A Millennial Agenda

Tom Peters

This presidential race might—and the next almost surely will—result in election of the first chief magistrate born after World War II. Couple that with the new world order (demise of the Soviet Union, rise of new economic powers) and you have a matchless opportunity to redefine American purpose. Energetic enterprise is the centerpiece of an energetic nation, so I’ll ante my two cents into the redefinition pot: This week and next I’ll offer my ideal candidate’s platform.

1. Help the former Soviet Union (et. al). We are the world’s only superpower. Our moral fiber—and our nukes—paved the way for the astonishing world move toward democracy. Now our leaders, left and right, are running from a once-a-century chance to shape the peace.

Richard Nixon slammed the Bush administration for virtually abandoning Yeltsin’s Russia. “Who lost Russia?,” Nixon fears, could become the 1990s’ equivalent to the 1950s’ “Who lost China?”

Budget deficit or not, it is simply unconscionable for us to turn inward and miserly at this defining moment. The state of the world depends on timely, generous leadership by the filthy-rich (relatively) U.S.

2. March for free markets. It’s sad to see Vermont farmers marching against sensible U.S. initiatives aimed at concluding a new General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs. GATT is the bedrock of postwar free trade expansion. Little is more important to long-term stability than opening up markets. It’s essential to Spain, Malaysia—and the U.S.A.

As it is, we have turned dangerously protectionist in the last decade. Our sins are laid out in gory detail by James Bovard in the book The Fair Trade Fraud: How Congress Pillages the Consumer and Decimates American Competitiveness. Fair trade means that “Mexico may sell Americans only 35,292 bras a year,” Bovard writes; it means “permitting each American citizen to consume the equivalent of only one teaspoon of foreign ice cream per year (and) two foreign peanuts per year. … Fair trade means that the U.S. Congress can dictate more than 8,000 different taxes on imports, with tariffs as high as 458 percent.”

Protectionist rhetoric, always election-year fare, is struggling, is frightfully misguided, whether coming from presidential aspirants, Vermont’s parading farmers, or silicon Valley’s paranoid semiconductor producers.

3. Make a deal with Mexico! A recent Business Week cover story on Mexico’s starring role in reviving North America’s automobile industry almost brought tears to my eyes. Young, flexible, well-trained Mexican workers just took top quality honors among GM plants. The U.S. is stronger when Mexico is stronger, the United Autoworkers’ reactionary blather not withstanding. This is a wondrous, fragile moment for Mexico and its bold youthful leaders. We can help them, and us, with decisive forward-looking action. Now.

4. Stop misguided farm aid. Political satirist P.J. O’Rourke calls it “manuregate”—and says it’s far worse than the Pentagon’s most wretched excess. Our Department of Agriculture, he points out, has one employee for every three full-time farms. And what are they up to? Administrating such gems as the Federal Wool and Mohair Program, which, the Government Accounting Office reports, was established in 1954 “to encourage domestic wool production in the interest of national security.” Honest!

“I guess back in the ’50s there was this military school of thought that held that in the event of a Soviet attack we could confuse and disorient the enemy by throwing blankets over their heads,” O’Rourke writes in his book Parliament of Whores. From 1955 to 1980, he continues, “$1.1 billion was spent on wool and mohair price supports, with 80 percent of that money going to a mere six thousand shepherds and … moherds. This is $146,400 per Bo Peep. And, let me tell you, she didn’t lose those sheep. They’re off at boarding school in Switzerland.” Enough.

5. Train, train, train. As so many have said, the age of human capital is here. We’ll succeed economically only if our work force is well educated and well trained. Massive tax credits for corporations and individuals ought to be aimed at worker-skill upgrading of every sort. Worker training should assume the same luster and priority in the 1990s that sending a man to the moon did in the 1960s.

Within the K-12 system, there are no panaceas, but local autonomy, achieved through parental choice and other mechanisms, is key. We must tame grotesque administrative excess (i.e., can 90 percent of school bureaucrats), and let accountable teachers and accountable principals get on with running our schools.

6. Beef up entrepreneurial incentives. We must spur savings and investment any way we can. To wit: compelling tax incentives for individuals to save, substantially increased R&D tax credits, zero capital gains taxes on productive long-term holdings (i.e., almost anything except real estate and art).

7. Ram the market into healthcare. Until the average employed citizen has a palpable financial stake in his or her own care, health spending will mushroom. Allow forceful incentives and genuine competition to reshape the health-delivery sector, while at the same time providing basic insurance for the 40-odd million Americans without it.

Stay tuned for the rest of my election-year prayer.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

All rights reserved.