A few weeks ago, I watched the 1994 movie “Disclosure” again. It’s been years since I first saw it.
You know it: Demi Moore as a boss and Michael Douglas as her direct report at DigiCom, a tech company in Pioneer Square. She’s an old girlfriend, and even though the Douglas character is now happily married, Moore’s character “forces” herself on him. When he refuses to continue the affair, she files a sexual-harassment complaint against him. He fights back, showing that a man can be victimized, too.
The turned-tables story of sex and power is not nearly as interesting as the reminder of America not even 20 years ago, yet so different that it might as well be another planet. It’s a cautionary tale about the difficulty of making assumptions about the future, whether for industries or nations.
Back then, Pioneer Square was hip, the ferry system was well-funded — Douglas’ character Tom Sanders lives on Bainbridge Island — and Seattle, so magically photogenic, was a thrilling character in itself.
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Such confections as Starbucks and Nordstrom were still new to most Americans. Microsoft had been a public company for only eight years and the antitrust case was four years off. Kerry Killinger was fairly new in the top job at Washington Mutual.
The film shows geeks working on impossibly large desktop computers. Did we really thrill over such dinosaurs? Email is brand new. Building the best CD-ROM is a major competitive advantage.
The Next Big Thing product of DigiCom is a (sort-of) virtual-reality system that one uses wearing a visor and glove, while standing on what looks like a small trampoline.
Except for the virtual “angel” the user can speak to for help, most of what it does can be accomplished today with a smartphone.
What’s most arresting is the optimism about the economy that would strike Americans today as shockingly naive.
To be sure, the movie contains a backbeat of paranoia. After the mild 1991 recession, the nation had suffered through its first modern “jobless recovery.”
Tom rides the ferry with an unemployed executive. “Twenty-eight years with IBM. Did I ever tell you what they told me? I was surplused,” the man says. “Smaller, faster, cheaper, better. One day, boom.”
But most moviegoers didn’t identify with him. He was an old guy in a white shirt, suit and tie.
In the previous decade, hundreds of thousands of steelworkers and autoworkers had lost their jobs. But the experts explained it away. Better days were ahead.
And indeed, the 1990s saw a record 17 million net new jobs created, although even then wages for many were sluggish.
Unemployment at the end of 1994 was 5.5 percent. By December 1999, it stood at 4.0 percent.
The decade saw tremendous job churn, with plenty of layoffs, but new work always beckoned. I changed jobs three times, always moving on to a better-paying position.
Most identified with Tom. He’s expecting a promotion, and with DigiCom planning a merger and spinoff, cashing out his stock options.
“We’re going to be rich … really, really rich,” he tells his wife, Susan, as they drive away from their Bainbridge domestic idyll.
The long bull market was just beginning, and it seemed as if a broad investor middle class would indeed get rich, really rich.
We could all aspire to be Microsoft millionaires. Day trading would soon blossom. The dot-com boom was taking off, with its companies that had wildly high market valuations — no matter that they had little or no real earnings.
Not for the last time, we were told that the old business cycle was dead.
The movie also portrays globalization in a benign light. Tom oversees manufacturing in Malaysia, where his foreman is named Mohammed.
And why not? NAFTA was coming online, despite an economic collapse in Mexico. And while Ross Perot warned of “a giant sucking sound” from lost U.S. jobs, he had been demolished in debate by then Vice President Al Gore; Americans had always been net winners from liberalized trade.
The trauma of 9/11 was only the stuff for movies.
Donald Sutherland plays a pitch-perfect mendacious, venal company CEO. But we knew he wouldn’t win, in the movie at least.
Few in ’94 paid attention to the fact that the character was already embodied in the likes of General Electric’s Jack Welch. The times were so good that Welch was lionized and his brutal management style widely aped across corporate America.
The Sutherland character personified the real-life executives whose swindles would help bring down the boom with the likes of Enron, HealthSouth and WorldCom.
Later, similar bad actors would seed the Great Recession, and their growing political power would co-opt regulators and start the great redistribution of wealth to the richest.
No, this was the 1990s. We still believed that the free market was real, not a gamed market. That fair play would win out, as it did in the movie.
Now the world shown in “Disclosure” seems like a dream. The dot-com crash wiped out thousands of companies and Seattle was among the cities that suffered the worst.
Globalism is a reality, but millions of Americans are unemployed and underemployed, while those working have seen their wages stagnate and polls show a majority worry that their children will not see a better life.
At the movie’s end, the merger is consummated. Employees fill the chic atrium of DigiCom’s headquarters to applaud wildly.
Even in those days, in the real world, many would have lost their jobs as a result. Now, only a fortunate few would be clapping.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org