Sacrifice, Perpetual Motion, and the Boys of GM

LEECHES, short black ribbons, slithered among the cattails in the warm, shallower swimming holes. Power shovels rusted like dinosaurs at the margins of the deeper swimming holes, gravel pits fed by chilly springs.

Just after World War II, we boys would ride our bikes out Mound Road into the Detroit hinterlands that were then under development, huge parcel by parcel, for factories and centers of the expanding auto industry.

The General Motors Tech Center now spreads across one of our favorite swimming holes. The GM brass, we are told, is spending more time there in the flat utilitarian environs and less time at their wood-paneled downtown headquarters. Relative informality is coming to GM in the wake of tremendous losses and amid gargantuan efforts to acquire the nimbleness needed for today's international competition.

The White House and Cabinet agencies also are democratizing, we are told. How indignant were the new arrivals on discovering their predecessors' perks! Executive dining rooms are being closed or hired out to caterers, or are starting to charge prices closer to true costs. Even the White House mess is to be opened to less-than-elite staffers - of whom there will be 25 percent fewer after the presidential ax falls.

Here there is some irony. A president who wants to create jobs cuts a swath through the staff closest to him.

GM's shrinking-down for competitive reasons and the executive branch's staff-trimming for political reasons are part of a vast leveling of the workplace that translates directly into sacrifice by the workforce. Salaries are flat, entry opportunities few.

The "sacrifice" that President Clinton has begun to ask for as the hallmark of his presidency is already familiar to the American people. His anticipated program of a half trillion dollars in spending cuts and tax hikes will come on top of some years of sacrifice to pay for the spending, and the interest on the spending, of the '80s. Americans sacrificed to fund the savings and loan bailout. They've funded the military - which, as Gen. Colin Powell points out, may not be that bad an investment, for emplo yment as for other reasons. Tax bites from citizen paychecks pay the interest on the federal debt. And it's regular folks' jobs - including the waiting and cooking in Washington's messes - that are being cut.

Surveys show that about half the public say they are amenable to "sacrifice" as a general idea, but only a third like the idea when it is attached to something specific like a gasoline tax. This pattern is familiar.

It wasn't the public's idea a decade ago to try the supply-side experiment and cut taxes while increasing spending on defense, in the hope that the economy would grow fast enough to offset the lost revenue with fresh revenue. Fuel for the promised fiscal perpetual-motion machine turned out to be standard octane debt.

To those holding them, jobs are jobs. To suggest that General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler are somehow newcomers to the rigorous world of international competition is hard to understand. They've been out there in world trade for many decades. The auto companies have always had a heartless side. They paid revolutionary wages while trying to stomp on union organizing. When the auto companies led the business cycle downward, layoffs benefits in the service industries failed to match those of the main companie s. Detroit may not mind passing the recession leadership to the electronics industry.

It's not so much sacrifice that's needed as a restlessness for better ideas. If the emptying of executive dining halls means that leaders are busy working with teams to design better performance models, that's fine. Perks are passe. The current phase of organizational leadership requires executives who are drawn to the thick of things as informed sponsors of perpetual change.

That GM's executives should repair to our old swimming hole, now disguised as the tech center's reflecting pool, seems right for these times.

Corporate America and our government can look after themselves. It's schools that leave children uninspired, communities that require shelters and food banks, and a fatuous, soulless entertainment industry that we should sacrifice to address.

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