The American Opportunity

Tom Peters

This hour brings an almost unprecedented global opportunity. Are our leaders and would-be leaders up to it? Here’s Part 2 of my election-year fantasy.

1. Maintain a strong defense. The end of history it ain’t. Mindless defense cutbacks that mimic the past are a mistake. On the other hand, force restructuring provides a marvelous opportunity to examine military effectiveness. Organizations like Business Executives for National Security (with members such as former IBM Chairman Tom Watson Jr.) argue for dramatic pro-competitive shifts in procurement policy that could give us plenty of bang for a lot fewer bucks.

2. Take advantage of “good” regulation. Regulation can spur economic growth! Draconian environmental standards can make us, like Germany, leaders in the burgeoning environmental-products and services market. (Not even information technology is growing faster.) More stringent product-safety standards lead to more competitive, high-quality products fit for the increasingly standards-conscious, global marketplace. Getting behind the spirit as well as the particulars of the new Americans with Disabilities Act will allow us to tap a long underutilized, extraordinarily energetic part of the work force.

3. Conserve! Our waste of resources is disgraceful. Incentives to conserve, not tax breaks for drilling the Arctic tundra, will reap gargantuan, long-term economic benefits. Begin with a five-year move to an added dollar-a-gallon gas tax.

4. Spur inner-city economic development. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp is our most articulate advocate creating economic opportunity in the distraught and dangerous inner cities. We should act on what he says. Fast.

5. Strike a new budget deal, and stick to it. A balanced budget amendment and line-item budget-veto authority for the President have always seemed extreme. But now I wonder. After all, California has long prospered with the line-item veto—and it’s hardly turned governors into emperors. Columnist George Will says we’ve gone from “tax and spend” Democrats to “borrow and spend” Republicans in the White House. He’s right, and a pox on both their houses.

6. Curb the drug war’s fearful excesses. A federal warden says that if our prison population continues to grow at the current rate, half of us will be in the slammer by 2050! It sounds funny, but it’s no joke. We can’t jail everyone. (More than a million of us are behind bars already.) And our military has no business chasing coca planters in Latin America. The answer is clear: the politically incorrect L-word. Legalization of marijuana, for starters.

7. Embrace immigrants. The matchless energy of Southern California, and Silicon Valley, is due in large measure to immigrant energy—e.g., over 10,000 immigrant
engineers in Silicon Valley. Immigrants, in short, bring many more solutions than problems. They are arguably America’s chief source of renewal and vitality.

8. Keep pressing for civil rights. The 1960s was a turbulent, terrifying decade. But when I think back on my childhood in Annapolis, Md. (with “Colored” and “White” toilets at the local service station), I am most proud as an American of the strides we’ve made in civil rights. We are a much healthier country in 1992 than in 1952 as a result. Let’s not stand idly by while the clock is turned back by reactionary courts.

And for heaven’s sake, dust off the Equal Rights Amendment. It is absurd—and sickening—that women do not have total equality guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

9. Buy quality. To make the U.S. more competitive, we need to push our producers harder to make the best products in the world. The only way to do that, as consumers, is to insist on—and purchase—the best at any given price level. Whether the producer’s factory is in Delhi, Bangkok, Osaka, or Gary, Ind., is immaterial. And forget the idea that less expensive foreign goods result from below-cost dumping. It’s baloney: For starters, read James Bovard’s The Far Trade Fraud on the inanity of almost all dumping charges.

10. Take the moral high road! Politics is good stuff, all-American. Elections have always been marked by expediency. On the other hand, I yearn for one more leader in my lifetime who will inspire me. I have never been so ashamed to be an American as when Sen. Ernest Hollings of South Carolina told his disgusting Hiroshima “joke.” It was bad enough that workers clapped, much worse that a respected member of the U.S. Senate—not rabid David Duke—uttered the joke in the first place. Hollings should be removed from office, then tarred and feathered. (I hereby volunteer to heat the tar.) But did you hear a single presidential candidate at the time, only four days before the South Carolina primary, say anything about Hollings’ remark? I didn’t.

I never thought I’d sing in praise of a cigarette company. But the same week that Hollings disgorged his racist bile, RJR Nabisco announced an enormously progressive plan supporting a college education for workers’ children. Hats off to Chairman Lou Gerstner.

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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