An Optimistic But Challenging Look at America’s Options

Tom Peters

Bored by Lee Iacocca's latest round of Japan-bashing? Tired of Chicago professor Allan Bloom's nagging us to read the Western classics? Had enough of Paul Kennedy's theories of inexorable American decline? Confused by macroeconomists' debate about what Reaganomics really was—something new (that either worked or didn't), or just Keynesian deficit spending in a new cloak?

If you answer "yes" to some or all of these questions, I heartily recommend Joel Kotkin and Yoriko Kishimoto's new book, The Third Century: America's Renaissance in the Asian Era. Kotkin, Inc. magazine's West Coast editor, and management consultant Kishimoto have written a startlingly original and sweeping treatise on American economic and social alternatives. For 10 and 20 years, respectively, Kotkin and Kishimoto have been prowling the Asian nations. They've button-holed Red Guards-turned-entrepreneurs in Beijing, Asian immigrants starring in the Orange County, Calif., entrepreneurial drama and business and government officials from Miami to Seoul to Tokyo.

The book sets an imposing agenda: "To succeed in its Third Century, the United States must engineer a radical reappraisal of its world view. The moment approaches when the future must be confronted or forever lost. ... The United States confronts unprecedented questions concerning its essential character, its mission as a nation and ultimate destiny. Until this decade, Americans comfortably identified themselves as the vanguard of a European-based Western civilization that since the 1600s imposed its will on all the other peoples of the world. Today that once supreme confidence in the superiority of the West no longer fits reality."

The authors make these points: (1) America's potential to adapt to altered circumstances is best measured by our recent spurt of entrepreneurialism. (2) To attain any new age of greatness, we need the entrepreneurial spirit of the most vital wave of immigrants in a hundred years, the Asians and Hispanics. (3) We are indeed entering the Pacific Century and should act accordingly, in economic, social, and political affairs. (4) Forget Europe—the opening of markets across that continent in 1992 will not transform its non-entrepreneurial economies. (5) Japan has big-league structural problems: lingering xenophobia, a noticeable absence of entrepreneurs, serious new mass-market competition from Korea and other countries, and stubbornly mercantilist policies with which all developed countries have lost patience. (6) A new American age could be ours if we acknowledge all of the above and create a new sort of American corporation, combining the best of our entrepreneurial (not Fortune 500) behavior with more Asian-like approaches to people and relationships.

Kotkin and Kishimoto's outlook is cautiously optimistic. While the book extols American entrepreneurship, it is not a one-dimensional tribute to capitalism. The authors admire entrepreneurial vigor, but insist that it must be blended with more humanistic values of the type observed in Asia. They examine a new kind of enterprise, epitomized by upstarts such as AST Research, an Orange County, Calif., computer firm started by Asian-American entrepreneurs.

The authors' most original analyses concern Japan and our new wave of immigrants. For example, Kotkin and Kishimoto contend that Japan is not fully embracing the next stage of required development: "As the nation enters the 1990s, Japanese industry finds itself caught in a desperate vice, too expensive to compete with the low-cost Newly Industrialized Countries [Taiwan, Korea, Hong Kong, et al.] in mass manufacturing, while lacking the dynamic new growth companies ... capable of producing the necessary new innovations and technological breakthroughs." Kotkin and Kishimoto add that the Japanese are nervous about the future: " ... despite its phenomenal economic achievements and the accolades of their American admirers, [many Japanese] now realize that the mercantilist system has become destructive to their nation's future. And they fear that, unless radical changes are implemented soon, Japan may be about to begin its long descent from its current position of predominance.

Such an assessment of Japan may be too gloomy. But it is certainly plausible, and a thoughtful alternative to the mindless perfection which too many Americans attribute to Japan's corporate structure.

Kotkin and Kishimoto propose that the new wave of immigrants from India, China, and Southeast Asia "provides the nation with unprecedented social, cultural, and economic ties to most of the ascendant nations of Asia. Through their complex interactions with the rest of American society, these newcomers can also help shift the nation a from its traditional European moorings toward more multi-racial and multi-cultural identity." The authors also note that "perhaps the most spectacular economic benefits come from the immigrants' own entrepreneurial energy." They offer a plethora of evidence, examining, for example, the Asian and Hispanic impact on California and Florida in great detail.

The Third Century is not without faults. Kotkin and Kishimoto dismiss the Fortune 500 out of hand. And they provide no realistic road map for getting from here to there—for addressing, for instance, our current pro-big business, anti-Asian biases. Nonetheless, the book is a pearl. It adds a vital novel element to the great debate over America's future, with well-documented analyses and thoughtful reflection on the deep-seated philosophies that might, indeed, form the basis of a true American renaissance.

(c)TPG Communications.

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