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January 1, 2015

Conflict, Compassion and Change

A stubborn CEO revives an industry, a physician laments his own, and a technologist’s optimistic polemic

Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local—and Helped Save an American Town
by Beth Macy. Little, Brown, 2014.

My father was a furniture man. He owned a small-town furniture store until I left for college and then went on the road as a manufacturer’s rep. Bassett Furniture made the high-end stuff; a lot of people in my hometown were still making payments on bedroom suites when my father closed his store. Bassett products, like pretty much all the furniture sold in America in those days, were made in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In 2009, Michael K. Dugan’s book, The Furniture Wars: How America Lost a Fifty Billion Dollar Industry, chronicled the offshoring of almost the entire industry and the loss of millions of jobs. But today, if you go to the semiannual High Point Market—the world’s largest furniture market, located in High Point, North Carolina—one company after another loudly proclaims “Made in America.” Factory Man is the story of the lone CEO who turned the industry around.

John Bassett III, the third-generation chairman of Vaughan-Bassett Furniture, went to China in 2002 to find the man who made a Louis Philippe dresser that sold for $100, far below the cost of materials. This was a clear violation of WTO rules. Twenty years earlier, Bassett III had been at a dinner in Taiwan when he heard—and should’ve heeded—the warning that foretold the fate of many American manufacturers. “If the price is right,” a Taiwanese factory owner told him, Americans “will do anything. We have never seen people before who are this greedy—or this naïve.”

American goods manufacturers let Asian companies visit, take pictures of assembly lines and learn how the industry worked. They were then amazed when Asia began to beat them at their own game. They accepted big buyout checks, laid off millions of workers and, one hopes, never got a decent night’s sleep again.

In April 2009, Bassett posted a loss of $8.7 million. In January 2012, JB III, as he’s called in the book, bought and re-opened a vacant factory using the $8 million he won in an anti-dumping case against a Chinese competitor. For that case, he took on the Chinese government, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. International Trade Commission, what was left of the American furniture industry and much of his own family.

It’s a remarkable story. Grit, outrage, courage and a sense of fair play—JB III has all these things, in spades. He can be, as more than one person describes him, “an asshole.” But sometimes, that’s what it takes.

Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician
by Sandeep Jauhar. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

The American health care system—bloated, expensive, hidebound—is in crisis. There’s a growing library of books full of handwringing and possible solutions, but few authors bother to remind us so beautifully why people still go into medicine. “It’s the tender moments helping people in need,” Sandeep Jauhar writes in Doctored. “In the end, medicine is about taking care of people in their most vulnerable state and making yourself a bit the same in the process.”

Dr. Jauhar, author of the 2009 book Intern, has not written a fact-heavy condemnation of health care. He’s written a memoir about his first 10 years as a cardiologist on Long Island. He tells stories about patients, other doctors, nurses, families and administrators—all the people who may one day stand at the foot of your hospital bed and decide what will happen to you.

Still, Jauhar gives us plenty of startling facts on everything from Medicare spending to regional discrepancies in mortality rates to the country’s looming doctor shortage. For example:

  • More than half of doctors would not recommend going into the profession.
  • There will be 250,000 too few doctors in the United States by 2025.
  • The average doctor spends an hour a day and $83,000 a year filling out insurance forms.
  • Regions of the country that spend the most on health care have higher mortality rates than those that spend the least.
  • Medicare spends $8,414 per person per year in Miami but only $3,341 in Minneapolis.

The facts, however, are not why you keep reading. The stories of people like James Irey are: “A calm, elegant” Trinidadian, he wears bright red pajamas in “a stark contrast with the air of grim expectation” around him. He refuses a planned invasive test to see whether he’s a candidate for a heart transplant. His doctors bully him into it, and he endures a painful, expensive procedure that does nothing to improve the quality or length of his life.

Jauhar is not Marcus Welby; no doctor is. He obviously does not see himself as the infallible healer we’ve been led to believe exists. He is a flawed human being in a flawed system trying to do the right thing. He’s also one hell of a good storyteller.

 

Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better
by Clive Thompson. Penguin Books, 2013.

There is a serious national debate about whether digital and mobile technologies are damaging our ability to think. On the “all-is-lost” team, we have the prolific Nicholas Carr, author of the The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains and the much-read cover essay in The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” On the “we’ll-be-fine” team is first-time author Clive Thompson.

Thompson, a columnist for Wired, says that digital technology, like all earlier big-idea tools, will change things. Some ways of doing things will disappear but better ones will arrive. Instead of walking behind a plow, we now ride in a tractor powered by an internal combustion engine. Similarly, instead of a snowstorm of Post-it notes and to-do lists, we’ll use Evernote or Wunderlist to organize our lives. We’ll become better writers because we write “154 billion e-mails, more than 500 million tweets on Twitter, and over 1 million blog posts and 1.3 million blog comments” a day. We’ll collaborate and develop ideas that are greater than we could alone. We’ll use our brains for loftier pursuits than remembering to pick up milk on the way home.

You can almost hear the crescendo of orchestral music leading us to a wireless, paperless, digitally enabled, utopian future. Except that, for various reasons, this book fails to persuade. Thompson insists that the jury is still out on whether these changes will lead to improved ways of processing information, or enslavement by devices that are smarter than we are. His evidence for the optimistic side of the debate is anecdotal and isolated, however, and he ignores findings that don’t back his hypothesis. With workmanlike reporting and prose, this reads more like a series of Wired articles than a book. It has none of the heft of Carr’s work. It’s chatty rather than rigorous.

Having said that, Thompson has many fans. Maybe I’m just in the all-is-lost camp.