes responsibility for authoring this article? The editors of the Economist? If that is the case, this article invites me to make a major shift in my interpretation about the integrity of this journal, because it looks too much a “planted” article.

The article puts me in a mood of irony and frustration at the opportunities that the West is wasting by attempting to understand Toyota within the framework in which we have been so busy killing our own automobile industries for so long. Greg and my mother call what this article is doing, “Cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
What do I mean?

1. “… not all is running smoothly at Toyota” is exactly the same condition that the company has been in every day for the last 50 years. They don’t expect it to run smoothly, and it has not run smoothly. The difference between Toyota and its competitors is that Toyota organizes itself to deal with a world in which things don’t run smoothly, and to take massive advantage of every breakdown.

2. Where GM (for example) pats itself on the back for making 20,000 changes in its operations a year, Toyota makes a million changes. Literally. They do that as part of paying close attention to the evolving space in which they interact in the world, and adjusting continuously. The article implies that the company is experiencing momentous, techtonic shifts that they are not in condition to deal with. There is no evidence for such a claim that I have seen. The evidence cited in the article is no more than the kinds of events that are happening every day in every company.

3. The website to which the article points us to show that “nine of America’s leading scientific and environmental organisations took out advertisements in newspapers and started up a website” is a political hit site without, as I can tell, any substance.

4. If someone wanted to do the research (I don’t have the time) I’d bet a good sum of money that this is a planted article originally constructed (or shaped less directly) by someone attempting to defend the American automobile establishment. “Toyota could be leapfrogged ….” In whose dreams? The time and money spent here, attempting to pretend a “balanced” report on the state of the Toyota enterprise, would be far better spent trying to figure out why for 50 years the Western auto companies have not been able to understand or build their own version of what Toyota has built.

5. The author, whoever he or she is, could not make sense of what Toyota’s president was doing in a “personal mobility concept,” and goes on to ridicule the man and the company, calling it a “silly stunt.” This reminds me of the report that my friend George Kuper gave me on returning from one of the earliest visits of US auto executives to Japan to tour Toyota plants that were beginning to use the Toyota Production System. The American executives had been invited by the Japanese to see what they were doing, as a gesture of goodwill originally born out of Taichi Ohno’s admiration and gratitude to Henry Ford for his inventions. At the end of the day, George told me, the American executives caucused in private to discuss what they had seen. One consensus: they could not figure out why the Japanese were so committed to try to convince them that they were running their plants without inventories and parts warehouses. They ridiculed the Japanese for their “silly show.” Everyone knows, the American executives agreed, that it is not possible to run a plant without inventories, and they could not grasp what kind of devious intention was hiding behind their hosts’ insistence that they were operating without these essential components of a good facility.

It only took 30 or so years for some of the people in the US auto industry to discover what was behind the “devious intention.” Perhaps 30 years from now someone from the Economist might want to investigate whether what the president of Toyota was doing with his “personal mobility concept” was really only attempting “to polish Toyota’s image as a car company with a highly developed sense of social responsibility rather than one chasing growth at all costs.” I know what I bet we’ll find….

About the title: My friend Fernando Flores has been talking about bullshit as a formal distinction for understanding deceptive misrepresentations for more than 20 years. I wrote about it here. Harry Frankfurt, in his marvelous little book “On Bullshit,” speaks of bullshitting and bullshitters: “… carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. In entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this [apparent] selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all. The realms of advertising and of public relations, and the nowadays closely related realm of politics, are relplete with instances of bullshit so unmitigated that they can serve among the most indisputable and classic paradigms of the concept. And in these realms there are exquisitely sophisticated craftsmen who–with the help of advancend and demanding techniques of market research, of public opinion polling, of psychological testing, and so forth–dedicate themselves tirelessly to getting every word and image they produce exactly right. Yet there is something more to be said about this. However studiously and conscienntiously the bullshitter proceeds, it remains true that he is also trying to get away with something. …” (p23)