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January 22, 2001From Schadenfreude to Sadness

On May 10, 2000, Dictionary.com put forward "schadenfreude" as the word for the day. We would say that it has been the word for the last six months. The definition, we read, is "a malicious satisfaction in the misfortunes of others," which I suppose is the definition of political discourse inside the Beltway. The dictionary mentions the very fine historian Peter Gay, who, as a young Jewish child in Nazi Berlin, revelled as German after German lost the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics. Gay, apparently, took his glee to be truly "one of the great joys of life."

Schadenfreude is all about seeing scoundrels get their comeuppance. And there have been plenty of scoundrels to go around who have been getting theirs lately. Ray DeVoe, the best writer among the Wall Street gurus, has lately confessed to his huge laughter at seeing all the dotcoms as well as all the young blustery Wall Street callow boys brought low by the stock market. Various fissures in the mirror, be they earnings disappointments or cracks in jet engines, have lately scarred the complexions of almost every major corporation in America. Michael Milken, the junk bond king, has not been able to buy a pardon (not yet anyway), and the teacher unions did not take the White House again.

On January 20, Washington had a misty inauguration, which one commentator likened to an American Impressionist painting. Not to see it all is just as well in the District of Columbia, this being a pretty city filled with undistinguished official architecture that should be obscured by the fog. Surely the mood in the Capital was more like that of Bonn, Vienna, or Berlin, lacking the lightness of the New World.

The new President's address was a fairly simple homily--far from exultant. If anything the mood was sad, the weather providing the correct pathetic fallacy for George Bush's story. We have gone from schadenfreude to sadness.

Schadenfreude, according to some accounts, provides relief from stress, and there never has been so much of that about the land. The stress is so bad we are even having minor earthquakes in New York City, but more about stress on Global Province this week (see Stitch in Time). We have passed to sadness, I suspect, because we now feel the misfortune has becomes ours--no longer the burden of somebody else.

The man for this moment was Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, a wise old bird and fiddler par excellence. He said Clinton should have accomplished so much more. Instead, while the administration twiddled, the land ached and groaned. Just like the pretty Washington of bad architecture, we are now a beautiful nation with a creaking infrastructure, which is breaking down at the end of the Wasted Decade.

So the lights are going out in California--especially in Beverly Hills--just as they are being turned on in Texas, now the second most populous state. Perhaps, however, we are at the end of opportunist politics, which has been a strange mix of Hollywood and Wall Street. Back to the long view down Main Street.

If Y2K was never really a threat, the deterioration of our infrastructure has been a growing, gnawing risk. It presents massive business opportunities, because we have far more to rebuild than our electric plants. The rot runs through all government organizations. But there will be lots of risk as we begin to tackle some of our constitutional arrangements as well as a host of other governing compacts that have outlived their useful life.

We say "rebuilding" the infrastructure but not "restoring" it. Our plant is not only worn out: it's the wrong structure for the global age we have entered. Global economics, for instance, favors lots of small electric generators, not just the few big ones of the monopoly era. Global trade as a percentage of GDP has doubled in the 90s, now counting a lot even in our most provincial areas. Like it or not, this is the Global Age for the U.S. and we have to hitch our wagon to the Global Economy.

That's what Thomas Friedman of The New York Times has written about in his long, repetitive, meandering bestseller, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. While you don't have to read the book, you do have to accept that we are in the global swim, and we have to get ourselves deeper into the sport. Friedman, perhaps wrongly, thinks we are leading the global charge, but we suspect it is Singapore, Finland, Sweden, etc. that are most globalized and are best setting the global agenda.

We are not yet in the Information Age but the Global Age, and we must rejigger ourselves for it. Because of this globalization, it is a sad time for placeholders anywhere--in government, in media, and in several other estates. They want to hold on to yesterday, but it all has to change and change yet more rapidly because of this last, wasted decade. The placeholders, marginalized, will be sent to some sort of psychological Siberia, I guess.

This week, as usual, we received communiques from all about the globe, which only reminded us of all the worlds all of us now live in. From a burgher in Long Island, we received advice to cease our "self-rightous batherings" (his spellings). Long one of the most creative business leaders in the Southwest, another correspondent tell us to keep our ideas "coming along," and says we are in for "a much stiffer set of economic factors" than Greenspan and most of the bankers will "publicly accept at this time." A Netherlander who likes the Global Province points out yet more unnoticed, very innovative ports in the world storm that are not receiving enough attention from the global media. Citizens at large seemingly are becoming globalized at a much faster rate than our politicians, which is most encouraging. The politicians will eventually catch up.

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