Scared New World

VIRGINIA I. POSTREL

October 13, 1993|By VIRGINIA I. POSTREL

This year marks the centennial of the Columbia Exposition, thegreat fair that brought the world to Chicago. In 1893, 28 million visitors wandered through its classically inspired buildings, sampling oranges at the California exhibit and iced cocoa at the Java Village, riding the first Ferris Wheel (which took 40-person cars 264 feet in the air), marveling at the moving pictures of Thomas Edison's new kinetoscope.

The fair was a tribute to world cultures, technological progress and material abundance. It captured the spirit of its age.

But history looks different when you're living through it. Then, as now, progress was not uniformly benevolent. 1893 was a year not unlike 1993, a time of worldwide recession and long-term economic restructuring.

Farmers, in particular, resented the Columbia Exposition's display of wealth and optimism. For them, abundance meant not oranges and kinetoscopes but falling crop prices and an uncertain future. The Farmer's Alliance in Gillespie County, Texas, resolved to ask that the fair's organizers ''let the world of pleasure, leisure, and Style see the men and women in their jeans, faded calicoes, cotton-checks who by their labor and handicraft have made it possible for such an Exhibit. Let the Farmer's cabin, the miner's shanty and the tenement of factory hands be beside those magnificent buildings which represent the State of the Nation.''

In 1893, the farmers' request, and the resentment and anxiety behind it, went mostly unheeded. In 1993, similar sentiments have thrown the country -- or at least the opinion makers who define the spirit of our age -- into an anxiety attack over jobs.

We hear the voices of those 19th-century farmers in Ross Perot's cry to ''Save Your Job, Save Our Country'' by rejecting free trade with Mexico. They echo in the letter to the editor of The Atlantic that declared, ''Wal-Mart is the embodiment of the excessive greed of the Eighties and the horrendous devastation that has been its byproduct.'' They murmur throughout Robert Reich's ''The Work of Nations,'' whispering not of ''the world of pleasure'' versus ''labor and handicraft'' but of ''symbolic analysts'' versus ''routine producers'' and ''in-person servers.''

The mass-production revolution traded the independence of farming for the relative security of factory work. Our current ''age of discontinuity,'' in Peter Drucker's prescient phrase, reverses that flow. Technological change, global competition, decentralized institutions, and knowledge-based economics have disrupted -- and in some cases destroyed -- the stable organizations and predictable careers born of the very changes that displaced the farmers of 1893.

We've moved from mainframes to laptops, from union members to entrepreneurs, from overtime to flextime, from Ma Bell to Friends and Family. Temporary work, that bane of social critics who long for assembly-line security, has become the safety net for independence-minded people with skills. It allows them to move across country, to quit jobs with near-impunity, to break into new industries.

But today's leaders suggest that economic dynamism is either a natural disaster like the Mississippi floods -- an unstoppable force against which we are powerless -- or a conspiracy of the elite against the masses. The former is the position of most Clintonites, the latter of self-styled populists. In 1993, we see only the faded jeans and calicoes, the tenements and shanties. It is not fashionable to talk about Ferris Wheels and cocoa.

The fashions that dictate a scared new world stem partly from the understandable desire for the products of dynamism without its costs. Politicians who promise utopia, who speak of ''electronic superhighways'' while pretending they can be built without upheaval, only feed resentment on the part of displaced workers who feel they've been conned. Yet talking only of the inevitability of economic change, without mentioning its benefits, drives the fearful into the arms of those who peddle the politics of stasis.

The question no one, least of all Ross Perot, will ask is, What should your country sacrifice to save your job? Consider IBM. In late July, the company said it would eliminate 35,000 jobs by the end of 1994. Since 1986, it has slashed its payroll from more than 400,000 employees to about 250,000.

That's quite a shock. For decades, IBM represented security. Although it required constant upheaval in the personal lives of its organization men -- people joked that the initials stood for ''I've Been Moved'' -- it promised lifetime employment and the prestige of association with a progressive big company.

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