"Resentment of Japan's success has literally become an obsession that is blinding us to the realities of our mutual interests -- maintaining peace and prosperity for Americans and Japanese."
Harrison M. Holland of the Hoover Institution
at Stanford University, in a 1985 letter
to the New York Times.
Pat Choate, until recently a policy analyst for the international conglomerate TRW Inc., is a Washington celebrity who gets an inordinate amount of attention -- some of it bordering on the uncritical -- for his writings suggesting that Japan is having an unhealthy influence on the American economy and culture.
Choate, who has already written one book on this subject and has another milking the same theme coming out soon, has received tons of advance publicity. Some of it is based on an extract of the new book in the current Harvard Business Review.
I'm quite aware that I am simply giving Choate one more splash of valuable ink. But I'm fed up with the free ride he has gotten in the press, including this newspaper, save for a nice stiletto from columnist Michael Kinsley.
Choate's views tally with those of a school of so-called revisionists, such as Dutch journalist Karel van Wolferen and Americans Clyde Prestowitz and Atlantic Monthly editor James Fallows. They see America confronted with a "Japan problem" that should be solved by direct action, unilateral if necessary.
His basic theme is that America's economic policies are often shaped as much by foreign companies and their governments -- especially Japan -- as by U.S. interests. He charges that by spending "hundreds of millions" of dollars for lobbying and to buy influence, Japan is tilting the debate about America's economic future without the public's being aware of it.
This is pure poppycock: The notion that all the lobbying on trade issues is done on behalf of free traders is nonsense. The protectionists are not only heard from, but they are also effective. Jim Baker, when he was secretary of Treasury, bragged that during the Reagan administration -- touted as the very incarnation of free trade -- more restrictive trade steps were taken than in any prior period of time.
Moreover, as anyone who reads the newspapers or watches TV knows, the hostility that has been built up among the American public about the Japanese "threat" has become shrill. About half of those polled say Japan is a good candidate to succeed the Soviet Union as Enemy No. 1.
Substantial minorities of Americans appear to go further, as Philip Trezise noted in a recent Brookings Institution article. They label Japan as "different" from other American allies, or as irresponsible, predatory, nondemocratic or corrupt.
For this state of affairs, we perhaps can thank Choate and his disciples, such as writer John Judis. Borrowing from and quoting Choate, Judis blasted think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), the Institute for International Economics, the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies and the Center for Strategic and International Studies because they "gladly accept funding from Japanese firms and foundations."
The only Washington think tanks that get a clean bill of health are the Economic Policy Institute and the Free Congress Federation. These -- guess what? -- call for abandonment of free-trade principles and opt instead for the "managed trade" concept that Choate and certain Democrats who follow Rep. Richard Gephardt's philosophy espouse.
Foundations like Brookings and AEI of course get money from Japanese sources. They also get money from American and European donors. Is everybody corrupt? Choate's simplistic assumption would seem to be that anything Japanese is evil; therefore, any association with Japan or Japanese companies is a taint. Yet Choate, in the extract in the Harvard Review, seems offended by the suggestion that he is indulging in McCarthy-like tactics.
Choate attacks a number of prominent Washington lawyers who were former government trade officials and who now represent Japanese clients, as if they are doing something dishonorable or disloyal. In an earlier column, I agreed with Choate that something needs to be done about the "revolving door" through which influence-peddlers make the transformation from government to private hire. But the solution must apply to those who unfairly make their government-gained expertise available to any company -- American or foreign.
Choate's problem is that he is obsessed with Japan. A calmer assessment of the West's "Japan problem" is that its roots are to be found in the West itself and that Japan's performance only serves to highlight that fact. For example, Michele and Henrik Schmiegelow, two Europeans, suggest in their book, "Strategic Pragmatism: Japanese Lessons in the Use of Economic Theory," that what America and Europe should do is step back, appraise how Japan achieved its economic success -- and then see what in their experience is applicable to us.
But that theory attributes a large measure of Japan's trade surplus to honest effort and quality products, and it lays the Schmiegelows -- and others who make the same point -- open to Choate's implication that they must be on the take.
And no, I don't know whether Hoover Institution's Holland, quoted at the beginning of this piece, has any Japanese connections, and what's more, I don't care if he has, because what he said is exactly right.