Oh, Sure. Now They're Sorry Y2K idiots cost business $500 billion! Is no one to be punished?
(FORTUNE Magazine) – It is clear by now that the nations, companies, and individuals that did nothing because they were too stupid to prepare for the Y2K global disaster fared exactly as well as AT&T, which reportedly spent more than $500 million on the problem. In Burkina Faso and Tasmania and Totowa, N.J., it was all the same. That is, it was nothing. Not even a small burp that could make us say, "Gee, it was a nonevent, but at least we didn't have that little gas problem to contend with."
In short, we were had. Our fear of numbers and cosmic occurrences was played masterfully by nuts of all varieties, and we fell, just as tonsured monks trembled before the end of the world that was coming at the turn of the year 1000. And now? Now, I'm afraid, I am not amused.
Names must be taken. Asses must be kicked. If you went to a doctor who made you get a bypass when all you required was a roll of Tums, you'd be in a bad mood about it. Well, look what these bozos made us do, goddamn it!
They made us spend a ton of money. The total price tag seems to be upwards of half a trillion dollars. How many Porsche Boxsters could that buy for people who can't afford one? At my company we set up two redundant bunkers, each staffed with weary midlevel managers, who basically spent the entire New Year's weekend playing canasta. Dozens of shmendricks had to ignore their families for no reason whatsoever.
We issued satellite phones that were not dependent on cells or landlines to every senior officer, so we could all be in touch with each other as the social fabric was rent asunder. We had committees and readiness panels up the wazoo. An army of nerds was deployed against this thing.
They wrecked our New Year's Eve. I had a dinner engagement that night. I was required to tote my satellite phone to the Dolgens' house, where it became an object of derision. It was big, by the way, and came with a sizable beeper that was supposedly able to reach me even if, say, Russian mushrooms were blooming over Manhattan. I spent the best part of the night wondering whether I should be checking in with somebody.
They scared us. Particularly the innocent, like children and high-tech writers. For days prior to the event, my son, who is 13, was agitated about the possibility that nuclear weapons could be launched on Jan. 1. There were lines at the bank. People got enough water to submerge their SUVs. Society was even more paranoid and edgy than usual. Thanks, we needed that.
They made themselves famous and rich! How much dough do you think Kyocera, the maker of our satellite phones, earned on this thing? How many pundits sold books and articles to credulous magazines like this one?
And now they apologize, all of them. Well, it just won't do. Somebody must be crushed. Ah, but who? I'll tell you.
Let's start with the gullible media. In this regard, huzzah to our friends at Business Week, which just about started the whole hysteria binge with a cover story entitled "ZAP! How the Year 2000 Bug Will Hurt the Economy," a fear fest that included all kinds of dire prognostications. "Indeed, the Y2K bug is shaping up to have a profoundly negative impact on the U.S. economy--starting almost immediately," the magazine wrote in early 1998. "The growth rate in 1999 will be 0.3 percentage points lower as companies divert resources to fix the problem. Then Y2K could cut half a percentage point off growth in 2000 and early 2001. That would be the same size as the expected economic damage from the turmoil in East Asia." Wow! We all know what happened there. Asia practically collapsed! That was supposed to happen to us. Except it didn't.
Next, let's toast (literally, if possible) computer industry executives who tried to generate business for themselves. Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, can be our poster boy here. In early 1999 he said, "My recommendation is to buy a lot of computers in the second half of this year.... Given what we know about Asia, it might not be a bad idea to stockpile computers"--thus neatly mixing three great Western themes at the end of the millennium: fear of Asia, fear of the millennium, and the desire to capitalize on both.
Financial types who used their positions to terrify us about our money must be noted too. I actually went to high school with Ed Yardeni, the economist for Deutsche Bank, and I remember him even then as a very nice but slightly jittery guy. He seems to have continued in that vein. "I doubt that all computer systems in the world will be completely fixed," he said at one point. "If that's the case, then some will fail, possibly causing widespread disruptions at critical choke points of vital economic systems and a global recession." Ed stated that the probability of such a recession was 70%. "I'm not making any excuses," he told FORTUNE in the last issue, playing the honesty card right up front. That was right after he said he didn't feel foolish because "I based my concerns on officially available data coming out of congressional hearings, from the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Management and Budget." An honest mistake, then? Phooey, I say. Up your mea culpas, Ed! And let's catch up real soon!
And then there were the professional Jeremiahs, like Gary North, self-proclaimed Web messenger of doom, who I imagine could barely see over the beard of spittle he was producing. He now writes on his Website: "I am certainly willing to say that my assessment of the threat, as things have played out, was incorrect." This is the same nitwit who in October was saying that Y2K was "the biggest problem that the modern world has ever faced." Your 15 minutes are over, Gary.
What should be done with these people? We can't kill them, since stupidity is not a capital offense, even in this century. We can, however, hit them over the head with sticks. That's what I plan to do. The next time I see any of these guys, I'm going to rear back and hit them over the head with a nice big tree branch, or possibly a cane, particularly if they are speaking. Let me know if you come up with a better solution, but until then, that will be mine.
Sometimes the old technologies work the best.
By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name.