There’s No Place Like Home


I’ve been writing editorials, like this one, for almost 40 years now and during that time I have addressed hundreds of different topics. One question I have frequently gotten from readers is about how I choose those topics.

The process has evolved over the years. At first, I mostly relied upon the experiences I had in the school supply and specialty toy industries, relating anecdotes that I thought might be interesting or entertaining. I also thought it was important to address issues that were currently pressing in those industries.

Eventually, I ran out of anecdotes and the further I got from my years of toiling in the field, the less my perspective on the issues was truly relevant. The readers knew more about what was going on than I did.

So I began to write more about business in general than our business in particular. I had run a few businesses prior to this one and I have a number of strongly-held opinions about best practices, but that number is finite. There came a day when I realized that I had said all that I had to say about business management.

At that point I turned to current events. Every day there are dozens of new topics delivered to my desk, courtesy of the hundreds of diligent reporters at the surviving fonts of American newspaper journalism, such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. (Of course, there is no paper involved in my case, but the term continues, much like referring to movies as “films.”)

The idea was to discuss something that was going on somewhere in the world, and what effect it might have on the toy industry, or perhaps that it illustrated some broader point about where we are all headed. The possibilities are endless.

That’s the problem. There is always a lot going on in the world, and in 2022 it seemed as though there was about twice as much as usual. Getting ideas from the news was like drinking from a firehose. I don’t usually try to step back from the hose long enough to get any real perspective on larger issues, but now that 2022 is in the can it seems like a good time to consider what it was all about. Here goes.

If there was one over-arching theme in the news last year, it was the epic struggle between democracy and autocracy, or the rule of the many versus the rule of the one. That struggle seemed to be a consistent subtext running through the biggest stories of the past 12 months.

Take COVID-19 for example. Most of the world has reached some sort of accommodation with the virus and life has returned to some semblance of normal, but such is not the case in China. Although there was some variation in strategy from one nation to another – and in the U.S. from one state to another – we all pretty much followed the same playbook: partially shut down the economy and public mobility to slow the spread of the virus until vaccinations could be developed. Eventually, the combination of vaccination and natural immunity from COVID recovery would get the population over the hump.

Xi Jinping, the singular head of state in China, had a different idea. Rather than trying to survive the virus, Xi was determined to defeat it. The country would be locked down to a far greater extent than the rest of the world, exposed individuals would be isolated as though they were radioactive, and foreign vaccines would be refused in favor of a domestic brand.

There is some irony to this approach, seeing as the virus broke out in China in the first place, but perhaps that was the point. “COVID isn’t our fault, and anyway it’s not that hard to stop.”

Turns out it is, though. Even the authority-compliant Chinese cannot fully contain the virus, and their old-school vaccine proved to be far less effective than the “messenger RNA” versions developed by the West.

What the Chinese managed to create was an enormous population of under-exposed and under-vaccinated people holed up in their apartments, where they were sitting ducks. The alternative – opening up and letting the disease run its course – seemed equally unthinkable.

But it only needed to be thinkable to one person, and apparently it was. In mid-December, China did a complete about-face and dropped most of its COVID restrictions, with predictable results. Although the Chinese won’t acknowledge it, most outside analysts think millions are being infected every week, and that more than a million will die in the first quarter of 2023 alone.

Since 80 percent of all the toys sold in the U.S. are manufactured in China, it’s not much of a stretch to connect problems in China to issues in our industry. I can’t tell you exactly what effect those problems will have on our supply chain delays or price increases, only that there will be one.

China is not the only overseas autocracy that is causing difficulties for us here in the U.S., and mismanagement of COVID is not the only mistake that is having huge consequences. There is, in fact, a situation that is even more prominent in the news.

It’s been an entire year now since Russia invaded Ukraine, and there is no end in sight. As far as anyone can ascertain, the whole catastrophic conflict was caused by the ambitions of one man, Vladimir Putin, who apparently sees himself as some sort of latter-day czar out to restore the Russian empire.

I have yet to hear anyone else from Russia – including the public, the government or even the military – say anything that sounds like they think this war is a good idea. That, however, only serves to highlight one of the great drawbacks to single-person rule. Not only is Putin the only one who can stop the madness, he is also the least likely one to do so. Why? Because there is no one else to blame it on.

In the meantime, the war has been a significant driver of inflation, cutting off grain exports from Ukraine and triggering a boycott of Russian oil. It has also created a strain on the U.S. budget, with our costs rapidly approaching $100 billion.

Other autocracies around the world are problematic as well. The only reason we don’t get more news coverage of places like Iran and North Korea is that we’re understandably preoccupied with places like Russia and China.

Democracy is messy, sometimes chaotic and maddeningly inefficient, but there is no doubt in my mind that it clearly beats the alternative. I always think it is instructive to bear in mind that the U.S. has never gone to war against another democracy.

Last year left me feeling a little like Dorothy at the end of “The Wizard of Oz” – tempest-tossed, but possessed of a newfound appreciation for old-fashioned values.


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