Sunday, April 29, 2007

A Laughlin interlude

Been away for a while. We got back last night from Laughlin, NV, where we joined Jen's brother Joe (Desert Hot Springs) and her other brother Steve (Atlanta -- well, Flowery Branch if you want to be more precise), to take in the annual Laughlin River Run, a festival for bikers that celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. Not being one, I find bikers fascinating. All the ones I've met, even those who look pretty tatooed and scary, are extremely friendly. There are more big bellies than chiseled torsoes.

The fascination -- love affair -- most bikers have with their bikes is something to behold. And they seem to love to get together. The authorities estimated there were about 70,000 bikers in and around Laughlin over the weekend, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised. There are get-togethers all around the country. At Laughlin here were large bikes and small, Hondas and Yamahas and BMWs and Suzukis, and custom models with names nobody but a specialist or infatuated enthusiast would know, but mostly Harleys. From what I can tell as an observer, U.S. bikers seem to have a love affair with Harley-Davidson.

There's a fascinating backstory here. Harley-Davidson, as far as I can tell, is the only U.S. company to use protectionism successfully, the way advocates of protectionism claim it is designed to work. You may know the mythology. An American industry or company gets into some kind of trouble and blames it on foreign competition. So the government imposes high tariffs or duties on the cheatin' furriners for long enough for the American company to get their act together and be able to compete internationally again.

What usually happens, of course, is that when shielded from competition a company or industry simply continues whatever got it into trouble and becomes even less competitive. So the "temporary" protection becomes eternal. The U.S. steel and textile industries are prime examples of industries that have used protectionism in this cynical way, so the "necessity" for protection is never-ending.

Harley-Davidson, however, did it the right way. Back in the 1980s the company had almost forgotten how to make good motorcycles and was getting pasted by Honda, Yamaha and other Japanese motorcycle makers. So it asked for protection and the government, always eager to grant favors with a political payoff, of course obliged. But instead of using protection to stay lazy, Harley-Davidson actually retooled, redesigned, revamped its management structure, and started making bikes people actually wanted. After a few years, it decided it could compete internationally again, and told the government it could lift the tariffs and other forms of protection. It did so, and since then Harley has gone from strength to strength.

This doesn't mean such protectionism is a good thing. Harley is the only company in U.S. history, so far as I know, to use it responsibly, and that was a matter of company pride.

The bottom line of the weekend was that we spent hours visiting the vendors' tents -- they took up the parking lots of at least three casinos -- including the more maverick vendors several miles downriver at the Avi -- and saw nothing that even resembled the product Jen and Joe have designed. They're planning to file a patent application this week and from then it's on to samples, prototypes and production.

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