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September 10, 2001—Things to Do When Times Are Tough

Take It Easy. The economy and everything else has slowed down. So you can, too. A whole nest of acquaintances has stolen off to Jackson Hole for a wedding: good move. Why shouldn't you? Go slow. Ponder a little bit. Enjoy the person next to you.

Compassion is Okay. "Compassion" has become a little trivialized, now that it is so much a part of our political discourse. But it is still an idea with true merit. The non-recession, non-depression that has now swept over the whole world has diminished our leaders and bent the spirits of ordinary people. That means it's the right time to do the decent thing anytime for anybody.

Anthony Lewis, on a well-timed time-out in Civitella, has managed to do a fine, relatively non-ideological tribute to compassion. He observes how the Italian national health service has sent a care-giver and other succor to a friend at a remote location who is handicapped by multiple sclerosis and confined to a wheelchair. See "A Civilized Society," New York Times, September 8, 2001, p. A23.

Get a Friend. When you're behind the 8-ball, it's time to find strength in others. Compaq and Hewlett-Packard just got together--to the distress of Wall Street--because two can talk about the problem ("the easy days of personal computerdom are over") better than one.

So far the most important thing we have gleaned from David McCullough's acclaimed biography of John Adams is that when you're weak, you better have buddies. Without the French, our Revolution would have been for nought: the alliance was a credit to Ben Franklin and, to a lesser degree, Adams. Adams, thereafter, pushed the reluctant Dutch into loaning us $5 million when our national balance sheet was very weak. In short, we "got by with the help of our friends."

Be Different. There is nothing so repugnant to humankind as the prospect of change. But change we must. Was it the Duke of Liverpool, or somebody like that, who was deemed so conservative that it was said, "If he had presided over chaos, he would have demanded that we preserve chaos"? Now's the time to go against all our instincts--and change. Oddly enough, we probably will make big, big changes under a very conservative administration.

Once venerable Brooks Brothers, now up against the wall (because of Marks and Spencer, its bumbling owners) has had to do away with its print advertising. The ads have never been much good anyway. It will spend such money as it has for cocktail parties at its shops to make sure customers actually show up to buy something. This is a very different Brooks.

This kind of change is good for Brooks or anybody in business. With voicemail and the Internet, we have become too busy, too alienated, and too scared to talk to each other. Anybody who gets us talking--person to person--will make a million dollars.

Do Something, Not Nuttin. An Australian friend and journalist counsels us that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, the renegade and a very popular politician in Tokyo, who could have turned out to be a Roosevelt, is going to pull a Herbert Hoover instead. Our informant fears that all the vital economic reforms promised by this upstart will never happen and that Japan will continue to reel between depression and recession, inertia and arteriosclerosis, as it has for several years.

A venture capitalist we know has had a wonderful manufacturing firm in his portfolio that has been stuck in neutral due to titanic changes in its marketplace. He has grafted on speciality operations in Hong Kong and England that are actually making a nickel. "Bill, " he said, "we had to do something. Standing pat might be okay occasionally in poker, but we are playing chess. In chess, you've got to make a move."

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