A Cure in Search of a Disease
Stephen Chapman Copyright Creators Syndicate Inc., St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Losers have an understandable urge to blame others for their fate, but winners usually feel no need to find scapegoats. The Clinton administration is an exception. It refuses to let sunny economic news lighten its grim mood of dissatisfaction with the Japanese.
Now that the Cold War is over, Japan fills the role previously assigned to the Soviet Union, providing an ever-present external threat demanding ceaseless resistance. That danger is the pretext for President Bill Clinton's decision to revive a law permitting heavy trade sanctions against any country charged with trying to keep out American products. You can probably guess which nation is No. 1 on the most-wanted list.
Japan's crimes are two. The first is general: It habitually exports more goods to the United States than it imports from the United States. Last year, our trade deficit with Japan amounted to $59 billion, which supposedly destroys American jobs.
The second is particular: The Tokyo government has rebuffed U.S. demands to set enforceable targets for purchases of American products, most conspicuously in the case of Motorola's cellular telephones. This dispute led to a public split between Clinton and Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa last month in Washington.
The administration followed through on threats by announcing it would reinstate the president's power to levy tariffs of up to 100 percent on imports from countries with unfair trade barriers. It didn't publicize the fact that the burden would fall largely on American consumers. U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor said no one was being singled out but characterized Japan as "unique among developed nations in maintaining closed markets."
That isn't true, but at this point, you may wonder how much it matters. Kantor somehow overlooks the new vitality of the United States, which has been outdoing Japan in productivity growth, total exports and labor costs - not to mention that our economy is expanding at a healthy clip while theirs is mired in a slump. The administration's trade policy looks like a cure in search of a disease.
The custom of blaming Japan, however, never goes out of style, whether it's warranted or not. Lots of Americans may agree with Kantor's portrait of Japan as a trade fortress, but most economists don't. …