(credit: randy fath)
(Note to readers, this article is written in dual-language, English text follows.)
Yet another short public holiday has come around, in choosing between personal project, creative cooking or just plain housework…
I chose to write a general critic of what I would call “American Dream with Silicon Valley characteristics”, based on recent responses to the global pandemic.
为什么我们不再制造？Why did we stop building?
作为对市场供求关系非常敏感的硅谷投资人，Marc Andreessen 也写了篇文章，谈《是建造的时间了》。
不，从 iPhone、Tesla 到口罩，人们逐渐意识到，「产能」才是发达国家与跨国企业遇到的最大问题。
As the pandemic spread in North America and Europe, people have started to see how many developed countries fail to response in time.
Armed with hindsight, just as America see its pandemic grow rate peaked, factions with varying believes are quickly coming to their “well-thought-out” conclusions on why the government failed to response in time, or whether they had responsed too aggressively.
Being a smart investor and keen observer of market demands, Marc Andreessen wrote a piece too, aptly named “IT’S TIME TO BUILD“.
The reason I decides to pick on this piece, is that it encapsulates a very common theme among Silicon Valley’s vision of “American Dream”, to quote:
We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things.
We chose not to build.
Depending on your point of view, I even partially agree to this sentiment: no doubt many developed countries and multinational corporations have chosen offshore production, or at least, are no longer in full control of their production chains.
But consumer demands only grew. So more and more productions were made in China, or the next low-price-high-volume bidder.
Why do these nations and corporations decide to greatly reduce, or even abandon local manufacturing?
Was it purely due to cost?
No, from iPhone, Tesla to surgical masks, people had learnt time and again: it was the “production volume” that hamstrung these institutions.
为什么投资人无法激发本地产能？How did investors fail to spur local manufacturing?
这是我和 Andreessen 意见分歧的地方。
但事实是，Andreessen 自己创始的投资企业 a16z，并不会投资更高的「产能」，只会投资更高的「回报」。
This is where my opinions diverge from Andreessen, sharply.
Silicon Valley has always positioned itself to be pro-development and pro-innovation. But my view is their own investment theory has held back its mission statement. They limit what we could have built.
Andreessen points out many area America could have “rebuilt” a better alternative: from Housing in SF, to broader Higher Ed, to grand projects like automated megafactories and highspeed railways.
But the venture capital firm Andreessen himself founded, was not built on investing in “production volume”, but on finding “higher yield in investment”.
You see, too many “production needs” in this world are malleable.
A production line fills one demand today might become obsolete tomorrow, along with its human capital and assets, all turned into “status quo to be disrupted”.
Sure, you want surgical masks today, but after the pandemic?
Sure, you want a large workforce of engineers today, but after discontinuing your current project?
Silicon Valley model have always had 2 sides: the side they glamorously disrupt economy while seeking 10x returns, and the side they discard workforce surplus as a liability.
And then they complain about the lack of will to “build”.
如何重建？从踏出创业泡沫开始。 How do we rebuild? By stepping out of startup bubble.
和 Andreessen 一样，硅谷投资界有一个「美国制造」梦。
为什么我们没有在全国各地建造 Elon Musk 的「外星战舰」——那些巨大的、发光的、先进的工厂，那些可以用最高质量与最低价格，生产你能想象的任何产品的工厂？
拥有这样生产线的 Tesla，至今未能给医院生产呼吸机——他们决定自己设计呼吸机，完成后仍需 FDA 的审批。
而生产过审呼吸机型号的 GM 和 Ventec，则已经在四月中旬开始，陆续给医院送去新呼吸机（他们与联邦政府签订了三万台呼吸机的合同，预计八月底完成生产，订单价格高达 4.9 亿美元）。
不是因为 Andreessen 不理解问题的复杂性——整天看中国市场哪里创新哪里投资的他们自然清楚。
而是因为他们被自己的底线局限了——Andreessen Horowitz 只投带来垄断性与高回报的初创企业，其他方式都不符合他们的利益。
GM 与 Ventec 的合作证明，你完全可以整合本地分散的供应商并完成生产。
但这，毫无疑问是本地制造。这不就是 Andreessen 想要的吗？
Like Andreessen, the Silicon Valley had a romanticized view of “Made in America”.
They believe with a batch of highly automated factories and a group of well-trained engineers, they could have built and changed anything.
To quote Andreessen:
Why aren’t we building Elon Musk’s “alien dreadnoughts” — giant, gleaming, state of the art factories producing every conceivable kind of product, at the highest possible quality and lowest possible cost — all throughout our country?
It saddens me that, even at the height of a pandemic, all Andreessen could think about is how to create a manufacturing company with monopoly potential and to disrupt traditional business.
But do “alien dreadnoughts” exist anyway?
Tesla is one with such a production line, they have yet to deliver a single working ventilator: because they insists on coming up with their own design, which will take time and require FDA approval.
While GM and Ventec, producing approved ventilator models, are already delivering new machines to hospitals in needs since mid April. They have also signed a $490 mil contract with federal government to produce 30K unit by end of August.
Ironically, even the ventilator models Elon Musk bought and sent to hospitals weren’t suitable for treating coronavirus patients, they were CPAP/BPAP machines aimed at sleep apnea patients. The non-invasive model being sent cost about $800 each, comparing to invasive models which are $10~50K each. It was up to the doctors to innovate and adapt to what they were given.
In short, the “alien dreadnoughts” did not change its production line overnight, even when the market demand surges.
The reason behind it is quite obvious: there simply aren’t such automated factories.
Even in China, with its excellent high-volume production line, had to face problems with cancelled orders and overcapcity, had to deal with workforce retention and quarantine wages.
Yet investors in Silicon Valley envision an automated battleship that scales up and down easily, changes products overnight and can assign engineers on a whim.
It’s not that Andreessen doesn’t understand the complexity behind this, after all, they are the ones looking at China’s innovation and VC investment with keen eyes.
But rather, they were handicapped by their own bottom line: Andreessen Horowitz, a firm that prides itself on investing high-growth startups and getting 10~100x returns.
GM and Ventec’s partnership proves, you can source components locally across vendors and create a robust manufacturing chain.
Sure, it’s hard to get a monopoly with this approach, and you won’t see the kind of scale and profit currently possible through offshore mass production.
But this is, by definition, to “build” something quickly and locally.
Isn’t this what Andreessen wanted?
When investors know American manufacturing exists, and have potential to grow, yet decide not to support them, due to high risks and low returns.
I call that empty slogan and, Paper Tiger.