Piranhas in the Amazon system

Authors have always taken on vested interests. Now vested interests have found a new way to strike back.

The unsuspecting American public assumes that the rise of online bookstores like Amazon.com has powerfully served the cause of truth.  Not necessarily.

Certainly my own experiences have hardly been so encouraging. As I have repeatedly learned to my cost, weaknesses in the compilation and editing of Amazon’s online catalog have increasingly allowed trade lobbyists and other malcontents to damage the prospects for books that tell unwelcome truths. Not only is Amazon’s customer review system being increasingly gamed to serve hidden political purposes but Amazon’s computers seem to have been broken into by politically motivated hackers. The most obvious problem I have encountered is that bogus “customer reviews” that utterly misrepresent my books have for long periods been given pride of place in the Amazon catalog. While bad and even openly malicious reviews have, of course, always been an occupational hazard for authors, it is something new — and quite Orwellian — to have total falsehoods told about a book at precisely the moment when someone might buy it. Below I present an example of one such malicious review, by one Dianne Roberts, with my comments. But first I post a note, originally written for another purpose, on some reasons why my work evokes particular hostility from the Washington trade lobby and similarly minded vested interests.

Dangerous Truths: Why They Don’t Like Eamonn Fingleton’s Writings

There is an old saying that success doesn’t bring friends, just a better class of enemy. Seen in this light, author Eamonn Fingleton claims to have been more than averagely successful. Those who have taken umbrage at his work in recent years include not only top executives in corporate America but high officials in Beijing and Tokyo (not to mention in Washington).

Here are some reasons why Fingleton’s writings elicit special fury in high places:

* He has repeatedly named the insurer American International Group as a decisive factor in misleading Americans about key aspects of the East Asian econo-political model, most obviously East Asian trade policies. AIG long ago entered controversial understandings with various East Asian governments in which it has been issued “licenses to print money” in the region’s tightly regulated insurance markets and in return has provided strong support for these governments’ trade lobbying efforts in Washington. AIG’s constant refrain has been that East Asian markets are open provided only that corporate America “tries hard enough” to meet East Asian customers’ needs. The company has also, by lavishly funding key American think-tanks and discussion groups, ensured that the East Asian studies field is increasingly populated by ideologues and crypto-trade lobbyists who oppose all attempts by the United States to achieve a more balanced trade relationship with East Asia. Funding for all this comes ultimately from AIG’s huge East Asian profits. AIG’s modus operandi often involves selling catchpenny forms of insurance that reputable local companies would not touch with a proverbial ten-foot pole.

* In challenging Japan’s claims to have sincerely embraced Western values after World War II, Fingleton has highlighted the shocking story of the war criminal Takeo Tamiya. As Japan’s most prominent medical educator in the 1930s, Tamiya served as chief recruiter for Japan’s notorious Manchurian germ warfare research organization. Known as Unit 731, this organization perpetrated some of the most appalling crimes in the history of war. In effect Tamiya was Japan’s Dr. Mengele. This did not prevent him from being named president of the governement-controlled Japan Medical Association in 1950 — in which capacity he was to reign as the grand old man of Japanese medicine into the 1960s. As Fingleton has pointed out, just the most obvious of the disturbing questions the Tamiya story raises is why the “free” Japanese press of the 1950s did not expose him. And what exactly is the Japanese view of the Hippocratic oath? And why did not even Japan’s supposedly sternest critics in the Chinese Communist Party raise the alarm?

* In 2001 Fingleton exposed a startling lapse in the U.S. State Department’s personnel policy when he pointed out that the then bureaucratic head of the American embassy in Tokyo, Christopher LaFleur, was the son-in-law of the controversial Japanese political godfather Kiichi Miyazawa. LaFleur, who is married to Miyazawa’s daughter, enjoyed great power to influence Japan-American relations — and the evidence is that he used it to benefit Japan at America’s expense (by, for instance, placing U.S. trade grievances on the diplomatic back burner). What is undeniable is that he had a scandalous conflict of interest that would never have been tolerated in any well-run diplomatic service. Just the most obvious concern was that LaFleur’s children stood to inherit one of Japan’s largest fortunes (thanks to the senior Miyazawa’s aptitude for profiting from political office over the years).

