Time for a `We Decade'

THE 1980s were called the ``me decade,'' an era of selfishness some associated with the Reagan tax cuts, reduced growth in government spending on social programs, the defense buildup, the rise of ``yuppiedom,'' and scandals on Wall Street. At the turn of the century, how will we look back upon the 1990s? Here are some trends to look for:

1.Emergence of the East bloc. The crumbling of the Berlin Wall and similar events throughout Eastern Europe bring important economic opportunities. We can't expect mature consumer markets there comparable to Western Europe, Japan, and America in the near future. Czechs, Poles, and East Germans are just getting started. But Eastern Europeans do have one important resource to offer: cheap labor. Companies in both the West and the Far East who manage to avail themselves of that resource will enjoy a major advantage in the decade ahead.

2.The politics of peace. Declining defense expenditures as the outlook for freedom becomes brighter in Eastern Europe may produce a ``peace dividend.'' But what about this trend's political consequences here at home? Unemployment in defense-contracting areas like California could soar, altering political fortunes overnight. Certain special interests might substantially moderate their demands upon government. Combined with redistricting after the 1990 census, the new climate could have dramatic effects on the makeup of Congress.

3.Japan-USSR cooperation. The Soviet Union remains desperate for hard currency, and Japan has plenty. In addition to cash, Japan can offer the Soviet Union high technology and training. And what might Japan be looking for in return? For one thing, inexpensive labor. For another, natural resources. Japan imports 92 percent of its overall energy needs and 100 percent of its oil; the Soviets are awash in oil.

4.A Japanese labor movement. It isn't just the leaders of Japan who feel they deserve a reward for that nation's massive accomplishments since the war. So do its workers. Look for Japanese factory workers to voice their concerns - loudly - over the next 10 years.

5.Decreasing mobility. Rising airline fares mean that getting around to do business will cost more for big and small enterprises alike. That's a potential drag on the economy and, with it, job opportunities. Impeded travel poses the threat of a damaging parochialism, too. Tourism will become more expensive - reducing our exposure to distant parts of the US, and to foreign nations, their cultures and customs.

6.Xenophobia. The era of competitive pressure ahead isn't likely to make Americans feel very kindly toward the people they perceive to be the ``winners'' in the global economic battle, especially if expensive travel puts a damper on international cooperation and understanding. The potential for a trade war is high and rising. And the impetus won't be coming solely from big labor as it has in the past; it will spring from the grass-roots level.

News reports about the sale of Columbia Pictures and Rockefeller Center to Japanese investors were heavily laden with a ``they're-taking-us-over'' tone. One crystallizing event might occur over US government debt demands, increasingly absorbed by Japanese and West German investors. Should they balk, the popular repercussions might make owning a Toyota or a BMW tantamount to an act of treason. Especially dire conditions might put unusual stresses upon our multi-ethnic social contract.

7.A decline in real estate values. If you thought the S&L crisis was bad, watch out. Many other financial institutions whose balance sheets are in worse condition than they were at the beginning of the 1980s - thanks to foreign loans, imprudent investments, and heavy exposure to the oil industry - will be in weak shape to deal with the major decline in real estate prices foreseeable for the 1990s. This is especially true in the Northeast, where runaway growth in both residential and commercial values was the rule for most of the past decade. In metropolitan New York, where the stock-market crashes of October 1987 and October 1989 led to significant cutbacks in the financial-services industry, a nosedive in property values, already soft, could be disastrous to that economy, with rippling effects.

8.End of cradle-to-grave welfare. The 1990s should be an era of intense global economic competition, particularly given the prospects of the unified European market scheduled for 1992. Consciousness of bloated government spending as an economic overhead that must be kept in check will rise. Forget a return to ``Great Society'' policymaking. Businesses will become ``leaner and meaner,'' too. Employees will be called upon to assume greater responsibility for medical, dental, and pension benefits.

9.Legalization of drugs. Once scorned, the idea is picking up establishment advocates. And if austerity is the theme of the 1990s, where will popular support for expensive ``drug wars'' come from? The public will demand an end to this expensive, failing crusade, and the laws will eventually give way. As the profit margins of illegal dealing collapse under decriminalization, the drug cartels will wane.

10.America will survive. History suggests that the American people are a persevering lot. We have managed to come together, especially under circumstances of duress. Much of this tradition stems from an abiding respect for a government that defends the freedom of its citizens to determine and provide for their own needs.

The ``me decade'' is over. The ``we decade'' is beginning. It won't be a time when we can do everything, but, working together, we will do what we can.

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