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May 6, 2002—Idea Light and Boston Heavy

Oberoi Dicta.  Mr. Mohan Singh Oberoi, hotelier extraordinaire, passed away last week, having created some pre-eminent Asian hostelries.  According to the Times, he was fond of saying, "You think of money and you cannot do the right thing.…  But money will always come once you do the right thing, so the effort should be to do the right thing."  Obviously it would have been worth knowing this inkeeper, and we have a few more words about him under Wit and Wisdom this week.

Mostly Outside; No Inside.  A few weeks ago we commented that San Francisco had become a city without an idea, suggesting that it could rediscover purpose as a 21st- century portal to Asia.  For better than 40 years it has been one of our favorite places on the continent, and we lament that it now has to find its bearings.  Readers wrote in droves to say, “How can you malign our town?”  These are mostly newcomers, incidentally.  And an equally large number of San Franciscans sympathized, “Yes, it has fallen quite a bit, hasn’t it?”   Even on Thursday a latecomer to the debate claimed, “You are part of the past.  It is, in fact, much better now than it ever was.”  Well, we still don’t know what the big idea is that motivates the city:  all we see is packaging.  It lacks Mr. Oberoi’s right thing.

The China Debate.  Two extraordinary, long articles appeared in The New York Times last week about the People's Republic.  First, “China's Communists Try to Decide What They Stand For,” (May 1, 2002, p A3), opined that the Party is aggressively trying to re-discover a meaningful ideology in the face of the New Vast Economy and the considerable social rearrangements of the last two decades.  And, on Saturday (May 4, 2002, pp. A1-A17), the Times said, “Some Chinese See the Future, and It’s Capitalist,”  claiming that a host of Chinese scholars no longer concern themselves with whether the country should be capitalist, “but what kind of capitalism it should have.”   Since these authors lack the kind of access they need to provide adequate proofs of their theses, we don’t get the data and anecdotes that validate their theories.  Nonetheless,  it does suggest that the Chinese are not unlike a number of other large societies:  since the end of history (the end of the Cold War), many of the larger countries lack a core belief.  It is probably why a number of smaller, second-tier countries, on the other hand, are performing more admirably at the moment and exerting more power in world affairs. Who would have thought that South Korea, on its knees just a few years ago, would be turning in 6% growth now?  A number of small nations do have big ideas.

Implacably Correct.  Boston, which fired that shot that’s heard around the world, never lacks for a purpose and some kind of view.  It’s the home of the higher education industry, and a host of the interesting things that are going on in healthcare get started there.  Because of its academic overlay, almost every conversation about everything has an ideological coating, and there’s a correct, pinched-lip take to exercise, seat belts, diversity, food, and even to topics the proponents know absolutely nothing about.  Secretly the City on the Hill, locus of the most devout sports enthusiasts in the nation, harbors a religious fervor that comes up in all sorts of ways.  Even with a goodly crop of wayward priests and an outsized pack of car thieves, this is a righteous place always equipped with an idea.

Mrs. Jack.  That’s why the museum to go to in Boston is the Gardner Museum, which you will find in Best of Class this week.  The Gardner gets you off the sermon circuit.  She came up from New York to marry Mr. Jack, gave a touch of color to the place, skirted all the edges of scandal, and bequeathed a museum that is as much about her as it is about art.  Just toddle by the Boston Museum of Arts, which does, we admit, house some fine silver, and go over to her place for some real romance.

P.S.  So we think it is a good time to be looking for businesses, cities, and countries that have an idea.  That's some of what we will be talking about in this year’s Annual Report on Annual Reports 2002.

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