* In the American Conservative in 2005, Fingleton showed that in their pursuit of short-term profits and outsize stock option gains, top executives at Boeing have allowed the company to become dangerously hollowed out by Japan. In particular he pointed out that more of the super-advanced new Boeing 787 is being made in Japan than in the United States. The key to the new plane is a Faustian bargain in which Boeing has come to rely more and more on Japanese contractors for its most advanced engineering and manufacturing. Heavily subsidized by the Tokyo government, Boeing’s Japanese partners lowball their contract prices while investing heavily in crucial new aviation technologies that going forward they, not Boeing, will control. Even more controversially, Boeing has transferred some of America’s most advanced aerospace technologies to Japan. As Fingleton pointed out, Boeing’s policy is an echo of previous implosions by other once-world-beating American corporations such as Zenith and RCA. The difference this time is that America’s very national security is at stake. Adding insult to injury is the fact that much of the technology Boeing has been transferring was paid for by American taxpayers via richly priced U.S. Defense Department contracts.

* Writing in the British magazine Prospect in 2004, Fingleton revealed that, as part of a secret deal with Tokyo, the Beijing government has generally blocked Chinese victims of imperial Japan’s atrocities from suing Tokyo in Western courts. The policy results from an undertaking made by Beijing as part of a Sino-Japanese rapprochement that began in the 1970s.

* In the mid-1990s Fingleton became the first Westerner to break a major journalistic taboo when he openly discussed Japan’s war compensation policies. As Fingleton pointed out, most of imperial Japan’s millions of victims — including the so-called comfort women and countless children orphaned by the Rape of Nanking — had never received any compensation. Fingleton’s account, which came in his 1995 book Blindside, anticipated by more than two years similar revelations by the late Iris Chang’s in her best-selling book The Rape of Nanking. Both Fingleton and Chang were subjected to similar politically-inspired disinformation campaigns. In Chang’s case moreover it is public knowledge that she suffered extensive harassment and even feared for her life and that of her child. Although there seems little doubt that her death by gunshot in 2004 was a suicide (rather than a murder as some of her friends have alleged), political harassment is believed to have contributed to her fate.

* Fingleton has consistently held that, in an effort to forestall trade sanctions by Washington, the Tokyo establishment greatly exaggerated Japan’s economic problems of the 1990s. Although the original financial problems of the early 1990s were real enough, long after they had been brought under control Tokyo pretended the economy was on the brink of collapse. Concocting fake statistics and working with collaborationist-minded Western investment analysts, Tokyo succeeded in painting an absurdly overwrought picture of economic dysfunction. Yet anyone who knows Japan knows it made rapid strides in living standards in the 1990s (leapfrogging the United States in mobile phone use and Internet connection speeds, for instance). Meanwhile in a crucial point utterly omitted from all the “basket case Japan” reports, Japan generally boosted its trade performance not only during the “lost decade” but in succeeding years. So much so that between 1989 and 2007 Japan’s current account surplus multiplied nearly four-fold. This at a time when America’s current account DEFICIT rose six-fold. History will record that it was the United States not Japan that became an economic basket case in the 1990s — and that America’s principal foreign policy mistake in the 1990s was a failure to press Tokyo harder on Japan’s closed markets.

Piranhas in the Amazon System: The Case of One Amazon Customer Review
By Eamonn Fingleton

For most of the two-year period ended December 2007 the highly negative “customer” review below, by someone called Dianne Roberts, dominated the Amazon page for my book In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999). It was ostensibly voted the “most helpful” review by 13 out of 16 “customers” — by far the largest number of customers who voted on any review of the book — and was therefore accorded pride of place in the Amazon catalog.

Yet on any impartial analysis Ms. Roberts’s intent was clearly malicious. Even had her negative assessment not been so sharply at odds with commendations from many prominent economic commentators (not least Amazon’s own business editor Harry C. Edwards, who, though his commendation had long been removed from Amazon’s Hard Industries page, had voted the book one of the ten best business books of the year in 1999), the review was full of internal evidence of a political agenda. It is hardly overstating things to say that every criticism she made was a conscious misrepresentation.

The pattern started with her heading, “In Praise of Lefty Big Government Mercantilism.” The suggestion that the book is a far left rant seems to have been intended in particular to discredit the book in the eyes of Bush administration policymakers, who might otherwise have made important policy changes based on the book’s analysis. The book is fact largely devoid of politics and, where political judgments are made they are invariably centrist (yes, the book emphasizes the importance of good jobs but it also repeatedly points out that employers need healthy profits). The heading was not only false but patently so. After all, the book had been endorsed by several prominent big government opponents, most notably Roger Milliken and Paul Craig Roberts (in the former case, the endorsement was unmissable as it was featured on the cover).

