Economic History Made by Small American Businesses

By Silk, Leonard | THE JOURNAL RECORD, April 12, 1986 | Go to article overview

Economic History Made by Small American Businesses


Silk, Leonard, THE JOURNAL RECORD


NEW YORK - Traditional history is preoccupied with kings, generals and presidents, sometimes even with vice presidents.

Indeed, Vice President Bush made some sort of history this week by journeying to the Middle East to meet with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to discuss - what?

Bush first said he would discuss the need for greater stability of oil prices but wound up saying, according to his press spokesmen, that he discussed the commitment of the Reagan administration toa free market in oil and everything else.

As for Fahd, he told Bush that Saudi Arabia had ""been given a bum rap'' for the chaos in oil markets, according to a senior United States official speaking at Dhahran, presumably translating ""a bum rap'' from the original Arabic.

While historians, economists and investors were struggling to figure out what the Fahd, Bush and the president were really saying, economic history of another kind continued to be made.

However, it was made by the sort of inconspicuous people and small businesses that a breed of modern historians, best exemplified by the late French scholar Fernand Braudel, considers more worthy of notice as the shapers of history.

That contemporary school is traced back to a French observer of the American scene, Alexis de Tocqueville, who a century and a half ago wrote:

""I accost an American sailor and inquire why the ships of his country are built so as to last for only a short time; he answers, without hesitation, that the art of navigation is every day making such rapid progress that the finest vessel would become almost useless if it lasted beyond a few years.

"In these words, which fell accidentally and on a particular subject from an uninstructed man, I recognize the general and systematic idea upon which a great people direct all their concerns.''

The American economy, with its hard-driving entrepreneurial spirit and its innovativeness, remains an object of respect and envy in the world.

That holds for Japan, despite its huge surplus in trade with the United States.

It holds for the Soviet Union, despite its ideological opposition to capitalism.

It also holds, perhaps most of all these days, for Western Europe, where political and business leaders have worried about their countries' loss of dynamism, failure to create jobs or cure unemployment - an ailment known as Eurosclerosis.

One sees the contrasting dynamism of the American economy especially in its small businesses, run by people who do not make the kind of ""history'' that kings and presidents do.

The United States has 14 million businesses with fewer than 500 employees each, constituting 97 percent of all American companies.

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