It turns out there is something worse than a $150 billion trade deficit.
It's a $150 billion trade deficit that the administration and Congress won't take seriously.
As Republicans and Democrats conclude their vacations and prepare for the fall political season, the outlook for a serious grappling with the trade issue does not appear bright.
The Democrats, holding their collective noses, have offered a punitive trade proposal directed at Japan and three other major trading nations that are blamed for the ballooning U.S. trade deficit -- South Korea, Brazil and Taiwan. The plan would impose an additional 25 percent tariff on shipments from any country that has an excessive and unfair advantage in trade with the United States or the rest of the world, a definition that fits those four countries, according to the sponsors.
Between the lines, however, the sponsors -- Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) and Reps. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.) and Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) -- are saying they really don't want such a heavy-handed reprisal at all. What they're trying to do is force the administration to join Congress in a serious commitment to resolve the trade mess. They warn that if the trade deficit continues at the current levels with no administration response, the pressures in Congress for retaliation against Japan and other trading nations could explode next year.
The Reagan administration has denounced the Democrats' bill as "protectionist legislation of the rankest kind," in the words of U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, which is about the nastiest thing you can say about a trade bill and get it printed in a general circulation newspaper.
The administration, seeing the smoke rising from Capitol Hill on the trade issue, has begun to consider a response it could make to head off the trouble. President Reagan has a status report on his desk to bring him up to date on the growing political anger over imports. But if there is an administration response immediately following Labor Day, it, too, is likely to be political, rather than aimed at the heart of the trade issue, sources indicate.
"The Democrats are pretty shameless on the trade issue," says one Democratic congressional staff aide involved in the trade debate. "They're supporting all kinds of things which they understand are irresponsible and dangerous, in order to bash the president."
And Reagan is inviting the bashing by continuing to avoid the trade dilemma.
The immense trade deficits of the past three years are only one outward sign of the trouble. They reflect a steady erosion of the competitiveness of U.S. producers -- manufacturers, agriculture and service companies that do business abroad, an erosion that has offset the strong gain in new jobs created by the economy.
The international economic agreements sponsored by the United States and enacted at the end of World War II to help bring about the rebuilding of Europe and Asia are not meeting the new challenges of today's trade competition.
A growing portion of world trade -- including much of the trade in financial and high-technology services, where the United States should have an advantage -- is covered poorly or not at all by the postwar trade agreements. The same is true with agriculture.
The trade agendas of the key exporting nations aren't focused on rebuilding a broad, multilateral consensus on trade. Increasingly they deal with protection and retaliation.
Linked to these problems is the $750 billion owed to U.S. banks by a large portion of Third World countries, whose indebtedness limits both their growth and their ability to import from the United States.
And finally, the international monetary system of floating exchange rates has permitted sharp, damaging fluctuations of the dollar and other currencies, which are large enough to overwhelm anything an American company can do for itself to increase its competitiveness in world trade -- its capital investments, its research spending or its employe training.
Alan W. Wolff, a Washington attorney and former U.S. deputy special trade representative, summed up the dilemma in a speech last May. Wolff is not at all a neutral observer of the trade issue -- he represents the semiconductor industry in its trade complaint against the Japanese electronics companies, one of the rawest of the sore spots in U.S.-Japanese trade relations. But Wolff's description of the problem is acute and accurate.
"We now live in a world where international competition is very sharp, currencies are badly misaligned, developing country markets are limited by the burden of debt, and, for many American industries, overseas production has become much more attractive than production in the United States.
"The will of the western nations to work together toward joint solutions appears to have eroded. And the willingness and ability of the United States to exercise strong leadership are far less evident. These are the problems that the leaders of the seven western industrialized countries discussed in Bonn earlier this year, and for which they failed to find solutions," Wolff said.
Solutions aren't on the agenda. It's easier to throw bricks than try to build something with them.