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The Digital Skeptic: Giving Thanks for Our Mistakes

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- You know, what I love about Thanksgiving -- and this country -- is the mistakes.

Because have you ever had a perfectly cooked Thanksgiving meal? Of course not. That's the point. The miracle of this day is that the untender turkey and mushed mashed potatoes somehow swirl up into a marvelous, greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts cassoulet.

This turkey-and-stuffing-induced glow makes for the perfect time to take an intellectual stroll through American errata, from the simply silly to our deepest missteps -- then serve up the investor lessons. After all, as Churchill said, "All men make mistakes, but only wise men learn from their mistakes."

The Leisure Screw-Up


The tip-top, first-tier American blunder is of course from the late 1970s. According to the Fashion Encyclopedia, one Jerry Rosengarten matched jackets and pants made of then-new polyester fabrics to create a single suit. This wonder garment would not be for work. Oh, no. This super suit was for leisure.

And the doomed "leisure suit" was born.

Luckily, Rosengarten and the rest of us wised up to the coyote ugly of leisure suits, and they departed from our department stores. Smart marketers, such as Under Armour (UA), eventually worked out that synthetic fabrics work best when people sweat, not sit around. And $5.4 billion in market cap was created.

Driving the Road to Error

Mistakes can overrun an entire industry. The single best account of a whole business gone bad is the combined mishandling of the American auto industry in David Halberstam's The Reckoning. Halberstam did the diagnostics on Ford's (F - Get Report) failure on all cylinders to stave off competitor Nissan (NSANY).

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who reviewed Halberstam's book in 1986 for The New York Times, traced the screw-up to exactly one place: the finance men at Ford.

"These men hold, or anyhow held, the ultimate power of decision and used it regularly in an exceptionally parochial way to repress needed investment and innovation," Galbraith wrote.

Eventually, Ford -- and GM (GM) and Chrysler -- figured out that, no, the bean counters don't make the cars. The engineers, designers and craftsmen make the cars. And, duh, you need to pay something to get a car worth something. And go figure, American automakers once again create some of the best cars on earth.

Ford posted its third consecutive full-year profit this year.

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