The scary part is, nobody will be quite sure how it happened, and nobody will remember how to get us back to this golden era.
We always tend to think that whatever's going on now will last forever. But it's hard to believe that it was only a few short years ago-in the early '90s-when Japan was king of the hill and we were in the dumpster.
Does anybody seriously think that Japan will never figure it out and that we will remain the dominant economic force? What if Japanese high-tech companies come up with the next computer breakthrough that proves to be just what the market wants, and our guys go down a different path chasing the wrong technology? How quickly things could change, and Japan could end up owning the computer business like they own the TV and camera businesses.
I've always believed that the line between success and failure is a thin one, and all it takes to fail is betting on the wrong technology. Or the wrong people.
For instance, one of the reasons our economy is working so well is that the secretary of the treasury and the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board get along exceptionally well.
In many prior administrations the two men often worked at cross purposes, and the president many times put pressure on the Fed to hold down interest rates.
This is a highly unusual and beneficent set of circumstances, and whether a Republican or Democrat is elected president in our next election, it's unlikely such compatibility will be duplicated. What's more, each party is saddled with its own set of biases-to wit the Democrats want to solve all the social problems of the world while the Republicans are bent on cutting taxes. Both of these urges have been kept under control during the last few years, but there's at least a good chance that both parties will go back to their natural ways, and the delicate balance that's produced a budget surplus, low interest rates and low inflation will be put out of kilter.
I've just finished reading the superb autobiography of The Washington Post's Katharine Graham, and it was shocking to me to recall how we've already forgotten the lessons of Watergate. Read what Mrs. Graham has to say about the chain of events that drove President Nixon out of office: "Watergate-that is, all of the many illegal and improper acts that were included under that rubric-was a political scandal unlike any other. Its sheer magnitude and reach put it on a scale altogether different from past political scandals, in part because of the unparalleled involvement of so many men so close to the president and because of the large amounts of money raised, stashed and spent in covert and illegal ways. This was indeed a new kind of corruption in government."
Twenty-five years later we are witnessing the same "unparalleled involvement" of administration people to raise money "in covert and illegal ways." And yet, ironically, the press has drawn few parallels of its own, and nobody seems very excited about the whole thing.
How little we seem to learn. Paul Krugman, a professor of economics at MIT, wrote in The New York Times Magazine last week that he contends we should focus more on failure than on success.
"Many people have said that America's worship of success hurts our souls, because we care only about getting ahead. I have no expertise in such matters. But I am sure that our unwillingness to hear about anything but success makes us especially vulnerable to the failure we fear," Professor Klugman concludes.