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Deficit Dollars Come Home to Shop : BUYING INTO AMERICA How Foreign Money Is Changing the Face of Our Nation by Martin and Susan Tolchin (Times Books: $19.95; 400 pp.)

March 27, 1988|Douglas Frantz | Frantz, a Times financial reporter, is the author of "Levine & Co.: Wall Street's Insider Trading Scandal" (Henry Holt).

Something extraordinary is going on in the United States, as the front page of this newspaper made clear not long ago with three stories on the same day: Japanese companies cut deals to buy Union Bank in Los Angeles for $750 million and Firestone's tire factories for $1 billion, while a Canadian developer waged a $6-billion hostile takeover bid for the parent of such retail names as Bullock's, Bloomingdale's and Ralph's. Those stories represent just the latest forays in a foreign buying binge that has gone largely undocumented and unquestioned despite its potential effect on the nation's ability to control its destiny.

"Foreign money is changing the face of America, the lives of Americans, and the nature of our political process," Martin and Susan Tolchin write in the introduction to a superbly researched and carefully written book, which should be required reading for every politician and executive in the country.

What has happened is that the United States has gone from a creditor nation to a debtor state. And debtor nations, the authors point out, "live on the brink of crisis. They are owned by foreign investors--by individuals, by nations, and by other forces beyond their control."

By the count of the Tolchins, at least $1.3 trillion worth of foreign investment has poured into the United States. The largest investors are the British, who have been at it the longest, followed by the Dutch and the Japanese. The Japanese have become the most active investors in the last three years, buying skyscrapers from Los Angeles to New York, building factories across the country and acquiring a significant stake in the nation's financial industry.

Foreign investment can be viewed as a positive factor, as U.S. multinational companies claimed when they built and bought abroad in the 1950s and 1960s. But the record levels of foreign investment should compel a national debate over how much foreign investment is good for the United States and whether our doors should remain open to countries that close theirs to U.S. investment. But that debate has been stymied by two factors, one unreasonable and one unconscionable. Unreasonable is the fear that merely raising the issue might scare away the investors that Americans need to continue financing deficit spending, a short-sighted argument most often advanced by the Reagan Administration. Unconscionable is the absence of reliable data on who owns America.

Only an injection of spine in political leaders and restraint in government and consumers can cure the first problem. But the authors of "Buying Into America" go further than anyone yet toward resolving the second dilemma by documenting the extent of foreign investment, as far as possible. The authors explain that two dozen federal agencies collect data on foreign investments but that crucial gaps and legal loopholes allow up to half of the foreign investment to go unreported and permit foreigners to conceal their identities.

The Tolchins' book is most interesting when it raises questions about the economic soundness of the extensive giveaways used by state and local governments to lure foreign factories, often at the expense of their American competitors; and when it portrays the rising influence of foreign investors on our political process.

One of the best chapters shows how executives and lobbyists for foreign companies used threats, influence and money to cause the repeal of California's unitary tax in 1986. It also illustrates the shocking willingness of some of the state's legislators to sell out to them.

The Tolchins do an excellent job of raising provocative questions without stooping to hysteria or xenophobia. Martin Tolchin is a Washington correspondent for the New York Times, and Susan Tolchin is a professor of public administration at George Washington University there. They are a husband-wife team that has written three previous books and, as might be expected from their backgrounds, the results can be a bit dry and scholarly. But perhaps the detachment is a plus, for this book is far more than a string of anecdotes in search of substance.

A more important criticism is that the authors go too lightly on the other side of the investment coin: the eagerness of American businesses, such as Firestone, to sell out to the highest bidder without regard for the country's economic future. This short-term focus, a hallmark of U.S. business in the 1980s, represents a far greater threat to American economic independence than foreign investment.

Nonetheless, "Buying Into America" is an excellent work, and its authors have provided significant new information and sharp insights into questions that must be answered before everything in the country is sold to the highest bidders.

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