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Not Just for Wimps

October 25, 1987

Just before the stock market crashed, Forbes magazine announced that the number of billionaires in American had doubled in the past year. Just before the stock market crashed, Shasta County, Calif., closed its entire 10-branch library system for lack of money.

Is there any question that something had gone askew in America?

During the past year, the combined net worth of Forbes' 400 richest Americans increased by $64 billion to $220 billion. Shasta County, population 116,000, lost its library for want of $5 million.

What had happened to American priorities? What sort of country was it that encouraged everyone to get his in his own way, but in which a community public library could be allowed to die?

On these pages several days ago columnist David S. Broder used ersatz pro football games and a World Series in a plastic dome as metaphors for a decline in American standards. But metaphors abound everywhere. They do not all directly apply to the stock market crash, but the Forbes' 400 and the Shasta County library certainly are symbols of an attitude that led bull-market euphoria to run amok in pursuit of the smart money, and blithely ignored the prospects for its fall.

It may have been Morning in America in 1984, but the nation just got the wake-up call.

Experts will debate for years the possible triggers of the stock market crash. Some may insist, as President Reagan did on Black Monday when bodies still were thumping to the floor of the Stock Exchange, that the American economy was sound and that there was no real reason for the crash. This defiance of logic results from the same sort of thinking that ascribes to The Market a mystical life of its own. The Market does nothing on its own, even when computerized. Responsibility cannot be ducked by blaming it on The Market.

A sound economy? Well, some of the indicators seemed to look pretty good. But a sound economy is not built on the reckless compilation of record trade debt, record federal budget debt and record American consumer debt. A sound nation is not built on an economic theory that anything goes so long as the government does not mess in the business of America and the next quarterly report looks good. A sound sense of values does not stem from a government that mostly winks at the violation of rules of ethics and conflict-of-interest law, whether on Wall Street or in government itself; not from corporate raiders who slink from one junk-bond takeover to another exacting greenmail or worse, and not from managers who fashion golden parachutes for themselves and mumble, "I've got mine . . . ."

This was the crew that brought American management wisdom to Washington to clear out the old New Deal cobwebs from the bureaucracy. Cut taxes and more money will come in. Cut government regulation and everyone will gain. Stop worrying about pain and sacrifice and paying the piper. That stuff is for second-raters and wimps. Hey, this is America. Get government off their backs and Americans can do anything. Let the marketplace work its will.

Well, it certainly did that. Now the task is to put America aright again, from the bottom up. Perhaps one place to start would be the Shasta County library.

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