SACRAMENTO BEE: " 'Useless government' is a near-perfect foil for Y2K" : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

I have absolutely no argument with the first two words in the headline: on everything that follows thereafter I'm suspending judgement for at least six months...:)


'Useless government' is a near-perfect foil for Y2K

(Published Jan. 6, 2000)

The federal government is a big, lumbering beast, a many-headed bureaucracy so bloated, wasteful and at odds with its own objectives that it's a wonder how it survives day to day in this fast-moving world, let alone provides the infrastructure and decision-making for the world's most important power.

That, at least, is the vision anti- government activists have been selling for a couple of decades. Many people bought it, if only as an excuse to starve the beast and -- not incidentally -- cut their own taxes.

But it is worth noting now, at the beginning of the new millennium, as most of the world's computers clicked easily into Y2K, that something very important worked last week. The U.S. government, working hand in hand with private industry, pulled off one of the great management feats in recent history. Spending hundreds of billions of dollars and employing tens of thousands of programmers who wrote billions of lines of new computer code, this public-private partnership saved the world's many integrated and infinitely complex systems from potential calamity.

Not all the dangers are over. The Feb. 29 leap year date still looms as a potential problem, and there will be others as well. But the achievement is that the computers clicked over to Jan. 1, 2000. The power grids work. The food is being delivered, and the oil is running. The world financial systems are trading with each other. The banks are open and working.

Telecommunications is up. Airplanes are flying and air control systems are tracking them. The nuclear missiles remain safely sheathed.

Sure there were Y2K alarmists, both sincere and those out to make a buck. I got onto a Y2K-Alert daily e-mail list that saw danger everywhere and rejected every assurance by the government that systems would work. But their anecdotal reports of impending catastrophe, while theoretically possible, seemed fragmentary and thin, at least to this skeptical reporter. I was dropped from the list a few months ago, perhaps when someone figured out I wasn't going to be ordering packaged food and other survival tools from the Web site.

One millennial worrier, close to me, had more noble reasons. He spent months on the Internet tracking down information, putting it on his Web site, disseminating it where he could. He didn't make a penny from it. His idea was to use the looming threat of a possible Y2K meltdown to build community, or at least get his community prepared for serious problems. And he did. Hundreds of people such as he around the country sounded the warnings several years ago, warnings to which the government was forced to respond.

Some people are asking whether this was all a gigantic hoax or at least incredible hype. Hype there was, but it is hard to argue, given the results, that government and industry should have done less. As someone once said about political advertising, "Half of it is a waste of money. But which half?" One hero and winner in all this is John Koskinen, whom President Clinton appointed as the Y2K czar. "We didn't get through this by luck," Koskinen told USA Today earlier this week. "We spent $100 billion in the United States and built a juggernaut."

He succeeded in part, he said, by "snookering" competing corporations and nations into putting aside distrust of each other and learning to cultivate the benefits of working together to solve the problem. He convinced governments, corporations, utilities and the like that none could survive on its own.

A United Nations international summit he organized in late 1998 began a process whereby 173 nations came to share information almost daily. Congress helped in summer 1998 by passing legislation protecting companies from being sued by acknowledging they were not yet Y2K compliant. Beyond Koskinen, another winner, although a far more passive one, is Vice President Al Gore. He wins by not losing. Gore is the administration's Mr. Technology, the man who once bragged that he invented the Internet and then, in a recent New Hampshire debate, said that if there were any one thing he regretted so far, it was making that boast. In fact, his legislation, while he was a senator, laid important groundwork for Internet development, and unlike his boss, President Clinton, he's thoroughly conversant with the new technology. But he went too far with that claim, and he knows it.

From this vantage point, at least, Gore did everything possible to steer clear of the Y2K thicket, likely assuming that if it turned bad, he'd be blamed. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement of leadership.

On the other hand, as vice president, there might have been no upside for his public involvement. Koskinen could work his magic without anyone doubting his motives or taking political potshots at him. The same could not be said for presidential candidate Gore. How could anyone separate Gore's legitimate interest in helping to fix the computer problem from his political ambition? In an increasingly interlocked world, there will be more problems coming up that require creative solutions to the challenges of information technology. It is certainly a vote of confidence that the world, led by that big lumbering beast, has so far passed the first major hurdle.

McClatchy Newspapers political editor John Jacobs' column appears in The Bee on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached by phone at 321-1914; by fax at 321-1996; by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA, 95852-0779; or by e-mail at

-- John Whitley (, January 08, 2000

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