The Blog

The Year That Was

From the dollar to the war, from Wal-Mart to the airlines, from the liberal media to America's auto-makers, and beyond.

11:00 PM, Dec 27, 2004 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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THIS WAS THE YEAR THAT WAS . . . . It opened with the world angry at America because of its willingness to use the strength of its military, and closes with the world angry at America for its willingness to tolerate the weakness of its currency. Thar's just no pleasin' these folks, as they say in Crawford.

This has been a year of reality checks. The Bush administration has been brought face-to-face with the reality of its massive deficits by financial markets that are scrambling to unload dollars, and by a Congress reluctant to tackle Social Security and tax reform until the federal deficit is brought under control. Bush has promised to do just that, but he is also intent on spending what it takes to win the war on terror, and on adding $2 trillion to $5 trillion to the deficit over the next several years in order to cover the transition to his proposed scheme for partial privatization of Social Security.

Several industries have also had annoying realities thrust upon them. The airlines now realize, or should, that the problems of the high-cost carriers, with their legacy of pension obligations and staggeringly generous union contracts, cannot be solved by selling more and more seats for less and less, or by bankruptcies that leave the industry with massive excess capacity. A major restructuring, leaving the dinosaurs in its wake, is now in the works.

The media is equally unhappy with the reality that hit in 2004. The liberal television networks have seen their market share dwindle as more balanced and more conservative voices attract audiences, and as bloggers provide instant corrections to the slanted stories that have long come from such as Dan Rather and CBS News. Like all fallen monopolists, the liberal networks are blaming everyone but themselves--audiences are too dumb to appreciate network pundits, conservative cable channels pander to audiences, etc. But the fault lies in themselves; like the airlines, they will linger, but in a shrunken and transformed state.

As will America's auto manufacturers. Their reality, circa 2004, is that they simply cannot sell cars unless they discount prices so heavily that profits vary from wafer-thin to nonexistent. Whenever the auto companies tried to end discounting, the showrooms and lots overflowed with unsold inventory. Like the airlines, the auto makers will have to crawl from under the legacy costs of pensions and union contracts that require them to pay their workers whether they have useful work for them or not.

Add to the list big pharma. The pharmaceutical companies now confront the reality that their problem is not solely the making of avaricious and unscrupulous trial lawyers, but of their own emphasis on short-term profits, an emphasis which has led them to continue marketing products in the face of increasing signs that they might be dangerous to the users' health.

In facing that new reality pharmaceutical companies are not alone. New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer has dusted off some old state statutes, and added a bit of scary muscle to change the way executives in the financial services and insurance industries view their long-standing practices. Spitzer's extra-legal tactics, including insisting on changes in corporate management before proving that any law has been violated, may worry those wedded to the rule of law. But they are probably popular enough to propel him to the New York governor's chair, the seat of such early reformers of corporate America as trust-buster Teddy (Spitzer's personal hero) and regulator Franklin D. Roosevelt--and you know where they ended up.

Nor, have the sports industries escaped the changing reality of 2004. In baseball the records of the stars of the most recent decades seem to have benefited from banned performance-enhancing drugs. This makes the players' union's refusal to allow testing an untenable relic of the day when the heroes of America's young and not-so-young relied on their natural endowments. Congress, its power stemming from its ability to repeal the law that exempts baseball from the antitrust laws--which allows the teams' owners to reap monopoly profits--has told the sport to clean up its act or face punitive legislation.

Finally, retailers recognized that their reality had changed in 2004. Thanks to Wal-Mart, price has come to matter, driving retailers that compete in that bracket to ever-greater efficiencies if they are to survive to see another Christmas. Some, like K-Mart and Sears, have merged in search of efficiencies, although how two misses can equal one hit is something of a mystery. Others, like Toys 'R' US, will have to quit the game unless they can bring their costs more in line with those of Wal-Mart.