MARINA WHITMAN launches her discussion of the 21st century with the inbred caution of an economist making a forecast. ``The whole premise is impossible,'' she says with a smile over a tuna sandwich in her book-filled 14th-floor office in the stately old General Motors Building here. ``If you really knew what kind of knowledge or thoughts you were going to have in the future, you'd have them now.'' All she can do, she says, is to ``identify [some] contemporary trends and developments that seem to be threads in the fabric of the future.''
For her, that translates into a single overriding issue governing all the items on the next century's agenda. She calls it ``a search for balance.''
In her view, the problems facing humanity deal less with black-and-white choices than with the need to subtly weigh alternatives. ``You give up resources of some things to get others,'' she says. ``Not that there are never synergies: There are. But there are also constant trade-offs.''
Dr. Whitman notes what she calls ``the catastrophic scenarios'' of a nuclear holocaust or a 14th-century kind of plague induced by AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). ``One has to dismiss those [scenarios],'' she says, ``not because they're impossible but simply because you can't say anything sensible about them, really.'' So, setting them aside, she turns to her first agenda item: the balancing between national identities and a worldwide market.
``One of the most obvious [trends],'' she says, ``is a very rapid global integration of markets - markets for goods, markets for services, markets for technology, markets for ideas.
``At the same time, as far as goods are concerned,'' she adds, there has been ``a certain erosion of national identity.''
As evidence, she cites the fact that ``it's getting harder and harder to tell what's an American car or a Japanese radio. It may be made by Motorola, [but] part of it was put together in Singapore and another part in Mexico, and it was finally assembled in the United States.''
Nevertheless, she says, ``There is still a very strong sense in people of nationalism, of a need for community. Nobody can quite deal with the global village as a community.''
The result is that ``there's a kind of a tension there. You have this global integration of everything, and you have at the same time a strong sense of nationalism in the populations of most, if not all countries.''
``I am an internationalist by training [and] by emotions,'' she says, ``and I have strong feelings about the need for international cooperation in the economic sphere. When I was very young I had the sort of internationalist visions that were very popular at the time - that you could kind of abolish national boundaries.''
Now, she says, ``I don't think that's such a terrific idea, because I think people do need some kind of framework and community.'' For that reason, she says, ``the nation-state has become a kind of logical focus.'' Free-market benefits ON the one hand, the thrust toward globalization has produced, in her view, solid benefits. ``There's no question that a lot of the rapid growth of world output and living standards in the postwar period was underlined by a progressive freeing up of markets and increases in international trade.''
But because of the countercurrent of nationalism, she says, ``there are always pressures to put up barriers to that global integration - whether they are trade barriers, or discrimination against foreign investors, or very restrictive immigration laws.''
``I think one of the things we're going to go into the 21st century with, somewhat unresolved, is this question of how you reconcile these in the optimal way,'' Whitman says. The goal, she adds, will be to ``reap all the benefits of global integration of markets - in terms of efficiency and consumer choice and the increasing incorporation of larger and larger parts of the world into this international interaction - and at the same time not interfere too much with people's sense of national identity.''
Closely related to that issue, and high on the agenda of items for the next century to deal with, is a second point: the growth of global competition. ``You have lots of new players in the game, and the cast of characters changes very fast,'' she says.
``You have countries not only like Japan - which went from being one of the lowest per capita income countries after World War II to one of the highest in the world - but like Taiwan, [South] Korea, and Brazil, and so forth, which are very fast joining this crowd. And with that come very rapid shifts in patterns of production and employment and so forth - because of the diffusion of technology and because of rapid changes in comparative advantage and production patterns and trade patterns.''
``The phenomena are nothing new,'' she adds, ``but the speed with which they're occurring is.''
``All of that tends to increase uncertainty,'' she says, ``and people don't like uncertainty ... which is caused by change. On the other hand, of course, if you put a stop to change you would have a pretty disastrous world.''
The answer, for her, lies once again in a delicate balance. ``One is constantly searching - and I think will still be searching as we move into the next century - for ways of cushioning adjustment, of minimizing the pain of economic dislocation, which don't, at the same time, unduly hold up the process of change and progress. And that's hard,'' she concludes.
A third item on Whitman's agenda has to do with the effects of what she calls ``privatization,'' ``denationalization,'' or ``deregulation.''
On the one hand, she says, there is ``a tendency for greater reliance on the marketplace.'' On the other, ``we are tending, in quite a different sense, to `socialize' those very same institutions'' that have been deregulated.
``I'm not talking now about `socialism' with the capital `S' but `socialize' with the small `s,''' she explains. Her point, she says, is that since World War II ``society has been holding businesses responsible for the fulfillment of a wide variety of social goals.''
