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As the good times roll

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, February 1, 2000; 10:31 PM

DAVOS, Switzerland -- At this conference of successful people, he could be considered the most successful of them all. When he spoke, everyone listened. He had taken his organization from a deficit to a record surplus so that now his potential successors were fighting about how to spend it. Bill Gates? Steve Case? No, Bill Clinton. Here in the Alps, he was king of the mountain.

No one sneered about Monica. No one mentioned truths evaded, questions ducked--anything at all about Slick Willie. Instead, he came as the leader of a country on a roll--not just a superpower in the conventional sense but an awesome job-creating machine throwing off revenues that seem to make anything possible, all the while causing inflation to hide no one knows where.

Wait, there's more. The stock market has its ups and downs, but inexorably it reaches for the sky. Bright and ambitious young men and women emigrate to America for dot.com jobs. The USA is it when it comes to IT, information technology. Some countries such as Finland may have more cell phones per capita, but no one disputes that in information technology, America leads the world.

I could go on and on--literally. After all, I have not yet mentioned what was missing from this year's World Economic Forum: a crisis. In past years, it was Asia or Bosnia, Russia or Kosovo. Now there's a virtual Pax Americana, enforced with military might or induced with dollars. No one talks anymore of American debt or points to Japan as the way to go. The so-called Asian Way has come and gone. The "way"--the only way anyone wants to go--is the American Way.

One evening here, I accompanied Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a sleigh ride. We went up into the mountains from this Alpine village, pulled by a team of horses in need of a shower. I mentioned past Davos meetings and how in the past four years the Americans had come to dominate--a succession of sudden billionaires, Gates of Microsoft and Case of AOL and others too many to mention. What do non-Americans say about all that, she asked me? Lots of envy, I said. Some anger, I said. Mostly, though, they want to be like America, I told her.

Should Clinton be given credit for this? Who knows? Talk to the experts and you get all sorts of answers. Some credit the New Economy to the painful restructuring of the old. People like me decried it at the time--the layoffs, the unemployment--but it seems now to have been the necessary pain before the gain. Companies emerged stronger and better managed, with executives accountable to an unforgiving stock market and not, as in the past, to forgiving colleagues.

The new gizmos--computers, etc.--have finally proven their worth. They have made America more efficient--a just-in-time economy that responds to the click of the computer mouse. The American worker became more productive and, to the chagrin of the unions, less and less able to demand higher pay. Wages have stayed stable--especially when compared with those in countries such as Germany. Inflation, consequently, has been held in check.

Little of this is directly attributable to anything Clinton did. But one thing is: the end of budget deficits. This was not Clinton's original intention--he came into office proposing to stimulate the economy at the risk of even more debt--but he soon turned around. A good-cop, good-cop combo of Alan Greenspan and Bob Rubin convinced him of the need to get control of the budget. The rest, as they say, is history--budget surpluses as far as the eye can see.

At the various panels here, the experts said the good times could continue. They worried about the imponderables--war, for instance. But one of the ponderables is the possibility that George Bush might become president and enact his proposed tax cut. It is too big, two Wall Street analysts told me. A couple of proverbial rainy days, and we would be back to deficit financing.

I don't know how history will view Bill Clinton. I don't know if it will focus, as many Americans now do, on his impeachment and all the "gates"--File and Travel and, of course, Whitewater. But I do know that from the top of the mountain, I could make out the legacy that Bill Clinton and his American critics seem not to notice he already has: an economy that is the envy of the world.


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