Things are not as bad as you think

ON EXCELLENCE

August 24, 1992|By TOM PETERS | TOM PETERS,1992 TPG COMMUNICATIONS

August is traditionally vacation month, a time for suntans (can we still do that?) and a little rest and relaxation.

Yet as I sit down to write, San Jose, Calif., school system leaders are debating whether to lower high school graduation requirements -- to deal with their hopeless budgetary situation.

What a strange time it is! The "golden state" of California has been reduced to issuing IOUs in the face of a lingering budget impasse. Unemployment in the state is sky high.

President Bush (I write before his convention) is in a free fall at the polls. But the polls, wacky as they seem, reflect our mood: uniquely unstable.

A throwback populist, Ross Perot, came riding in on a white horse, and for a few weeks we all went gaga. And the more he told us how tough our problems were (sacrifice, he said, was a must), the more we cheered. But when his Draconian budget plan started to shape up, he scurried from the race -- in part, he and others say, because he feared we weren't serious about taking the very bitter medicine he offered.

Is this the worst of times? So say Bill Clinton and Al Gore. So said Perot (albeit with an "I can fix it, quick" patina to his message). So say a lot of people in California (one of my homes). And so do a lot of folks in Vermont (my other home).

Yet I can't help thinking it's not so bad. Yes it is criminal that we're too broke to keep schools open or to give the stalled economy an old-fashioned Keynesian spending jolt. And the traffic may be a little thinner in Silicon Valley these days than it was a couple of years ago. But still . . . .

I grin from ear to ear when I think about America's technological might. In industry after industry where it counts (software, telecommunications, biotech -- and maybe even digital high-definition television), we're in exceptional shape. Our entrepreneurs are still entrepreneuring at a pace that makes others shake their head. Our precious research universities, recent bookkeeping scandals notwithstanding, are matchless bedrock -- in an age when brainware is the basis for economic value added.

Beyond technology, the picture has a rosy hue, too. Among other things, we boast most of the world's media giants, sky-high culture exports, and a phenomenally productive service sector (compared to others); and in the new order, media, popular culture, tourism and services in general are industries for the future.

(In fact, our exports overall were going gangbusters, until the rest of the developed economies began to sputter. Even our once dotty steel industry is now world class in all respects. And others think our prospects are still so good that they want to invest big -- e.g., BMW's first out-of-Germany plant is ticketed for Spartanburg, S.C.)

Silicon Valley is, thankfully, loaded with immigrant engineers. American women are at least denting the corporate glass ceiling in numbers that shame the rest of the world. (I expect before too long, they'll be an almost dominant force in politics.) And although crime statistics are dispiriting, community policing in New York, Houston and even Los Angeles represents the first possibility of a genuine public safety breakthrough in decades.

The recession is just plain weird. Reason? Corporate profits are mostly looking up these days. And oddly enough, even lingering unemployment has a silver lining: Big companies are on the rebound -- but many don't plan to start rehiring, even if an expected upturn takes hold. This is actually good news. The fact is, our giant firms were bloated beyond belief.

Now, "thanks" to a lengthy recessionary spur, the blubber is being melted off, and surprisingly quickly. (What we sorely need is enough overall growth, so that those laid off -- many permanently -- can find other work, as they did by the millions in the '80s.)

Economics is -- for good and ill -- about expectations. And many are nervous, which makes me nervous. We (ital) did (end ital) win the Cold War, and our half-century enemy is a pitiful sight these days. (We won more than that: Capitalism, more or less American style, has mushroomed in socialist bastion after bastion in the last half-dozen years.)

Maybe our problem is that we no longer have an enemy! We're worn out from keeping our nuclear spears sharpened, frustrated at the prospect of a no-holds-barred race to hold up our economic oar vs. feisty Japan, Korea, Taiwan and maybe even a feistier, mostly unified Europe.

We won and are facing postpartum depression. The world, as is its want with winners, is tired of us -- yet still insists that we bail it out of any scrape that comes along, from Haiti to Yugoslavia to the Middle East.

There's no cause for giddiness, that's for sure -- not with San Jose paring high school graduation requirements. Not with the blight in the inner cities, the potholes along the interstates, the rust on the bridges that cross our rivers.

But there's little cause for unrelieved gloom either.

When I take stock, I feel pretty good about lots of what I see. Let's not kick too much sand at ourselves as we get in a couple of days at the shore before Labor Day -- and the launch of a new year of enterprise.

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