``Some of that comes through the [governmental] regulatory process,'' she explains, by which corporations have increasingly been held responsible ``for the quality of the environment, for safety, for fuel efficiency, for employment, for job security, for fairness, for democratization of the decisionmaking process as far as stockholders are concerned.''
Here she takes issue, mildly, with noted free-market economist Milton Friedman - who, she notes, ``once said that the sole social purpose of a corporation is to make profit.''
``There's a certain sense in which that's true,'' she says, noting that for a company, ``the profit is the ante. If you don't make profits you can't stay in the game and you can't do anything else useful. But it's also very clear that society does not regard that as the only goal. There is a kind of implicit social compact under which corporations, businesses, exist, in which they are expected to do a good deal more than that and are expected to fulfill a great many goals.''
Some of those goals, she says, are ``inherently and internally in conflict'' - such as the pressure to build safer cars that are also smaller and more fuel-efficient. The conflict, she says, ``may be as simple as the laws of physics that tell you that when you downsize a car, all other things being equal, it's not going to be as safe.''
As the next century approaches, she foresees a ``reduced pace'' of ``social regulation'' promulgated by government. ``I think we've had a good deal of experience with government regulation,'' she says - enough to prove that it can ``turn out to be a rather costly and not always very effective way'' to achieve society's goals. But that doesn't mean, she says, that ``society has any less expectations of these entities called businesses or corporations.''
The result must be, again, a delicate balance. ``On the one hand, it's almost impossible to multiply these [social] demands without increasing cost. [But] to the extent which you raise production costs, you will tend to reduce the competitiveness - and thereby reduce [the corporation's] ability to fulfill another social goal, which has to do with providing stable and well-paid jobs.''
``If you ask me, as the person in charge of public affairs at General Motors who has come out of an economics background, what are the two big challenges confronting this corporation - and to some extent any corporation - it's the need to become and remain globally competitive, which is an absolute imperative, and to meet this plethora of social goals which are a part of this implicit compact with society.'' The need for balance TURNING to still another area where, in the future, there will be ``tension and the need for balance,'' Whitman points to what she calls ``a tremendous decline in the sources of authority.
``Whether it's in terms of the family, or of the church, or of the school, or of the state or the government, clearly the sense of authority possessed by any such group has very substantially eroded.''
``I do think that it is important that we do find ways of reestablishing some center of moral authority,'' she says. And, while she insists that ``I'm not going to sit here and say which ones they should be,'' she admits that ``I've got a personal preference.''
``I think the family is a pretty good institution,'' she says. ``I think it's a good deal more flexible institution than many of its strongest supporters want to admit.''
Does today's shifting of ethics have economic consequences? Here she points to the workplace. ``When people teach courses in business ethics,'' she says, ``they tend to talk about [the idea that] you shouldn't steal.'' That, she says, ``goes without saying. The really interesting question of business ethics is how do you reconcile conflicting goals?''
She poses the question of how to build an automobile that is 100 percent safe. Theoretically, she says, it could perhaps be done. But you would end up, she adds, ``with something of infinite cost and zero value.''
``What's right?'' she asks. ``Where do you stop? How far do you go in filling goals which increase cost [and] which offset your ability to become competitive and provide more jobs? How do you balance these things?''
She sees a willingness to consider these things - and a greater interest in authority - in the rising generation. ``The generation that's coming up now,'' she says, ``seems to be combining a kind of conservatism - and certainly a good deal of commitment to the work ethic, which some people say comes out of the '50s - with a kind of sense of the need for individual self-fulfillment that comes out of the '60s and '70s.'' Youth's groping for `synthesis' `WE may not be totally pleased'' with their attitudes, she says, citing the level of ``concern about the materialism of the younger generation.'' But she adds that ``I think they're groping for some kind of synthesis.''
The result, she says, will be yet another ``tension'' that society will carry into the 21st century. One place it will show up, she says, is in ``what you might call workplace relations.''
``Labor relations,'' she points out, ``is almost an obsolete term.'' Instead, she says, both labor and management are sensing ``a very strong need to move from an adversarial to a cooperative model - whether it's driven by the demands of international competition, by the lessons we learn from the Japanese, [or] by the needs of an increasingly more educated and more self-conscious work force.''
``The fact is,'' she says with a smile, ``that people exist from the shoulders up as well as the shoulders down. And the guy who does the job may be indeed the greatest living expert on what the problems are and how it could be done better.''
Focusing on that kind of ``workplace relations,'' she says, is ``critically important'' for the future - not only at General Motors but across American industry. But even that requires a delicate balance - since, she says, any corporation has to remain ``rapidly responsive to changes in consumers' taste or to changes in the external environment.''
``That requires the maintenance of a decisionmaking capacity,'' she says.
``You can't democratize things in such a way that you paralyze them. And that ties into the point before: You have to legitimize authority, but you have to legitimize it in nonauthoritarian ways where people are participants in it.''
Next: Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States, Dec. 30.