Good Reads: American manufacturing, Apple's new CEO, and a father-son journey to meet two presidents

A round-up of this week's long-form good reads include takes on America's manufacturing power, how religion is faring in the US, and the power of seeing a son in a new light.

Eric Risberg/AP
In this file photo, Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks following an introduction of the new iPhone 5 in San Francisco earlier this fall.

Manufacturing growth

Things may finally be looking up for US manufacturing, James Fallows argues in the December issue of The Atlantic. 

Even in its battered condition, the American manufacturing sector is still the largest in the world, but its share of the US economy has declined from 20 percent in the early 1980s to just over 10 percent today. In the process, many high-paying jobs moved to China and other lower-wage countries, while Rust Belt communities in the United States were hard hit.

Two trends are likely to get trade winds blowing toward America again, Mr. Fallows contends. First, new technologies emerging in the US, such as 3-D printing, make it easier and faster to design, build, and refine products. Three-dimensional printing allows firms to use computerized molding systems to produce prototypes in minutes or hours. “A revolution is coming to the creation of things, comparable to the Internet’s effect on the creation and dissemination of ideas,” one industrial design expert told Fallows.

At the same time, tumultuous changes in China are reducing its manufacturing advantages, complicating life for outsourcers and exporters. “In China, wages are rising, workers are becoming choosier, public resistance to environmental devastation is growing, and the Chinese ‘investment led’ model is showing strain,” Fallows says. 

Apple’s new CEO

Apple chief executive officer Tim Cook talked extensively about management and corporate creativity in an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel.

Mr. Cook succeeded Apple’s late co-founder Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs was a major shareholder in the Walt Disney Company and had seen how executives there wasted time trying to figure out what Disney himself would have done after the founder of the company had passed away. Jobs “removed a tremendous burden for me,” Cook says, by instructing, “I never want you to ask what I would have done. Just do what is right.”

Apple has taken heat for poor working conditions at massive Foxconn Technology Group factories in China where many of its products are assembled. Cook told Businessweek that Apple would start producing one line of its Mac computers in the US in 2013 – a modest sign of the brightening prospects for US manufacturing mentioned above.

Creativity, in Cook’s definition, is “people who care enough to keep thinking about something until they find the simplest way to do it.” He laughed about corporate innovation departments saying that having one “is always a sign that something is wrong ... you know, put a for sale sign on the door.”

Religious Americans defined

A new Gallup survey about how Americans feel about religion offers fascinating glimpses into the nation’s spiritual life. In the past year, Gallup asked 320,000 people how religious they considered themselves to be and how often they attended religious services.

The answers form the foundation for a new book, “God Is Alive and Well: The Future of Religion in America,” by Gallup editor in chief Frank Newport. Overall, some 69 percent of adults consider themselves very religious or moderately religious, while 31 percent say they are nonreligious.

Religiousness is “distributed quite unequally across various subgroups and segments of the U.S. population,” Gallup says.

Religion could become more important in the US in years to come as baby boomers age and the number of Americans 65 and older nearly doubles. According to Gallup, religiousness peaks at 80.

A father, a son, and two presidents

Journalist Ron Fournier shares in the National Journal what he learned about fatherhood while visiting two American presidents in an effort to help his young son deal with a medical condition that hinders social interaction abilities.

This is not a story about disease but rather a deeply moving, first-person narrative about a father’s effort to correct his own shortcomings as a parent and his 15-year-old son Tyler’s wonderful resilience and forgiveness.

Mr. Fournier was able to arrange visits for Tyler with former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush because of his time as White House correspondent for The Associated Press. Fournier’s wife, Lori, suggested the road trip, saying, “You can use a job that took you away from Tyler to help him.” The duo ultimately visited 12 historical destinations together.

President Bush, “a man who famously doesn’t suffer fools or breaches of propriety, gave my son the benefit of the doubt,” Fournier says. “I was beginning to think that people are more perceptive and less judgmental toward Tyler than his own father is.”

President Clinton warmly welcomed Fournier’s son but at one point launched into a lengthy monologue about Teddy Roosevelt’s role as a bridge to the 20th century, clearly boring Tyler. “Suddenly I saw Tyler in another light. If even Bill Clinton, the most talented people person in a generation, can miss obvious social cues, why worry so much about my son?” Fournier says.

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