AMERICAN quality and workmanship have been seriously questioned for a decade at least. German and Japanese cars are now the choice of quality-conscious US consumers. Even a war as successfully engineered as that in the Persian Gulf can't wipe out an entire genre of literature and thinking about a decline in America - from institutions to know-how, craftsmanship, and moral rectitude.
Short-term gain, public relations, and the bottom line are said to be winning the day. Creating an image of quality is more important than basic quality itself.
``Decline'' can be overplayed. But the theme comes up often, as in recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and other papers about Steinway pianos - a great American company, and product.
As the Journal notes, for some time musicians and aficionados have discussed a deterioration in the sound quality of the famous Steinway pianos. A corporate buyout by CBS in 1972, and new owners in the mid '80s who knew nothing about pianos and began to stress cost-cutting and more-efficient methods of production - leading to a departure of several master craftsmen - are factors in a perceived decline in quality.
New production techniques at Steinway are blamed for a spate of cracked soundboards - the most crucial part of any piano. For years, quality soundboards gave Steinways unequaled tone.
A piano-builder friend tells us, ``[Steinway] still makes extraordinary instruments, concert grands. But you do hear of more pianos that are indifferent.''
Moreover, Steinway, which until this year has made only 5,000 pianos a year, is taking heat for a new deal with Kawai of Japan to jointly mass produce a mid-priced piano. Longtime Steinway faithful worry the deal may mark a slippery slope where quantity of sales becomes more important than quality of piano.
The Journal points out that Steinways are still unequaled. And while it may not be fair to single out Steinway, the company is an American institution, and thus more in the spotlight. Nor are the perceived problems limited to a single company, trade, profession, or institution.
The problems of quality in a modern postindustrial nation are complex, to be sure. The gains in methods and means wrought by technology and science can't be scoffed at in Luddite fashion. Yet there is also a need in the workplace for the qualities of the master craftsmen who see their work as a mission or calling.
As our piano-builder friend noted, ``There seem to be fewer people like the immigrant German and Scandinavian builder who came here and worked 12 hours a day in a labor of love, for not much pay, and who would go the extra mile again and again.''
Such talent cannot simply be bought. It has to be developed - often against the grain of the quick-profit impulse.
Pianist Andr'e-Michel Schub comment is more than literal: ``It is very important that pianos be viewed as having a life. They are not just wood and metal. The sum total is so much greater.''