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Remember Who's the Customer Here : Trade: It will hurt us less not to buy things than it will hurt Japan not to sell them. Perhaps it's time to stop talking and act.

April 01, 1990|Tom Clancy | Tom Clancy's latest book is "Clear and Present Danger."

PRINCE FREDERICK, Md. — I've never been an economist. I wouldn't know John Maynard Keynes if I tripped over his headstone. But I used to be a businessman who had to meet a payroll and serve a bunch of clients, which is evidently something that the majority of economists have never done. I am also one of those rare Americans who helps with the Japanese trade imbalance. Japanese citizens read a lot of my books, and my publisher there pays top dollar for the right to reprint my work.

Japanese trade officials are now telling their American counterparts what is wrong with America. We pay our senior executives too much. We use too many credit cards. We don't save enough. We should eliminate the interest deduction for home mortgages. All of a sudden a light flashed on in my head, the one that says: Now, wait a minute.

Unless things have changed greatly since the last time I checked, it is the Japanese who are selling things to us. And when I was in the insurance business, I never told a client he had to change his lifestyle in order to buy more insurance from me. I was never all that great a salesman, but neither was I ever that dumb or impolite or insulting. Of course, I was always dealing with real people, not U.S. government trade representatives.

There is much that is artificial about our relationship with Japan. Some aspects of that relationship make very little sense--unless, that is, you are not a businessman but one of those happy creatures blessed by an Ivy-League MBA and an intrinsic need to apologize for your country at the drop of a fax.

First of all, the nation we call Japan is itself one of the most unusual creations of human history. A horrendously overcrowded country, it has little-to-no natural resources. Early development of public-health skills, more than millennium ago, placed that country in a constant state of population explosion, which in turn forced development of a warrior caste, the samurai, who needed a near-constant internal war just to keep their own numbers down.

Any disparaging comment about the Japanese is deemed--by them--a form of "bashing," but there are prominent voicesin Japan that are virulently racist. A prime minister even suggested that America cannot compete with Japan because of our mix of races.

There are currents of thought that see the Japanese as a kind of master race in much the same way that Hitler's true believers viewed the Germans. The difference is that, were a German political leader to say that America's problems result from too many blacks and Latinos in our population, he'd be hung from a lamppost, but a Japanese political leadercan say: "Oh, sorry; you see, I never meant for you Americans to hear that remark." And all is forgiven. After all, this is America, and people can bash us all they want.

The Japanese lost World War II. They started a war of aggression, attacking our country without warning. They murdered more Chinese than Hitler killed Jews and garnered a reputation for barbarism unseen since Tamerlane. Their plan for winning the war was based on the racial-superiority myth that manifestly has yet to fade into history. Americans would never fight hard enough to defeat them--we'd never pay the price necessary to win the war. The Japanese were right, oddly enough. We never did pay the price they expected to inflict, since we inflicted losses of more than 10-to-1 almost every time we took them on.

They still want us to feel sorry for the nuclear-bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, forgetting the fact that the war was their doing. Under our protection after the war, they built shiny new factories on land cleared by the Boeing B-29. Their management techniques came from American teachers. We thought we did a better job than we actually did. Some aspects of their society resisted change much better than we acknowledge even now, but on the whole what we did to Japan may have been the best thing in their history.

The Japanese save more than we do. Well, that's true, but why is it true? Japan's actual standard of living is not consistent with the country's material prosperity. Its wealthiest citizens live in dwellings that Americans characterize as "rabbit hutches," and that cost on the order of half a million dollars. The Japanese do not spend much on consumer goods because even if they did buy the things they want, they would have no place to put them. As a consequence, consumer goods considered vital here scarcely exist there.

The Japanese themselves could change this. The size and price of housing depends on the availability of land, but land-use policy is so bizarre that it is regularly reported that the book value of xxxxxx

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