All Commentary
Thursday, August 1, 1985

Book Review: Making the Future Work by John Diebold

(Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020), 1984 • 466 pages • $18.95

Those who well anticipate and define the issues, according to legal lore, usually win the arguments. John Diebold is one who not only foresaw the postwar sweep of automation—indeed he coined the word—but who has long been adept at spotting and honing issues and hence winning arguments. Diebold sharpens national if not global questions and probes the fit (or misfit) of many of America’s institutions with the dynamics of the 1980s.

Generally he finds these institutions out of tune with the times—i.e., a drag on progress. Accordingly he comes up with ways of “closing the gap between what our society can achieve—and what we do achieve.”

Examining that gap, Mr. Diebold analyzes on the basis of structure, function, process and management such institutions as the federal regulatory bureaucracy, Congress, organized labor, commercial banking, corporate America, the “lawyering” industry, the media, and public education.

Well, what about education? He notes that the school industry spends about 85 per cent of its budget for salaries, 10 per cent for buildings, less than 5 per cent for books and papers, and under i per cent in research on how children learn and its own efficacy in educating them. He worries about educational monopoly—about requiring a child to attend a particular school regardless of its goals, methods, and curriculum. He therefore asks for more choices in education and comes out for the voucher plan, for possibly even for-profit corporate-run schools. He writes: “An IBM school or a General Electric school is not outside the realm of possibility.”

What about the media, which Mr. Diebold thinks is indeed the Fourth Estate? He decries its generally short-term outlook, its penchant for creating crises by focusing attention on isolated generally pictorial events to the exclusion of stories that cannot be told in pictures or a few par agraphs. Television news gets especially rapped for sensationalism. Example: Three-Mile Island, which Walter Cronkite hyped up at the time as “a nuclear nightmare . . . the worst nuclear power plant accident of the atomic age.” Even now the incident is still described as a “disaster,” comments Mr. Diebold, even though the only human harm known for sure as attributable to the accident was caused by anxiety, not radiation.

What of the “lawyering” industry? Mr. Diebold criticizes the U.S. legal system for becoming in many ways a roadblock to making the future work and even “a roadblock to justice.” He criticizes, for example, the government antitrust attorneys who tried to subpoena IBM documents that would have taken 62,000 man-years to produce at a cost of $1 billion. He complains about the more than 600,000 lawyers in America as against 15,000 in Japan. He thinks humorist Russell Baker has a possible cure—we export one lawyer to Japan for each Japanese car imported here.

So this incisive book goes, with hardly any institution spared. More and more corporate leaders are castigated for their short-term vision, which in turn is blamed on the “performance” orientation of Wall Street analysts, the SEC requirement of quarterly reporting, the here-and- there behind-the-times teaching of business schools, and the Congressional prohibition manifested in the Glass-Steagall Act preventing banks from taking equity positions in corporations.

To be sure, the anachronizing, the emerging cross-purposes of America’s institutions, are complex matters. The status quo is frequently tyrannical, as another critic of our times, Milton Friedman, has reminded us. But the promise of freedom and free enterprise is too great to be short-changed. Better to define issues, raise questions, exercise leadership, engage in dialogue, and, perhaps above all, have vision—the long view. These are the marching orders that John Diebold, a modern-day Socrates, hands us in this book.

  • William H. Peterson (1921-2012) was an economist, businessman and author who wrote extensively on Austrian Economics. He completed his PhD at New York University in 1952 under the supervision of Ludwig von Mises.