The drift toward protectionism among influential businessmen has been stalled, but not eradicated, by the Reagan administration's new get-tough response to other nations' unfair trade practices, and by its willingness to intervene in foreign exchange markets to drive down an overvalued dollar.
To do this, the Reagan administration had to make an abrupt policy turn, ignoring ideologues such as Economic Council Chairman Beryl Sprinkel, who is caught in print, in the October issue of Across the Board, the Conference Board's magazine, as saying: "Aggressive intervention in currency markets to push the dollar down . . . is not a feasible alternative."
The ambivalence in the business community came through at a meeting put on here by the American Society for Quality Control in association with Fortune magazine. The meeting's aim was to stress industry's awareness that markets lost to the Japanese won't be recaptured without an American reemphasis on the quality of the product.
James E. Olson, president of AT&T Technologies, and other leading businessmen effectively made the point that most American companies are concentrating once again (as the Japanese have been doing for a long time) on getting things right the first time, as the only way of holding onto their customers.
Nonetheless, when it was argued at a daylong forum that the solution to the American trade deficit with Japan (and with the larger global trade imbalance) lies in grappling with the basic issue of budget deficits here and inadequate domestic expansion abroad, one businessman asked:
"What's wrong with the protectionist approach? If it's worked for the Japanese, why shouldn't it work for us?"
The same hunger for the quick fix, without regard to its potential for retaliation and destruction of the international trading system, has proved seductive for Congress.
There is the tendency to believe that a little bit of protectionism, an effort to create "a level playing field," is justified by the huge trade imbalances that make headlines in the business pages. Thus, a group of thoughtful House Democrats who have been bruised by public criticism of their party as the new home of virulent protectionism this week detailed what they consider an in-between approach: not all the way to the 25 percent surcharge of the Bentsen-Rostenkowski- Gephardt bill, but a measured response to "free trade at any cost."
Emphasizing what he called "a less reactionary approach to the nation's trade dilemma," Rep. Don J. Pease (D-Ohio) staked out "the middle ground between President Reagan's pious devotion to free-trade policy and the protectionism that is currently sweeping the Congress."
Pease's formula is to require the president to take more direct action to cut the budget deficit and the corresponding overvaluation of the dollar, to mandate responses to unfair trade practices, and to do a better job of minimizing the social costs encountered when companies and jobs are displaced by imports.
The value of the Pease approach is that it recognizes that today's biggest trade problem is the overvalued dollar, which accounts for perhaps 75 percent of the $125 billion increase in the global trade deficit over the past four years. Moreover, it steps back from the counterproductive surcharge proposed by Bentsen-Rostenkowski-Gephardt.
Bentsen has argued that a surcharge on its exports here would force Japan to open its own markets. Experts who know better, such as Baruch College Prof. Yoshio Tsurumi, point out that a surcharge merely will give Japanese bureaucrats the opportunity not only to retaliate -- say, against American wheat and beef shipments to Japan -- but to deal with the surcharge issue by putting their own "voluntary" limits on exports. Thus, the effort to gain larger entry to Japanese markets will be defeated, while other nations pick up the released share of Japanese business here -- with the American consumer paying for the surcharge through higher prices.
The Democrats' political romance with protectionism is paralleled in the business community. AT&T's Olson acknowledged that, over the long run, the only answer to foreign competition is to meet it head-on in markets here and abroad with equal or superior products. But in the short run, many industries still are attracted by the protectionist crutch.
The Reagan administration has taken some important steps to derail the protectionist bandwagon by facing the need to enforce fair-trading laws, but by putting them in proper perspective. It also is pressing for a new round of multilateral trade negotiations, and has initiated sensible currency intervention steps through the Group of Five finance ministers.
Perhaps some strategic credit should be given to the protectionist bluster of the past 18 months in Congress. But the time has come for Democratic moderates to join Republicans and thoughtful businessmen in rejecting the temptation to embrace the most damaging of these proposals, and return to first principles: Free trade is what created and protected this nation's prosperity over the long haul. It shouldn't be allowed to become a dirty word.