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Whither the economy?

April 14, 1985|Don G. Campbell | Campbell is a Times staff writer and author. and

WHAT'S AHEAD . . . THE U.S. ECONOMY by Edward Boorstein (International: $15, hardcover; $5.95, paperback; 229 pp.)

FUTURE RICH by Jacqueline Thompson (Morrow: $17.95; 384 pp.)

Spell it "murky," as in a clouded crystal ball . . . or "mixed," as in tea leaves scattered in disarray . . . but the future spreads out in front of us--a dark tunnel where both the shadows and our own poor eyesight make many economic projections "iffy" under the most charitable of definitions.

One would be hard-pressed to find two futurists with such widely disparate views of what lies down that tunnel than in economist Edward Boorstein's almost classically socialistic polemic, "What's Ahead . . . The U.S. Economy," and popular business writer Jacqueline Thompson's strictly upbeat "Future Rich," which bears the wordy subtitle: "The People, Companies and Industries Creating America's Next Fortunes."

What Boorstein sees at the mouth of that futuristic tunnel, predictably, is sheer, unmitigated economic disaster because "We are dealing with an anarchic, capitalist economy which resists control." But under the sort of "control" that Boorstein envisions, of course, none of this need be.

Not since our own college days of groping for political and economic understanding have we seen the names of Marx, Lenin and Engels so tiresomely dragged out, over and over again, as sources of the Ultimate Truth. Equally predictable: Every American President of the century has been an economic buffoon, with only Franklin Delano Roosevelt getting halfway passing marks--grudgingly, because the man was unforgivably timid.

Are there any elements of surprise in the fact that Boorstein--whose background includes 3 1/2 years as economic assistant to Che Guevara and another tour of duty as economic adviser to the minister of foreign trade in Allende's Chile--finds America's salvation in a virtual halt to all defense spending, nationalization of key industries and massive national work programs? Is spaghetti stringy?

If Boorstein's view of America's economic-life-as-a-doughnut centers entirely on the hole in that doughnut, Thompson's equally fervent concentration on the fatty dough surrounding that hole is sometimes as excessively "Gee whillikers!" as Boorstein's is gloomy.

Just who are the "Future Rich" in Thompson's eyes? No big surprises here--they're essentially the same generally young entrepreneurs, or their still-to-be-discovered look-alikes, who have made it big in recent years in such glamour industries as biotechnology, computers, communications, electronics entertainment, the Space Age and robotics.

If Boorstein tends to be overly simplistic in his negatives (scrap the system), Thompson tends to be a bit overly simplistic in her positives. All very well to know that vast fortunes await you in the next few years by producing a practical piece of computer software that will turn a computer keyboard into an instant multilingual interpreter. But what if you've been trained in the wholesale meat business?

Nevertheless, the author of the earlier "The Very Rich Book" has written an eminently readable and engrossing work, rich in anecdotes, about a fascinating, ongoing economic and social revolution and the absorbing cast of characters who are still shaping it--men and women whose careers and life goals were changed by hard work, bursts of genius, being in the right place at the right time or by quirky twists of fate.

What are the elements that produced a success like the Apple computer and a belly-whopper like Osborne, although both started essentially neck and neck? What chemical composition goes into the makeup of someone like Paul G. Allen, a teen-ager when he teamed up with a high school buddy and, still in college, formed Microsoft, now vying for top spot in the software industry?

An engrossing addendum to Thompson's "Future Rich" is a brief biographical rundown of 300 candidates whom, she predicts, will be the "Richest American Entrepreneurs in the year 2000." And a surprising percentage of them, in the year 2000, will still be in their 40s and 50s.

While many of these entrepreneurs (and let's trust that Thompson's nomination of them isn't a kiss of death) are already rich by your, and my, standards, they have yet to scratch the surface of their potential in the author's eyes--she defines "rich" in the year 2000 as anyone with a minimum net worth of $74.3 million.

Who are these people? For most of us, there's a virtual absence of name recognition, and even in those small spheres of specialized interests where most of them toil, their names are a long way from being household words. Who among us would recognize Joel Billings of Mountain View, Calif., on the street, for instance?

Quietly, though, Billings has a very lucrative computer software business going that is a logical extension of his interests as a history buff: As Strategic Simulations Inc., the youthful Billings (he's 28), publishes a line of such complex military games for the computer as Computer Bismarck, Campaigns of Napoleon and Pursuit of the Graf Spee--games that may take hard-core history/battle fans anywhere from six to 60 hours to play.

While socialist Boorstein sees the current industrial revolution as an unwinnable class struggle brought about by decades of capitalistic blundering, Thompson sees it as an exciting explosion of new technologies where the promise of the future beggars anything previously seen in the American economy.

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