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California Dreamin’

Irwin M. Stelzer

There I was, in a posh resort south of Los Angeles, addressing an audience of mostly lawyers. I had arrived a few days early to see some clients and, in the lingo of the aging hippies of nearby Laguna Beach, “chill out” by catching the NCAA semifinals and a Knicks game on Pacific Coast time.

This would hardly be worthy of note except that, to my complete surprise, I heard myself opening my talk with: “Thank you for inviting me. Before getting into the economic issues of the political campaign, I would like to say that a few days out of Washington leave me suddenly optimistic. Not only about the economy, but about the future of America.“ 

Once the talk was finished, I tried to piece together what had prompted that unpremeditated statement about discovering cause for optimism outside the Beltway. It certainly wasn’t the fabled California weather, mostly cold and rainy during our brief stay. Nor was it the availability of what I am told are great golf courses: I don’t play, such facilities not having been available in my old neighborhood or accessible to the likes of me at restricted suburban country clubs. Nor was my newfound cheer due to the proximity of lovely beachfront paths: My wife Cita was hobbling with a cane after a fall in London en route to a concert at her beloved Wigmore Hall.

No, the reasons for my unexpected optimism were quite different from those of the usual vacationer or conventioneer.

For one thing, I had spent a few days talking to people who are in the business of creating wealth, rather than figuring out how to take the wealth others have created and give it to others still. I’d heard builders hard hit by the recession talk about putting to use the “land banks” they had acquired at low cost. Now they can build and sell houses at prices competitive with rentals. They are finding new markets: second-home buyers, Canadians fleeing harsh winters, foreign investors looking to buy properties to rent and then sell when the market strengthens. Not all the entrepreneurial ingenuity resides in the high-tech sectors of Silicon Valley and its offshoots scattered from Austin to New York City.

Lawyers—another group who, having thought themselves immune, had seen fees drop and colleagues laid off—had talked about the revival of deals, mergers by clients pursuing strategic advantages and better ways to reach and satisfy consumers. They told how they had revised their business models to accommodate more fee-conscious clients, as the shift continues from traditional industries to those no one had ever heard of a few years ago. Even law school, with its dreary courses in contracts and the like, apparently cannot snuff out American entrepreneurial ingenuity.

Limo drivers turned out to be people who were pocketing a bit of cash so they could pursue their dreams—businesses they hope will put them in the back seat rather than the driver’s seat someday.

Before giving my talk I had visited the shopping malls that surround the marble-clad resort and seen everyday America, something I try to do when I’m traveling to verify or contradict official statistics on the state of the economy. In a decidedly middle-priced eatery—The Cheesecake Factory—Cita and I sat opposite a table of eight coworkers taking lunch together. (No one in Los Angeles merely eats lunch with colleagues, clients, or friends. They “take” lunch.) Eight diners, eight ethnicities.

We did a bit of shopping. Salespeople hailed from everywhere: Japan, Iran, even culturally faraway New York. All vigorous, none obsequious, all seemingly proud of what they were selling, all civil. None of the sullen attitude we often experience in Washington, or the how-dare-you-interrupt-my-day-by-buying-something that is our common experience in London. 

Then there were the corporate types we met. They offered none of the whining about taxes and regulation that is the steady plaint of their Washington representatives. Sure, they want lower taxes, not so much on their personal incomes as on the companies for which they work. And, yes, they find regulations more than annoying, especially those who work for or run companies in the health care and energy sectors. But the overall attitude seemed to be that they can play with any cards the government chooses to deal them so long as they can reasonably count on stable rules of the game.

My conclusion: Washington is not America. Not close. We’ll be fine.

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