Away From Home

Tom Peters

One of the best reasons to travel is to get a fresh perspective on one’s own backyard. Here are reflections on a recent 10-day trip to London, Prague, and Amsterdam.

Seminar in London. Things have changed. American businessmen used to be seen as gurus here. Now the attitude is, “By what rights do you Americans think you can tell us anything about management?” The fact is, Silicon Valley, Austin, Portland, and Raleigh-Durham are defining the 21st century. The global market share of U.S.-headquartered firms has been rising smartly for the last decade.

But don’t try to tell Europeans that. Continentals are on an emotional high anticipating the coming of more Euro-integration, though statistically they’re taking a drubbing. Share of world exports from Europe, for example, has shrunk at Japan’s and America’s expense. Nonetheless, America’s longstanding habit of self-criticism has convinced them we’re at death’s door. In fact, I got into a tiff with one German who lambasted Americans for letting manufacturing go. When I explained that U.S. manufacturing as a share of our GNP hadn’t changed in 75 years, save for the four years of our involvement in World War II, he as much as accused me of lying.

Meanwhile, 90 Japanese senior execs attended my London presentation. As usual, whenever I put up a new slide on the big screen behind me, numerous flash cameras would fire at once from the audience. The Japan bashers would call it one more example of us getting ripped off. I say it’s evidence of Japan’s unslakable thirst for new ideas. I wish a few more American flashbulbs would pop!

On to Prague. Czechoslovakia has come so far in two years. And has so much farther to go. Thousands of kiosks with all kinds of baubles for sale dot the streets. None existed 24 months ago. The Czechs have made their currency fully convertible, tamed inflation, and are in the midst of a dramatic: if bumpy privatization program. Remarkable.

On the other hand, production is way down (exports to the rest of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union have dried up) and unemployment is rising. Among other things, the Czechs have been victimized by their own past success. They’ve long been sophisticated manufacturers, so the Soviets forced Czech factories to produce machine tools (high-performance, but low-tech) and weapons. Moscow’s central planners starved the Czech consumer-goods sector. Poland, by contrast, had a lesser reputation for manufacturing, so the Soviets set them to producing consumer goods for the East Bloc—which gives them a big leg up today.

Lots of questions at my Prague seminar might well have been asked by Americans. But some were purely Marxist: “But why do we need so many varieties of food, clothes, software?” (I’d just finished talking about the 13,000 new grocery and drugstore products introduced in the U.S. alone within the last year.) It’s a good question.

I explained that we didn’t “need” a choice of colors from GM 70-odd years ago. And doubtless, when the wheel was invented, early users were scorned as consumerist wimps by their carry-it-on-my-back-til-hell-freezes-over brethren. But differences in individual tastes and the quest for variety have in fact been the primary engines of modernity, freedom, democracy and an overall rising standard of living throughout the centuries.

(As I explained such basics, I got angry that we do such a lousy job of making economics exciting—in our colleges, let alone high schools and grade schools. Yet “dismal” economics invariably take the lead in political dramas. David Duke, for one, is brought to us more by the oil-field depression in Louisiana than by lingering racism. If Louisianians were better off, support for Duke would evaporate overnight.)

I happened to arrive in the Netherlands at the same time as all of Europe’s heads of government. As I lectured in Amsterdam, they remade the world in nearby Maastricht. It was nifty just to be so close when it happened.

Economic, social, and political union of 340-million people, despite Britain’s foot-dragging, took a dramatic leap forward. The changes have been 46 years in the making, and President Harry Truman and U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall deserve more credit than German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In any event, it’s astounding to see how little attention we’re paying. Europe won’t be remade overnight, but the mechanisms are now firmly in place for a quiet revolution.

Church bells toll in Prague. Dozens of people crowd around a street vendor selling a hand-powered veggie slicer. Hurrah! European stability and prosperity are more likely than ever. Hurrah! (In my lifetime, these most civilized of nations unleashed history’s most uncivil wars plus the Holocaust.) The bread lines grow in Moscow, and there’s still a remote chance that 27,000 nuclear warheads could end up on the loose. Yikes! Meanwhile, the Japanese flashbulbs keep popping.

Who would have imagined that on the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor’s bombing, I would have watched a rerun of Tora! Tora! Tora! on a Japanese-made television in a stylish, pricey hotel room in free Czechoslovakia? By the way, it was dubbed in German.

Peace on earth. Good will to humankind.

(C) 1991 TPG Communications.

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