“Can’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been” is a pretty good philosophy upon which to base the study of business and economic affairs, which this column purports to do, thus explaining the occasional fixation on the passing of once notable names, be they people, companies, products, controversies or trends.
These aren’t mere exercises in nostalgia (well, all right, the last item today qualifies as that) but exercises in explaining how we got into the fixes we find ourselves in today. And lately there’s been a surplus of opportunities to tie the news of the past to the news of today as a way of predicting the news of tomorrow.
So, fast on the heels of last week’s ruminations on the passing of Lee Iacocca, we offer a few more:
▪ Most of the coverage of the death of H. Ross Perot focused on his two presidential runs in 1992 and 1996, and whether he was the difference in tipping the first election to Bill Clinton (very likely) or a precursor to the Donald Trump model of an irascible wealthy outsider making a foray into politics (in many ways, yes).
Less commented upon is why anyone took note of Perot in the first place, he being hardly the first or last wealthy business executive to imagine himself as presidential material.
Perot made his name and fortune as the founder of Electronic Data Systems, a technology services company that in some ways was a very early forerunner to what cloud-computing-services companies are doing today. EDS was acquired by General Motors in 1984 for $2.5 billion. Perot joined the General Motors board and promptly began tangling with GM’s chief executive Roger Smith over everything from the quality of the company’s cars to its bloated and stultifying management structure. What inflamed the conflict was Perot’s penchant for voicing his pointed criticisms not just in the board room but in public.
GM eventually pushed Perot out with some go-away money, but reading the criticisms with the advantage of hindsight it’s easy to conclude that Perot might have been a royal pain as a corporate colleague, but he was also right. GM still struggles with some of the problems Perot was pointing out decades ago.
Perot also didn’t invent the suspicions among many Americans about the economic benefits of trade policies and trade deals like NAFTA, and he wasn’t the first national leader to give voice to those concerns — labor-union officials had been saying the same thing for a long time. But what was then considered a cranky, outlier view on trade is considered mainstream, creating an uncomfortable alliance of the Trump administration and most prominent Democrats.
▪ Speaking of cars, Volkswagen is ceasing production of the Beetle at its plant in Puebla, Mexico.
From its distinctive shape and sound to its equally distinctive advertising campaigns (black-and-white photographs for print, low-key humor for TV), as well as an affordable price and reputation for durability, the Beetle carved out its own niche in the automotive and cultural landscape that endured over the decades as other cars and companies came and went.
Any nostalgia for the Beetle — at least for the original classic — is tempered by the experience of having to actually drive or ride in one. From the cramped interior to the noise to the notoriously woeful heater, the Beetle was not built for comfort.
Cars today are more comfortable, more fuel efficient and more reliable than their predecessors — and a lot duller and less distinctive. That goes double for their marketing. Is that a bad thing? Probably not. But the street-fair car shows of two or three decades from now — provided we’re still allowed to have those — are more likely to feature quirky, distinctive cars like the Beetle rather than the “can’t tell one from the other” vehicles of today.
▪ Finally, Mad magazine, whose publishers announced they’re ending the production of original material.
It would be nice to tell you readers that your columnist’s summer reading as a youth consisted of Shakespeare and other classics. Sadly, the menu tended more toward Hardy Boys mysteries, paperback compilations of Peanuts cartoons, and whatever copies of Mad could be scrounged up from friends. (Very few bothered with its lesser competitor, Cracked.)
Mad was alluring because there weren’t a lot of people working its particular satirical corner, and while kids read it it wasn’t directed at kids.
Mad was done in by several cultural and business shifts, starting with the tough times print media, including magazines, are having making their business models work in the internet era.
The bigger problem, though, is that its niche has been overrun since the heyday of the 1960s. It wasn’t just professional outfits like “Saturday Night Live” or The Onion that muscled in on Mad’s turf. As evidenced by the wealth of comedic material on YouTube and Twitter, these days literally everyone is a comedian, a point made in the book “Planet Funny” by “Jeopardy” champion turned writer (and Seattle-area resident) Ken Jennings.
Mad had a big role in creating the comedy wave that eventually relegated it to footnote status, and there’s an important business lesson in that. “What, me worry?” asked perennial Mad cover boy Alfred E. Neuman. If you’re not paying attention to who else might be interested in your little corner of the business world, if you no longer have something to offer that sets you apart from those competitors, then yes, you, worry.