Somehow, the picture of nine members of Congress standing in a circle on the Capitol grounds and bashing a Toshiba radio with sledgehammers -- a scene that was broadcast as "news" from coast to coast earlier this month -- does not give me a lot of confidence in the policy-making skills of our elected legislators.
Having spent some years reporting on Capitol Hill, I would agree that a sledgehammer is a pretty good metaphor for the degree of thought and care that Congress gives to its daily work. But in the past, the sledgehammer was always metaphorical. Now a group of our elite leaders has decided to use it as a tool for forging foreign policy.
The nine sledgehammer-wielding solons held their Toshiba-bashing party on the Capitol lawn to demonstrate their disdain for the big Japanese electronics and machinery firm. But to prove how much they dislike Toshiba, the members of Congress now seem likely to pass legislation that will harm the American personal computer buyer. Our leaders are swinging their sledgehammers at Japan -- but they are going to hit you and me.
The problem with Toshiba dates back to 1981-84, when Toshiba's machine-tool subsidiary illegally sold the Soviet Navy classified equipment that has made Russian submarines quieter and thus more dangerous to U.S. warships. There's no question that Toshiba risked the security of the United States (and Japan); it's indisputable that Toshiba should be forced to make recompense.
So what did the sledgehammer-heads up in Congress do? They hit on a plan to forbid imports of Toshiba electronic goods into the United States.
The bill has already breezed through the Senate, and House passage seems imminent. What this means is that Congress wants to reduce the choices available to American consumers and to increase the prices that we pay. Take that, Japan!
In defense of this boomerang shot, the sledgehammer folks argue that Toshiba really doesn't have a big piece of the consumer electronics market in the United States. Thus, we can cut it out of our markets with limited negative impact on American consumers.
This generalization may hold true for TV sets, boom boxes and some other goods. But in the world of personal computers, Toshiba has become a big player. It is one of the leading makers of large capacity (that is, million-bit) memory chips, and its two lap-top computers, the T1100 and T3100, are major competitors in the lap-top market.
I've used a T1100 lap top extensively, and I've had a chance to test the improved model, the T3100. They're good computers. Indeed, the T3100, with its 80286 chip and fast hard disk, is a more powerful computer than about 70 percent of the desk-top computers now found in American offices. But I don't think any of you should buy these machines. It is my view that Americans should resist the temptation to buy Japanese computers. American computer buyers should buy American, in part as a way to reward those firms that resist the temptation to export jobs overseas. I should add that no computer buff is going to suffer by passing up Toshiba lap tops and buying from an American firm. The little IBM convertible, the Zenith 181 and the new Compaq Portable III are all better small machines in the same price range.
But private action by individual consumers exercising a free market choice is a world apart from a congressional ban on all imports from the company.
The proposed Toshiba import ban, in short, is classic congressional double talk -- in the name of defending freedom, it encroaches on Americans' market freedom.