Who's in Charge? You Are.

Forbes , November 28, 1999

THE COUNTRY IS IN A RECORD-BREAKING economic expansion, high-tech zillionaires are popular heroes, almost half the population owns stock, and unemployment is at frictional levels in many places. People in their 20s can barely conceive of a world where you have to take the first job offer, put up with a bad boss or stick with work you don't like.

It's no surprise, then, that when Newsweek editors decided to feature a gloom-and-doom economics book on the magazine's cover they packaged it as something entirely different: "A Feminist's Surprising Take on the New Male Dilemma" sells a lot better than "A Leftist's Reactionary Diatribe Against the New Economy."

Susan Faludi's Stiffed uses gender and psychobabble to sell what Patrick Buchanan promotes more forthrightly: the idea that a changing economy represents "betrayal," and that good government means holding society still. Both authors are nostalgic for the 1940s and 1950s, when American men could find meaning in anonymous industrial labor and stable social roles.

The promise of that era, says Faludi, was that each American man "would be judged not on his personal dominance but on his sense of duty, his voluntary service to an organization made up of equally anonymous men." But the promise was broken. As Buchanan writes wistfully in The Great Betrayal, "People know in their hearts that America will never again be the country they grew up in." Current social and economic arrangements, these critics suggest, have been foisted on the good people of America by a cold system that cares nothing for their needs or aspirations.

Worst of all, there's no one to take the blame and reassert control. "These days," Faludi complains in an interview with Mother Jones, "everything changes overnight. Nobody knows who is in charge. No one knows who to appeal to." The political action that could end men's "betrayal" is without a leverage point.

It's an increasingly common gripe among the articulate. Again and again, particularly in articles about Silicon Valley, intellectuals are venting their rage at the dynamism of the American economy. Nobody is in charge, they fume. We never voted for this state of affairs, they say. We never hashed it out in public meetings. No experts weighed the costs and benefits and made out an economic plan. Why weren't we consulted?

Thus historian Jackson Lears complains in The New Republic that Bill Gates' book Business @ the Speed of Thought describes a world where "between technology and the individual, there is no middle term, no political realm where people can debate the question: is this what we want?" Individuals may have more choices and more control over their own lives, but what about society? What about what "we" want? Shouldn't someone call a meeting?

Author Michael Lewis, whose most recent book profiles Silicon Valley star James Clark, frets to an interviewer that the Valley's competitive creators are "imposing radical change on the society, with tremendous social fallout—and they're doing it without anyone's approval." Reviewing Lewis' book, The Atlantic Monthly's Jack Beatty demands, "Who voted for Jim Clark?" Beatty wants a more politicized economy, because "it is only through politics and government that we the people can hope to change." (He once denounced Michael Jordan as a "political eunuch," because he lives an apolitical life.)

These are supposedly sophisticated people. But they have a childlike view of social systems. They stubbornly reject the idea that social and economic change emerges from the decentralized pursuit of improvements and personal happiness. (Faludi literally tries to blame Daddy—the baby boomers' fathers, that is--for the complexities and surprises of the world.) "We" have not decided in public, they argue, so "we" haven't been consulted.

But, of course, we have. Jim Clark's success depends not on votes but on the choices of consumers and, before that, of investors. The very reason that cultural, economic and social changes are so hard to control in a free society is that they emerge through the uncoordinated choices of millions of people. After all, who voted for Susan Faludi, Jack Beatty, Michael Lewis or Jackson Lears?