As for mercantilism, the book’s discussion of trade remedies was limited to just three pages in the last chapter and even then stopped well short of advocating mercantilism. (In common with the Washington foreign trade lobby, Ms. Roberts affects to consider as “mercantilism” any realistic attempt by the United States to stand up for American workers and employers in international trade pollicy.)

The substance of her review was notable for its highly contrived tone of superior wisdom combined with an almost complete lack of checkable specifics to substantiate her archly stated criticisms. Even her few ostensibly conciliatory comments packed a hidden agenda. In stating, for instance, that the book starts out well — “for about four pages” — she was prudently taking account of the fact that Amazon customers could read the first few pages for themselves on line.

Where she did cite specifics, as in the case of solar power, she utterly misrepresented the argument: contrary to her implication (“His defense of solar is one of the most hilariously pathetic eight pages I’ve ever read”), the book did not present solar power as a panacea but merely stated incontrovertible facts: that solar is a fast rising manufacturing business that, by virtue of improving manufacturing efficiencies, has been creating growing exports and superb high-wage jobs in advanced industrial nations such as Germany. Not only did she not challenge these facts but she did not even mention them. Instead she chose to sidetrack the argument by describing as a “gem of Orwellian double-speak” the book’s statement that solar was already a fully competitive source of energy in remote Third World areas that lack grid electricity. She sneeringly mispresented this as meaning that solar was competitive “only where there is no competition.” Even if this were true it would not have gainsaid the value to Germany of this fast exapnding new export industry. But in any case as the book points out (page 184, of the hard cover edition), even in the Third World, solar DOES face competition — most obviously in the from of diesel generators, which are widely prevalent in villages throughout the Third World, but also in some applications gas canisters. The fact is that solar has not only been robustly gaining market share against such competition but it has also, as the book pointed out, been finding a rapidly increasing applications in the First and Second Worlds. As for her suggestion that solar cells are a boondoggle because the ratio of the energy they generate to the energy needed to make them is much lower than for more traditional sources of electricity such as oil-burning power stations, this is a highly disingenuous apples-to-oranges comparison. Whereas most traditional sources of electricity involve large on-going costs (not only for fuel but for labor), solar’s on-going costs are, of course, negligible.

Perhaps the most significant thing about the review was that it ascribed various outrageous statements to the book that are not there. It goes without saying, for instance, that the book does not say or imply that Americans are “dumb” or that they are inherently less capable of diligent work than Germans.

Let’s consider in detail one of the review’s most ostensibly damning passages:
“The worst part of this book is the author’s lack of an ability to make any sort of coherent argument. Examples of twisted thinking abound. A post-industrial ‘industry’ grows five times over in a certain period. The author then goes on to explain how this is not really real growth but something that in reality is bad. Later he proves how great a manufacturing industry is because in the same period it grows a whopping 60%! Self contradictory evaluations of the performance of services vs manufacturing is common and always falls down on the side that the manufacturing industry is far far better than the service industry even when all the standard economic indicators suggest otherwise. The author’s challenge to the reader seems to be ‘Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?'”

A worthless book indeed, it seems. But what exactly was she referring to in this “certain period” and was it an apples-to-apples comparison? As with most of her strictures, she chose to state her case so vaguely that no one, not even the author, can identify what she is talking about. Her statement moreover that the author “always falls down on the side that the manufacturing industry is far far better than the service industry” is flatly contradicted by several passages in the book. Far from indiscriminately embracing all types of manufacturing, as early as page 4 the book states, for instance, that labor-intensive manufacturing of the assembly type has little if any economic merit for a high-wage nation. Then in page 5 comes this statement: “This book does not seek to disparage all postindustrial activities, let alone all service industries. Nor does it hold up all manufacturing activities as inherently superior. In fact, advanced nations clearly need a judicious balance of manufacturing and services, not least postindustrial services.”

