WASHINGTON — Washington -- A STRANGE thing happened on the road to the collapse of a major power in American capitalism. General Motors Chairman Robert C. Stempel, even as he announced the virtual gutting of his once-powerful company, gave his panacea for the future.
Speaking to unbelieving employees via satellite on closed-circuit television, Stempel said that GM, once the greatest automotive company in the world, would now "run its business in an increasingly lean and mean . . . manner."
A similar thing happened on the road to "competing" with the Japanese. President George Bush, under severe pressure to do something about the sick American economy, announced that his upcoming 12-day tour to Japan and the Pacific would be a "crusade" to pressure Japan into lowering trade barriers.
Meanwhile, congressional leaders were considering restricting imports, particularly from Japan, with whom the United States has a trade deficit of nearly $50 billion.
Another odd thing revealed the new realities of power in the world. U.S. newspapers' responses to Germany's announcement that it would recognize Croatia as an independent state were mostly hostile and angry. "How dare Germany flex its economic muscle?" was the sense of most commentaries.
The extent to which all of these responses are linked is what spells out the real danger in America today. It is not even primarily that a great company like General Motors is cutting 74,000 jobs and 21 plants. The real danger is that its chairman still doesn't know why.
The problem with the president's trip to the hard-working, prospering and meticulously planning Far East is not that he is awarding too much attention to foreign policy. It is that he is bringing the wrong message to it. And the real insult of the rising power of Germany is that it deserves that power because the Germans, too, have worked and planned for it, while we have not.
Finally, because virtually none of our popular public officials have been willing to go to the core of our economic problems, the panaceas being offered are almost always futile ones.
A "lean, mean" answer to the economy? What could be genuinely meaner than the ways in which our corporate executives, with their multi-million dollar salaries, have positioned so far behind Japan? What could be more cruel than the manner in which they have allowed all the modern wonders developed here -- automobiles, televisions, VCRs -- to gravitate to the Japanese economy, where corporate executives get lower salaries and excel at patient investment and long-term planning?
Equally, what could be more embarrassing to a proud American worker (or a journalist, like this one) than to see an American president ostentatiously haul more than 20 American business executives on the trip to Japan to scold the Japanese for their "sins," when it is those executives who should be confessing? (The Japanese, after all, did not steal the 40 percent of the world automotive industry that they now control; they worked, planned and saved better.)
Finally, isn't it simply decent to acknowledge that every economic power in the world has the right to reasonably flex its muscle in its own geopolitical interest?
Far from progressing through "meanness," both the Japanese and the German economies have soared because both their industries and their countries have maintained a community of spirit and of personal interest.
The inner sickness of America today is not that we have met this "economic" hole in the road, but that we fail or refuse to deal with it. It is as if we had lost our common sense, or no longer were in touch with that historic memory that the best of people know they can call upon in times of trouble.
We could have hope, even now, if the industrial leaders who have brought us where we are today would only forget the juvenile nonsense about all that "lean" and "mean" stuff, and tell how industry must change.
We could have hope if our political leaders would be honest with us and tell us just exactly why the Japanese and the Germans are so far ahead.
But they aren't doing that. And so we blame those others, those nincompoops who learned from us and now do things the way we used to do them.