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1999 -- The roller coaster year

A few days after Christmas, our family went to an amusement park. Several of us enjoy riding rollercoasters; the more loops, the more enjoyment. As I was traveling at a rather high rate of speed upside down, it occurred to me that I most enjoy a roller coaster ride when I just relax and go with the flow. It also occurred to me that in many ways 1998 was a roller coaster ride for most Americans, and 1999 looks not only like more of the same, but for many of us, we will be hanging upside down more and more often.

Many Americans truly believe that once a body is in motion, it will continue in motion in the same direction forever; just look at the current stock market. However, when the pendulum reverses its direction, as it most certainly will, many, if not most of us, will be in a state of shock.

As with a roller coaster, what goes up must come down. Closing our eyes does not make the descent any less real or any less painful. In last week’s column, I peeked into the next millennium to examine how I believed history would treat President Clinton. In that article, I mentioned that he would be held responsible and accountable for the problems arising as a result of his administration’s failure to quickly and realistically address the Y2K issue. I received many favorable comments on that column, but the one that was most instructive was hostile.

That reader, Joseph Michell, wrote, “Your comments regarding the Y2K ‘problem’ is just another example of ‘crying wolf.’ If Y2K is a problem at all it will be no more than a blip on the screen…If you will apply some cold logic to the idea that everything is going to shut down you will realize there is no problem. The systems we depend on are not date sensitive. They are volume sensitive. Water service, electric generation, gasoline delivery, grocery stocking services, etc. are all volume, not date, driven.”

Although I am sure that the writer believes everything he wrote, he, like most Americans, will still be on the roller coaster with his eyes closed when Y2K issues begin causing problems.

The Wall Street Journal of December 29, reported that now the Social Security Administration has fixed itsY2K “glitch” and promises to process the millions upon millions of payments when year 2000 rolls around. The “glitch” has been fixed because this government bureaucracy has been working on the problem since 1989. Eleven years before the year 2000, George Bush’s Administration began addressing Y2K problems.

Where has Bill Clinton been on this issue?

Mr. Michell is 1000 percent wrong because he makes the assumption that all those services have nothing to do with dates or computers; precisely the wrong conclusion. Today’s delivery services, whether it is the electric power to our homes or the items for sale on our grocery shelves are all managed by computers. The electric power company uses computers not only to switch power from one area to another, it uses them to predict power needs. When the electric power company believes it will need more power-such as the onset of colder weather or hotter weather-more generating capacity is put online. Grocery stores are so highly dependent on information generated by their computers that deliveries of products are timed to match their projected needs. In today’s market, all available merchandise is on the shelves and is restocked according to computer scheduling. Yes, it is volume, but that volume is created by computer programs that are date driven.

So what will happen when first one, then another, and another computer stops? Large numbers of Americans will find that the roller coaster is going down very quickly and the ride has ceased to be fun. The fall from a land of plenty to one where many necessary items may not be available could be very painful. Even in a country such as Russia, where citizens fight over scarce food rather than over the latest scarce Christmas toy, people over-react to misfortune drastically. I certainly hope that no American becomes like Ivan Orlov, a victim of Soviet society, who destroyed the only thing that mattered to him, his ancient yellow Moskovich car, by blowing it up in the middle of Red Square. Orlov had mailed a manifesto to the Wall Street Journal before the bombing, in which he stated that he was a “kamikaze for the people.” Orlov was charged with terrorism and sent to Moscow’s Butyrskaya prison — where he died two days before Christmas.

My hostile reader will surely ask what does the Y2K problem and Ivan Orlov have in common. Ivan Orlov was a product of failed promises. He, as a member of the Communist party, believed in the dream of Gorbachev’s perestroika and then put his faith in Boris Yeltsin. He was a hard worker, totally taken in by a government which failed to keep its promises in jobs, pensions and hopes for the future. Yet his act of defiance was an anomaly in Russia. Most Russians are too busy trying to defeat starvation, to try and defeat or support politicians. Most have not even bothered to vote in years.

Here in the United States, we have had unprecedented prosperity. From the bottom to the top of the economic ladder, we can’t even conceptualize the current Russian condition. Therefore, we turn a deaf ear, or worse still, berate those that warn of potential Y2K problems faced by a computer run society. Yet, the same December 29, 1998 Wall Street Journal that put Ivan Orlov’s story on the front page had a headline which read “Year-2000 Problem is Bearing Down on Certain States.” In fact, the article lists the 10 worst states in preparing for Y2K, some of which are totally unprepared.

Mr. Michell closed his email with the admonition, “think about it.” I have thought about it, Mr. Michell. I hope that you do the same. Then follow the example of a lady from Wyoming, who was certainly concerned when she asked her governor if Y2K would shut her state down. The response from Governor Geringer is not known, but he was quoted as saying, “We have not emphasized the magnitude of the potential consequences enough.” As we close out 1998, we all had better watch out for the end of the roller coaster ride.

It’s much closer than just 365 days from now.