The key question here is why the review was ever approved by the Amazon catalog department in the first place. As Amazon’s catalogers know only too well, the customer review system is extensively abused by people with hidden agendas. It is therefore important that each review be subjected to minimal reality checking. To any practiced eye, it was obvious that the Roberts review was suspect. The strange combination of its inordinate length — it ranked as probably one of the longest reader reviews ever posted at Amazon — and its lack of checkable specifics was an obvious giveaway. After all a reviewer who takes up so much space might be expected to offer plenty of substantiation. To the practiced eye a particularly telling point was the disconnect between the review’s heading and its contents. Although the heading presented the book as a paean in favor of “lefty big government mercantilism,” the review failed to follow through with any substantiation. Take the designation “lefty.” Yes, George Soros is mentioned in the book — twice, which is the same number of times as in Ms. Roberts’s review. The only substantive reference was on page 76, where he was quoted criticizing the radical financial deregulation of the 1980s and 1990s as an accident waiting to happen. Even at the time this view was not controversial, let alone “lefty” or “big government” — at least not among the wiser heads in finance. Indeed, as the book made clear, Soros was backed in his opinions not only by a wide swathe of economists but by no less an authority than Warren Buffett. And in retrospect, of course, with the American banking industry as of 2008 embroiled in a massive quagmire of sub-prime debt, the Soros/Buffett critique of radical financial deregulation has proved only too sadly prescient.

I first complained about this review soon after it was originally posted in 2005 but it was not until December 2007, when I increased the decibel level of my protests, that Amazon finally acted. By not only dethroning the review from its previous No. 1 position as the “most helpful” but by deleting it entirely from the Amazon system, the Amazon catalogers tacitly conceded my point that the review was malicious. In the meantime unfortunately many members of the reading public had been steered away from reading a book considered by many experts to have made an importance contribution to understanding the errors in America’s economic strategy.

[From the Amazon page for In Praise of Hard Industries]

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

13 of 16 people found the following review helpful:
In Praise of Lefty Big Government Mercantilism , December 28, 2005
By Dianne Roberts (Los Angeles, California United States) – See all my reviews

Being an engineer in the aerospace industry I was highly interested in this book based on my experiences from the vantage point a “hard industry.” I personally believe that it’s in our long term interests to maintain a strong manufacturing base because that’s the foundation of real wealth, not legal services or newswires. So this book sounded like the perfect source of information to explain our current economic situation, give an assessment of how bad or how good it really is, and suggest ways to improve it. Oh, how very, very wrong I was . . .

This book started off strong, . . . for about four pages. After that a litany of tortured logic, un-sourced assertions, facts taken completely out of context except for the author’s subjectively added adjectives, Orwellian double-speak, sleight of hand arguments, flat out ridiculuos statements, contradictory assessments, and even emotional vitriol coalesced not so much into an argument for industry but one for eighteenth century mercantilism with perhaps a sprinkling of far left George Soros on top to serve as an update for the twenty first century.

Even a broken watch is correct twice a day though, so there were some good points in the book which buy it the 2 star rating. These include:

– Manufacturing provides a large source of proprietary knowledge which both improves productivity and serves as a barrier of entry, creating an industry with a large base of high paying jobs, provided it’s run right. (A big if.)

– High wage nations can still compete effectively with low wage nations in manufacturing by being capital intensive.

– Americans need to save more and our education system needs to produce more engineers and technically oriented graduates.

– There is some excess in the financial services and managers of publicly traded companies take too short term a view, leading them to sell the company upriver in the long run because of a personal temporary short term gain. (i.e. Enron)

A scholarly, fair, and comprehensive book that focused on the above would be extremely interesting and useful. This is not what you’ll get in this book though. Instead you’ll get:

A begining section about postindustrialism, things like the internet, information technology, financial services, etc., the things that make the services based economy. In three chapters the author simply sets up straw men by taking the worst examples of post industrial advocates, instead of presenting a comprehensive picture of the post industrial argument. Not being satisfied with this he proceeds to beat the straw men, set them on fire, and piss on the smoldering remains. This is where vitriol even comes out, where he equates the post-industrialists to people incapable of even thinking. If someone has to go to this extreme to make their argument, they probably don’t have one. Most telling he leaves the final assessment of the value of the internet to a feminist. To me, this would be like leaving the final assessment of how good a bicycle is to, oh, I don’t know, let’s say a fish.

