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Fun While it Lasted

After a 20-year run, Chief Executive columnist Joe Queenan signs off with a few choice comments about our changing (or not) times.

Joe QueenanIn 1991, when I started writing this column, a man named Clinton was all set to go toe-to-toe with a man named Bush. He was hoping to become the first president of the United States to have previously inhabited the governor’s mansion in Little Rock.

In 2016, a woman named Clinton was all set to go toe-to-toe with a man named Bush. She was hoping to become the first female president of the United States to have once lived in the governor’s mansion in Little Rock.

But the scheduled set-to never materialized because an extraordinarily persistent man named Trump got in the way. Some things change. Some things don’t.

In the past 25 years, there have been several recessions, two of them quite brutal, but there have always been brutal recessions in this boom-and-bust economy, so this is nothing to get terribly worked up about. What is entirely new is the Internet, a thrilling innovation that has managed to completely change the way we lead our lives without making the economy noticeably more productive.

“It’s interesting that, all these years later, Trump has risen once again, this time to even headier heights. Perhaps there’s truth to that old maxim: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As one wit pointed out, the average person would rather give up the Internet than give up indoor plumbing, and the same is probably true of cars, television, air conditioning and airplanes. It may even be true of the microwave. The Internet has made it easier for people to do their jobs, but it also has made it easier for people to waste time at their jobs. It is a technology filled with potential, but, at present, its contribution to national productivity is just about zero. Maybe the Bronze Age got off to a slow start too.

Exciting new technologies came and went in the quarter century since I started writing for Chief Executive. VHS, fax machines, Zip Drives and compact-disc players all strutted and fretted their hour on the stage and then were heard no more. The DVD player, which sent VHS to the sidelines for good, is now about to join it.

Few people can even remember Betamax, nor do the terms CPM, MS-DOS or Kay-Pro immediately leap to anyone’s lips. And most young people think of landlines as the technological equivalent of the breech-loading rifle. As for Kodak film loaded into a camera, what’s that?

In my early days at Chief Executive, these words from Apple Computer’s John Sculley appeared on the cover: “The first hurdle that management must cross is not what technology to choose, but what business process to install that will give it a competitive advantage in the global marketplace.” Actually, as Steve Jobs would subsequently demonstrate, what technology you choose does make a difference. Especially if you’re running Apple.

Big, gas-guzzling cars still exist, but there are a lot fewer of them around today and there is something of a social stigma attached to driving them. After a long period of building mammoth, hideous houses, builders now find that the public wants smaller, less hideous houses. This is mostly because young people cannot afford big, ugly houses. Young people need to spend less time texting and looking at kitten videos on Facebook and figure out how to get this economy percolating.

The Baby Boomers did their job; the torch has now been passed. Back in 1991, people got interest on their money when they deposited it in a bank. This was before the Great Recession and our bizarre era of negative interest rates. The American people now spend half their time wondering who Taylor Swift will date next and the rest wondering when the Fed will raise interest rates.

The first book I reviewed for Chief Executive was Trumped: The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump—His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall. It’s interesting that, all these years later, Trump has risen once again, this time to even headier heights. Perhaps there’s truth to that old maxim: The more things change, the more they stay the same…

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.