Forget about cars, look at U.S. strengths

WE'RE STILL NO. 1

March 09, 1992|By TOM PETERS

It's Kafkaesque. The shrill voices of Michael Crichton (author of the crude "Rising Sun") and presidential hopefuls Pat Buchanan and Bob Kerrey claim we're on the ropes. Raise high the walls around Fortress America. And all this just one year after the Persian Gulf war, three months after the Soviet Union disintegrated.

The recession lingers. The K-12 educational system shows few signs of life. Our infrastructure crumbles. Etc.

Still, our grocery store shelves groan with an average of 30,000 items, up from 9,000 in 1976. At death's door? Last year brought 64 new varieties of spaghetti sauce alone! And while gloom engulfs Detroit, the Big Three's cars are getting better.

But forget cars, let alone spaghetti sauce. We lead the planet in computers. Software. Biotech. Aeronautics. Media. Medical equipment. We're a solid No. 1 in the arenas that count. Microsoft's market value is greater than GM's. Great! I'll take Merck. Boeing. Thinking Machines. CNN. Walt Disney. Do I wish Sony was American, Ford healthy? Well, we can't have everything.

I'm as proud of Wal-Mart as I used to be of GM. That aging giant spits up bloody phlegm, but had one long, rewarding-for-us-all run on Broadway. Now we've got other hits -- far more than anybody else.

Even the '80s were a win in my book.

Near the end, firms took on foolish amounts of debt. They and we are paying the piper. But that's the nature of transition: The energetic, greed-prone 1880s and 1890s paved the way for our unparalleled industrial success 50 years later. The 1980s brought necessary restructuring, fast. The Fortune 500 accounted for 58 percent of industrial output at the beginning of the decade, 42 percent 10 years later. We created 19 million net new jobs in the '80s, even as the 500 dinosaurs shed 4 million jobs.

To be sure, the average day brings insult and injury from the average retailer and plumber. But most Europeans and Japanese say the same thing about their local services.

Top managers at lousy behemoths grotesquely reward themselves. And good ideas, like total quality management, become bad jokes as millions of workers are forced into TQM meetings so their supervisors can show the big boss they're "with it."

If I ran for president, I'd have a long to-do list, e.g., zero capital gains taxes for certain long-term holdings, extended and increased R&D tax credit, massive incentives for saving and training. But I wouldn't gnash my teeth about the Germans and Japanese. Their challenges are as great as ours.

Get the facts straight, Crichton! Down to our last gasp? Witness the latest international labor productivity figures, as measured by GDP per employee adjusted for purchasing power. In 1990 we set the standard (100) as usual. Then came Canada at 93, France at 90, Italy at 88, Germany at 79, Japan at 77 and Korea at 43.

Our trade balance? In 1986, we were $143 billion in the red; by 1990, that was down to $108 billion. (And preliminary figures, though tainted by the recession, suggest that 1991 brought another steep decline.) Along the way, our $3 billion surplus in capital goods and industrial supplies shot to $50 billion. Even our annual imbalance in autos and consumer goods edged down. However, our oil deficit bulged from $34 billion to $52 billion in those four years. (Back to that presidential to-do list: Whopping incentives -- not to "buy American," but to conserve energy and curb our planet-leading waste.)

Yes, auto trade still lingers at $50 billion -- bright red. Would I like to close that gap? Sure. But not by jeopardizing free trade and thereby killing industries that matter.

Frankly, the "car problem" is mostly macho. Getting kicked around in highly visible automobiles amounts to castrating the Midwestern male.

Have you looked at the new heart of the United States and pondered 1990's census data? Richmond, Winston-Salem, Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, San Diego, Irvine, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, Portland, Seattle. Together, our fertile "golden crescent." The media establishment can't find it on the map to save themselves. But take a 4,000-mile pilgrimage from Richmond to Seattle, and even smack dab in the second dip of a double-dip recession you'll be refreshed by our spunk. (Hey, Miami International just pushed New York's Kennedy off the world's 10 busiest airports list.)

What's going on? Why the unrelieved nastiness and despair? So Mr. Bush tosses his cookies into the Japanese prime minister's pants cuffs. After all, he'd spent a long week listening to Red Poling singing "Have you driven a Ford lately" in broken Japanese. Why wasn't Wal-Mart's Sam Walton on that trip? Microsoft's Bill Gates? Thinking Machine's Danny Hillis? Intel's Andy Grove? Genentech's Bob Swanson? Fed Ex's Fred Smith? Dell Computer's Michael Dell? CNN's Ted Turner? Bush got what he deserved for taking the Mother of All Malcontents, Lee Iacocca, with him and leaving the job creators home.

There's a lot going on in the U.S., most of it good. Economist Joseph Schumpeter examined the "gales of creative destruction" that renew economies. Or fail to. With new technologies and a shrinking globe, those gales have hardly blown down the house. They've simply shifted our fortunes from tottery Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to vibrant Atlanta.

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