Dinosaur Images and the Need for Change

HOWARD KLEINBERG

January 24, 1993|By HOWARD KLEINBERG

MIAMI — Miami.-- In the spring of 1991, we bought a single share of IBM stock for our grandson as a ninth birthday gift.

The purpose was to introduce him to the world of investment, to give him something he could watch grow as he grows. At the time, a single share of IBM stock was valued at $112.

For his 10th birthday, the lesson having blown up in our faces, we bought him a catcher's mitt.

In a way, the continuing predicament at Big Blue -- its inability to see the need for change -- parallels what has been happening in our halls of government and throughout the land.

That is what Bill Clinton carped most about during the 1992 campaign and as recently as his inaugural speech Wednesday.

Historically sound IBM has been nearly nibbled to death by pygmies.

With its corporate feet embedded in concrete for the last decade or so, the computer giant has allowed smaller, more flexible companies to eat away at its share of the market to a point where IBM is fast becoming just another computer company adrift in a sea of massive competition.

Just as shortsighted was much of the analytical community, which saw IBM's slide as momentary. As an example, Standard and Poor's "The Outlook" advised in December 1991 that it believed IBM had turned the corner. "Investors should take advantage of this price weakness," it suggested when IBM was down to $85, "to accumulate these shares for significant capital gains and growing income dividend."

Speculators who followed that advice obviously were few in number; IBM stock has dipped by half again, to 46 7/8 by inauguration day, and who knows where lies the bottom?

Analysts now talk of IBM's rigidity, its failure to see beyond its own board room. The news is hard: IBM lost $4.96 billion in 1992, the largest loss in U.S. corporate history, and there appears to be no letup in the slide.

The people at the top of IBM, or those who succeed them, will have to reinvent or retool IBM just as the new representatives we have sent to Washington, D.C., and to state capitals in this long season of dramatic political change will have to reshape their cries for change into tangible results.

Much of what we have allowed to happen to us -- budget deficits, negative balance of trade, crime, homelessness, decline the classroom, drugs, soaring health costs -- has come about because of our own rigidity and lack of foresight. We have failed to see the consequences of our personal, corporate and governmental selfishness, ignorance and obstinacy.

When Bill Clinton claimed in his inaugural speech that "we pledge that the era of deadlock and drift is over -- a new season of American renewal has begun," one would hope that he was speaking for more than himself.

The message read to us on the Capitol steps by poet Maya Angelou probably will be lost on persons who did not pay attention or who failed to translate the symbolism. She wrote of dinosaurs and of mastodons; of need to change with new resolve:

"History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, and if faced with courage, need not be lived again."

Her words were idealistic, a term not held in high regard by the dinosaurs and mastodons who have run our government and our corporations. But at times such as now, "idealistic" and "pragmatic" are words with the same value.

There is a reality facing this nation just as it faces IBM: change or lose it all. If not for ourselves, then for the representative sake of an American 10-year-old -- his asset for the future greatly devalued by the stagnancy of contemporary dinosaurs.

Howard Kleinberg is a columnist for Cox News Service.

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