I GOT OUT of the stock market about a year ago because I couldn't understand what was happening. The optimism of the market didn't fit with the problems in the economy. So I invested instead in short-term, high-quality liquid securities -- such as Treasury bills and high-grade bonds.
Last week's turmoil on Wall Street brought home to all of us how serious our economic problems are. The question we face now is whether we can summon the national will to start solving these problems and stop living for the moment.
The first thing we have to do is stop telling ourselves that everything is all right, and that all the fundamentals are sound. Such statements ignore the obvious.
A person with a drinking problem must admit that he is an alcoholic before he can be cured.
So let's take an honest look at our problems at the end of this topsy-turvey week on Wall Street. What forces caused the dramatic ups and downs in the stock market, sending economic singals flashing like the fire-warning lights on an aircraft instrument panel? Here are some of them:
The United States now has a $2.3 trillion debt and will have a $3 trillion debt by 1989.
Our country, effectively, does not have a national budget. We avoid facing the budget issue by passing continuing resolutions that put us deeper into debt each year.
There is no correlation between taxes paid by the people and money spent by the government. More and more, our national debt is being funded by foreign invstors. We no longer "owe it to ourselves." These foreign investors can stop funding our debt at any time they lose confidence in the dollar, leaving us vulnerable at an inopportune moment.
We are losing in international business competition. In 1986, we lost our position as the world's leading exporter and we had a trade deficit in high-tech products, supposedly the base for future growth.
Some of our banks have serious problems. Long-term loans to Third World countries were made with short term-dollars borrowed from Middle Eastern countries by U.S. banks. This money was loaned to countries that cannot repay their debts, leaving the lending banks exposed. Much of this burden will eventually be shouldered by the American people.
Savings and Loans have serious problems that will require tens of billions of dollars of taxpayer money to correct because of speculation and, in some cases, fraudulent activities. The U.S. taxpayer will ultimately bear the burden, at a time when we are already spending far beyond our means.
The typical American spends everything he makes -- everything he can borrow -- and keeps no savings. The individual-savings safety net does not exist. If people lose their jobs, they become instant paupers, with unpaid ills.
Our principal exports from New York harbor are scrap steel and waste paper to Japan. These materials are shipped back to America as autombiles and corrugated cardboard boxes containing sophisticated consumer electronics. It is hard to believe that the greatest nation in the world could be reduced to becoming a scrap salesman -- but it's happening.
We Americans have evolved from a tough, resilient people, willing to sacrifice for future generations, into a people who want to feel good now -- at any price -- and let the future take care of itself. Put more directly, we have become credit junkies, shooting up huge sums of borrowed money on a government and personal level -- looking for another high.
This is our country. We, the people, own it. It belongs to us, yet we are acting like the inheritors of third-generation wealth, leading the good life now, with little concern for the future. We should face these problems now and resolve them while our nation is still strong.
Don't blame our elected officials for failing to address these problems, and making soothing statements while the fire lights are flashing. They are simply reflecting our priorities, as determined by endless, but accurate, polls. Let's face it: We, not our elected officials, are the dwarfs and wimps.
The fundamental laws of economics and common sense have not been repealed, even though for a time, it appeared they had been. Specifically:
The endless orgy of raids and takeovers had a lot more to do with making large fees and personal profits than with revitalizing corporations.
The multimillion-dollar executive bonuses, golden parachutes, and poison pills never made any economic sense.
Junk bonds, which by definition are junk, will be worn like anvils around the necks of both companies and junk-bond buyers for years, and will cause significant damage to our economy.
Any industry which can afford to pay 28 year-old boys $500,000 to $1,000,000 a year for unproductive work on Wall Street sends a signal to the world that its fees are excessive.
What are we going to do about this? Like the alcoholic who wants to stop drinking, we should begin by being honest with ourselves. Perhaps the following questions will force us to face the fact that we have become credit junkies:
Will we be the generation that allowed this great country to cease being first and best in the world? Will we leave our children with an unconscionable multi-trillion dollar debt, so that we can continue our debt-spending binge? Will we be the first generation to take more than we gave, and fail to pass on a stronger country and a better life to our children?
Surely, the answer most Americans would give to these questions is a resounding "No"!
We must cut spending and raise taxes to pay our bills. We all know it. Let's make sure our leaders understand that this must be done.
If we will aggressively work together, sharing the sacrifices fairly, to correct these problems while our country is still strong and our people are still at work, we can minimize the level of sacrifice required. There is no question that the American people are more than willing to do their share. They need strong leadership, both in business and in government.
It is fundamentally important that we keep our people at work, because the tax base of the United States rests squarely on the strong, broad shoulders of the millions of working American men and women. Even if wealth and corporate profits were taxed at 100 percent, we could not begin to raise the money needed to operate our country. The taxes from millions of working Americans are essential to fund our counTry's needs. Obviously, if millions of our people are not working, not only will we be unable to pay our bills as a nation and individually, but we will have to somehow create huge make-work or welfare programs, at a time when the United States does not have the money.
We have unfairly blamed the American worker for the poor quality of our products. The unsatisfactory quality and appearance of many of our products is the result of poor design and engineering -- not poor assembly.
You can literally see the difference between a car made in Japan and a car made in the United States by an American manufacturer. If you take a car made in Japan by Japanese workers and place it alongside a Japanese car made in a U.S. plant by U.S. workers (led by Japanese executives) there is no difference in quality. The Honda cars made in this country by U.S. workers are of such high quality that Honda intends to export them.
Obviously, the American worker is not the problem. The problem is a failure of leadership. Our business leaders have failed to provide strong, effective leadership. They -- not the workers -- are the problem.
Our challenge is to make the phrase, "Made In the USA," the standard of excellence for the world once again. This will dramatically increase the demand for our products, strengthening and expanding our job base.
We don't have to satisfy our competitive instincts by watching sports on television. When we go to our jobs each day, we are playing in an international economic superbowl where the best product wins -- and where there is not even a red ribbon for second place. The losers lose their jobs, not just a game.
The only way to succeed is to unite as a team, take on the world, and win.
Could anything be more important, or more worth the sacrifices involved, than working together to build a better world for all of our children?
Let's tell our elected leaders we want to repair our economic system before it breaks down. We know what we have to do. Let's get started. What are we waiting for? Our leaders are waiting to hear from us.
Let's stop kidding ourselves. Let's admit we have serious economic problems, and let's all work and sacrifice together to solve it -- for our children.
Ross Perot is a Texas businessman and the founder of Electronic Data Systems, which was sold to General Motors in 1984 for $2.4 billion. According to Forbes magazine, Perot's net worth totals $2.9 billion, making him the third-richest man in America.