Eamonn Fingleton: A Note on His Career and Ideas
Eamonn Fingleton is the author most recently of In the Jaws of the Dragon: America’s Fate in the Coming Era of Chinese Hegemony (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008). Based on more than two decades of on-the-spot observation of East Asian economic and political developments, the book challenges the conventional view that as living standards rise, China will become increasingly Western in its politics and economics. China is instead converging to the East Asian econo-political model, a much misunderstood hybrid system incompatible with Western traditions and values. Pioneered by Japan after World War II and now widely espoused throughout the Confucian world, this model presages potentially insurmountable problems for today’s Western-defined world order.
Fingleton is also the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity. Published by Houghton Mifflin in September 1999, this presented a point by point rebuttal of the claims then being made for the New Economy.
The book offered a timely warning of the dangers of the dot.com bubble, which burst in the spring of 2000, and was further vindicated by the financial collapses of 2007 and 2008 (the book’s chapter on new financial instruments was headed “Finance: A Cuckoo in the Economy’s Nest”). The book has recently become a collector’s item, with mint-condition copies fetching many times the original publisher’s price (nearly 30 times on one occasion in the case of the rare Orion London edition). The book was named one of the ten best business books of 1999 by Amazon.com Business Editor Harry C. Edwards. It was also named one of the Ten Books that Matter by The Industry Standard. It has been translated into Japanese, Korean, and, in 2013, Russian. An updated edition of Hard Industries, with a new introduction, was published by Nation Books in New York under the title Unsustainable: How Economic Dogma Is Destroying American Prosperity in 2003.
Fingleton’s earlier book, Blindside: Why Japan Is Still on Track to Overtake the U.S. by the Year 2000, was named one of the Ten Best Business Books of 1995 by Business Week. Excerpted in both Foreign Affairs and Fortune, Blindside was published in French and Japanese as well as in several English-language editions and was described as “a good book” by President Bill Clinton in a letter to Senator Fritz Hollings in July of 1995 (click here to view that letter).
Blindside showed that Western reports of catastrophic economic dysfunction in Japan were wide of the mark. Although Fingleton was almost alone in the late 1980s in predicting Japan’s stock market and real estate crashes, he pointed out that these had had no visible effect in slowing Japan’s progress in advanced manufacturing or in exporting. He added that, in Japan’s rather different political system, top officials have seen several advantages in putting a negative spin on economic news and in understating economic growth. For a start this strategy helps Japan’s trade diplomacy: on the principle — ostensibly at least — that they should not kick a man while he’s down, U.S. and European trade negotiators have virtually given up trying to open the Japanese market. (The benefit of the “trade diplomacy holiday” has been most obvious in the case of the Japanese auto market, which remains as closed as ever. Even Renault of France, which via a tie-up with Nissan supposedly controls Japan’s second largest car distribution system, cannot get its own cars into its “own” Japanese showrooms.) Similarly Japanese officials have used the “basket case” story to deflect pressure from both domestic interest groups soliciting government spending and Third World governments seeking foreign aid. Even Western investment bankers have had an incentive to exaggerate Japan’s problems as they profit from the so-called “yen carry trade,” a complicated maneuver in which those who are alerted in advance to official exchange interventions can benefit from a weak yen. Fingleton has repeatedly invited proponents of the “lost decades” story to join him for a public discussion of their analysis. None was prepared to do so, not even Edward J. Lincoln and Robert Feldman, two economists who have been particularly associated with the “lost decades” story. In 2011 he offered to contribute $10,000 to the favorite good causes of Lincoln or Feldman if they were to come forward. Feldman turned down the offer and Lincoln never replied. Others he has invited to a discussion include Peter Tasker, Alexander Kinmont, Kenneth Courtis, Robert Feldman, Jesper Koll, and Gillian Tett.
Fingleton argues that it is clear in retrospect that it was the United States, not Japan, that became an economic basket case in the 1990s. Whereas the United States’s current account deficits have multiplied more than five-fold since the 1980s, Japan has been almost alone among major advanced nations in boosting its current account trade surpluses (though rarely mentioned in the Anglophone press these days, the current account is the largest and most meaningful measure of trade). By contrast, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom have joined the United States in running ever more alarming trade deficits. In an article in the New York Times Sunday Review in 2012, he pointed out that, with less than half of America’s population, Japan now exports more than 50 percent more to China than the United States does.
Fingleton was born in Ireland in 1948 and won a county scholarship to Trinity College Dublin, where he studied economics and mathematics and edited the student newspaper, Trinity News. On graduating in 1970, he joined the Irish Independent, a daily newspaper, as economics reporter. In 1973 he moved to London, working first as a reporter for Investors Guardian and later as personal finance editor of the Financial Times. In 1979 he was selected by Sir James Goldsmith to join a “dream team” of top Fleet Street journalists who launched Now! magazine. With Tom Tickell, he co-authored the Penguin Money Book (London: Penguin Books, 1981). He moved to New York as an associate editor for Forbes magazine in 1981.
In 1985 he was posted to Tokyo as East Asia bureau chief for Euromoney. He subsequently reported from most of East Asia’s major economies and, as a member of a New York Stock Exchange delegation, met China’s supreme leader Deng Xiaoping at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People in 1986. He quickly established a reputation for boldly prescient judgments. Beginning in September 1987 (in an article billed on Euromoney‘s cover as “Why the Japanese Banks are Shaky”), he wrote several articles forecasting the Tokyo crash in real estate and stock prices as well as the Japanese banks’ consequent debt problems.
His commentaries on East Asian economics and business have been published in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, Challenge, the Washington Post, Time, GQ, Technology Review, and the New Republic. He has been a contributor to or an interviewee on many broadcast media, including CNBC, CNN, National Public Radio, the BBC, RTE, Russia Today, and Sky News. He was the featured interviewee on the BBC’s famous Jimmy Young Show in 1976 and on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation program in 1999.
He has interviewed many of the world’s most prominent news sources — not just quotable business figures such as Rupert Murdoch, Lou Gerstner, Warren Buffett, Sanford Weill, Peter Lynch, and Donald Trump but fundamental economic thinkers such as Robert Solow, Robert Mundell, Paul Samuelson, James Tobin, Milton Friedman, Friedrich von Hayek, and C. Northcote Parkinson. His work has been read into the record of the U.S. Senate by Senator Ernest F. Hollings and has been commended by, among others, James Fallows, Pat Choate, John Kenneth Galbraith, Ralph Nader, Roger Milliken, Robert Heller, and Chalmers Johnson.
His writing on accounting matters at Forbes won the American accounting profession’s 1983 award for excellence in financial writing. He is listed in Marquis Who’s Who in the World and has testified before the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission. His authority as one of the West’s foremost experts on the East Asian economic system has been acknowledged by the U.S. Business and Industry Council, which in 2001 presented him with its American values award for his work on Blindside and In Praise of Hard Industries.
His first wife was his Trinity College Dublin contemporary, the late Mary McCutchan. An award-winning cookery writer and a founder of the women’s movement in Ireland, she worked as an editor for the Irish Independent in Dublin and later for Woman magazine in London. She and their twins Tara and Andrew died in a car accident in London in 1974.
In 1988, Fingleton married Yasuko Amako, a Japanese businesswoman. They were divorced in 2012.
He is now working on a book on the decline of the United States.