A middle section extolls the virtues of manufacturing. This is a bunch of hand picked anectdotal stories and there’s no overview of manufacturing in the world or its real impact on economies at large. This is the kind of subject that screams for reams of data, charts of GDP growth over time, pie charts of the breakdown of economies into services, manufacture, agriculture, etc. You will get none of that. There’s little value except in reassuring the obvious, high wage nations CAN do manufacturing. Many of these cherry-picked anectdotal examples still don’t quite dove-tail with all his claims about manufacturing though! You also know you’re being left in the dark with a plethora of CYA disclaimer statments like “while Industry_X has certainly had its share of problems recently . . .” at the begining of a section.

A final section basically amounts to an attack on laissez-faire, free markets, and the concept of free trade. George Soros and a bunch of other lefties, with Pat Buchanan thrown in for “balance”, should be listened to instead.

The worst part of this book is the author’s lack of an ability to make any sort of coherent argument. Examples of twisted thinking abound:

– A post-industrial “industry” grows five times over in a certain period. The author then goes onto explain how this is not really real growth but something that in reality is bad. Later he proves how great a manufacturing industry is because in the same period it grows a whopping 60%! Self contradictory evaluations of the performance of services vs manufacturing is common and always falls down on the side that the manufacturing industry is far far better than the service industry even when all the standard economic indicators suggest otherwise. The author’s challenge to the reader seems to be “who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes?”

– He rips into American post industrial industries as being labor intensive and vulnerable to low wage nations because Americans are no smarter or more creative or more anything than laborers around the world. Later he talks about how great German manufacturing is because Germans are so much more diligent than the rest of the world’s workers.

– The only facts he presents – and they are surprisingly thin and overwhelmed by mere assertions – are always modified by his subjective opinion and never put in context. When describing service industries “paltry” $50 million revenues, “only” 60,000 jobs, “disappointing” 24% of revenues from foreign sources is common. But when describing manufacturing “a very high” $6 million revenues, “a good mix” of 1,500 jobs, and similar glowing assessments are inevitable despite the number to follow. A number in and of itself means nothing. The fact the author leaves out any head on, direct comparison between industries is telling.

– Official figures are the ultimate source of information when they agree with what the author believes. When the official figures don’t agree with him, he finds some loner who does and then barely explains how this time around the official figures are somehow wrong. When attacking his straw men though, he accuses them of ignoring official figures and quoting some loner.

– Gems of Orwellian double-speak sentences include examples like “Solar is already a fully competitive source of energy in remote areas that do not have grid electricity. (pg. 184)” I.e. it’s competitive where there is NO competition! And “Even in Singapore, one of the freest societies in the East, the savings rate was successfully boosted by a system of forced savings . . . (pg. 229)” That’s not very free if it’s FORCED is it? (His defense of solar is one of the most hilariously pathetic eight pages I’ve ever read and really is worth the price of the book. He capstones it with the “most encouraging” observation that solar cells have gone from producing one third of the energy used to make them before they wore out – that is consuming more total energy in their manufacture than they eventually make!- to now producing three times as much energy as required to produce them before they wear out. Wow, what an achievement. Any ACTUAL power source converts many thousands of times the energy used to manufacture it before it’s internal workings wear out, but whatever . . .)

– Americans are dumb and the only successful American companies basically blundered into monopolies on standards. The American economy, despite the statistics, is in bad shape. The Japanese instead are eight feet tall, can read people’s minds and see through lead. The Japanese economy, despite the statistics, is in really great shape. This type of persistently biased characterization makes you question everything he claims, and eliminates any value or truth he might actually have in his arguments. The author basically can’t get out of his own way.

– He always attacks opponents of his viewpoint by claiming that they don’t put numbers into context, are using twisted logic, making mere assertions instead of quoting facts, etc., apparently oblivious that these are the very same tactics he himself uses!

– He claims Boeing is no longer a good company because 30% of components in a Boeing aircraft are now made abroad vs. 2% in the 1960’s. This is actually because foreign manufacturing for those components happens to be better and cheaper. America isn’t doing that badly in aerospace by the way. The author fails to mention that 50% of the “European” Airbus is made in America. This is an example of free trade actually distributing production to where it is most efficient.

The list goes on and on to ridiculous proportions. You’d have to buy the book to see them all because there’s at least one thing an alert and critical reader can find highly questionable on each page.

All in all, this book was way off the mark and a highly squandered opportunity. It’s really a mercantilist argument, and the only common thread that I could see in all the author’s cloudy reasoning is that nation’s should do everything in their power to export more than they import no matter what. It’s NOT, unfortunately, a book about how to revitalize American manufacturing in a globalized world.

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