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A Whiff of McCarthyism : Japan-bashing: Author Pat Choate exposes 'horrors' that are no more than ordinary lobbying, perhaps more benign than the American brand.

September 08, 1990|MICHAEL KINSLEY | Michael Kinsley writes the TRB column for the New Republic.

"Today Japan controls the most sophisticated and successful political-economic machine in the United States." So writes Pat Choate in a Harvard Business Review excerpt from his long-awaited book about the Japan lobby, "Agents of Influence."

Choate says Japanese interests spend $400 million a year influencing political opinion in the United States. This includes everything from hiring Washington lawyers to funding academic studies. If it also includes sneaking opiates into the water supply, Choate hasn't found out, although his ominous, Hitchcockian prose style leads you to expect such horrors.

What do the Japanese get for their $400 million? Choate's contention that Japan has succeeded in brainwashing the American people into a state of catatonic approval is laughable.

Choate flourishes a 1986 speech by Eddie Mahe Jr., "a leading Republican political consultant and a paid adviser to the Japanese embassy," to some Japanese businessmen about how to approach American governors. Choate summarizes Mahe's advice. First, "couch all issues in terms of jobs." Second, "Couch trade issues in real rather than theoretical terms." Third, meet with as many public officials as possible. Soon you will be "investing in or opening up a plant in the United States." Choate does not say how much Mahe got paid for giving away these deep American secrets. Nor does he explain what is so awful about offering to create jobs and open factories, or about governors succumbing to such temptations.

The Washington industry of influence-for-hire is indeed deplorable. Maybe it's more deplorable for big shots to sell their influence to foreigners than to domestic interests. But surely there is a more important ethical question: Are you using your influence to promote bad policies or good policies? Lobbyists for Japanese companies usually push to keep America's markets open. Lobbyists for "American" interests usually push for trade restrictions. Restrictions may help their clients, but they hurt American citizens in general.

Choate's dunderheadedness on this point is illustrated by one of his rare examples of a Japanese lobbying success. Last year the federal government redefined light trucks (of the sort bought mostly for home use) as cars, rather than trucks, for purposes of import duties. Cars pay a duty of 2.5%; trucks pay 25%. The Japanese "financed a public relations campaign built on the theme that the opposite ruling would harm U.S. consumers by increasing prices on light trucks." Which, of course, it would.

"Japan is a closed political market," Choate says. And: "Any Japanese government official who would go to work for an American company in Tokyo would be ostracized." This is simply wrong. According to Michael Berger in the San Francisco Chronicle, many major American corporations (IBM, Salomon Brothers, etc.) have former Japanese officials on their payrolls in Tokyo. They earn their keep the same way former American officials do: supplying information, lobbying their former colleagues, and so on.

Choate objects to the label "McCarthyism" for his line of patter. Certainly it is not McCarthyite merely to criticize Japan. But Choate's talk of "agents," his easy accusations of disloyalty, his woozy mixture of falsehoods, half-truths and exaggerations, all strike a familiar chord:

"American companies, pressed in the market for the consumer's favor, may nowface the defection of their own government as an ally in global competition. For the American public, the issue is even more stark. With so much Japanese money influencing so many officials in government, the question for the American people is, 'Who do you trust?' "

What would you call that?

Choate is a classic Washington type, the policy hustler. He makes his living marketing ideas. His income depends on keeping those ideas simple, extreme, and appealing. Until recently he was "vice president for policy analysis" at TRW Corp. Nice work if you can get it. Choate and TRW have now parted ways, apparently over "Agents of Influence." "His departure, to (his) friends, is proof of the book's thesis," according to a newspaper article. It's hard to get indignant. Live by policy, die by policy.

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