If the enemy of any respectable journalist is boredom and predictability, then the American economy over the past 10 years has been a business journalist's friend indeed. Two major recessions, sky-rocketing interest rates, a global oil crisis, the decline of "smokestack" America, the emergence of Japan as a tenacious international competitor -- there has been enough bad news to make even the most diffident economic observer sit up and take notice.
Yet during this same period, something remarkable has been happening to the U.S. economy. In the midst of enough troubles to stagnate even the most robust economic system, our marketplace has blossomed. While employment in the largest industrial companies has been shrinking by some 1.5 million jobs, the economy as a whole has added more than 20 million new jobs over the past decade, thanks largely to the breathless pace of new-business formation. Last year alone, some 1 million Americans started new business enterprises of some sort, giving the U.S. economy a vitality that has become the envy of political and economic leaders throughout the world.
This phenomenon is, of course, familiar to the readers of INC. During the past six years, we have done our best to chronicle the reemergence of entrepreneurship in America -- probing its causes, dramatizing its evolution, exploring its consequences for small companies and large companies, for employers and employees alike. Nevertheless, we have occasionally sensed that we were missing something, that the change occurring in our economy was broader and more profound than we realized. In this regard, we were struck by the observation of George Gilder in these pages last September ("Fear of Capitalism") that the act of starting a company can be viewed, ultimately, as an act of economic rebellion, a challenge to conventional thinking about the nature of economic and social opportunity. Multiply that act a million times each year, and we are talking about a change in our society and culture that rivals the great watersheds of American economic history.
And so, early this year, senior editor Curtis Hartman set out to look beyond the numbers, to try to capture something of the spirit of the current entrepreneurial moment. For three months, he traveled around the country, speaking with more than 120 Americans: business celebrities and people who had never talked to a journalist; the heads of some of America's largest companies and the owner of East Bottom Salvage in Kansas City, Mo.; labor leaders, immigrants, political theorists, and a small-town librarian turned chief executive officer of a computer company. He visited 29 states, flew 8,473 miles, and compiled 127 hours of taped interviews. "I developed a lot of empathy for traveling salesmen," says Hartman. "It was exhausting, going from airport to rental car to hotel to interview to airport, and so on. There wasn't a day when I didn't get lost."
But out of this ordeal emerged a remarkable tableau -- a mosaic really -- rich with the individual experiences and observations of the people who are reshaping the American economy -- and who are being reshaped by it. What Hartman came back with was, in essence, a portrait of a nation being economically reborn. So powerful was the portrait that we thought it appropriate to pause from our usual activities on this, the 209th anniversary of our country's founding, and devote all of our feature-article space to Hartman's special report, which begins on page 46. If nothing else, it demonstrates that the spirit of independence is as alive in America today as it was two centuries ago.
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