The Carter recession, with its steadily growing unemployment lines, may prove to be Ronald Reagan's ticket to the White House.
With the president's reelection chances riding on the economy, it is astonishing that the administration has failed to move against the recession in one politically risk-free area where American industry has been taking a beating -- illegal competition from abroad.
For fear of offending our sometimes undeserving allies, the Carter administration has failed to crack down on the underhanded methods of foreign business interests.
Two examples are the illegal dumping of Japanese television sets on the U.S. market and the price gouge perpetrated by the international uranium cartel. Both had disastrous effects on the American economy, yet the profiteers were let off with a slap on the wrist.
The television story began 10 years ago when Japanese TV manufacturers -- already offering formidable competition to American-made products -- started to dump their surplus TV sets on the U.S. market.
But the Japanese could not legally sell thier goods in the United States at less than what they sold for in Japan. This kind of dumping -- obviously unfair competition for American industry -- is forbidden by Commerce Department import regulations.
So the Japanese television makers falsified the import invoices, making it appear that the sets were being sold to U.S. distributors at a higher price than they actually were. This gave the distributors a hidden margin, which permitted them to mark down the Japanese TVs drastically and to undercut American makers.
This competition-destroying device provided short-range bargains for American television buyers. But it proved little short of catastrophic for the American TV industry. Eighteen plants closed, and 60,000 workers lost thier jobs.
Protests from the hard-hit American industry led the Customs Service to conduct a lengthy investigation. Customs decided that the Japanese television dumpers deserved a whopping $400 million fine.
In meetings between Japanese diplomats and sympathetic Treasury Department officials, Customs was ordered to cut the fine to a scant 10 percent of its original figure.
Internal Customs Service memos obtained by my associates Tony Capaccio and Jack Mitchell give the flavor of these U.S.-Japanese sessions. According to one memo, Japanese officials were given the impression that the huge fines should be "considered to be provisional in nature, that Treasury took this action because of congressional pressure."
Customs investigators were appalled by the Treasury higher-ups' appeasement of the Japanese. But in the end, they were forced to acquiesce. The Treasury agreed on a recent compromise fine of $77 million -- a drop in the bucket compared with the money lost by American television makers and their workers.
The Great Uranium Robbery found a similar faint-hearted attitude on the part of Carter administration enforcers. When the international uranium cartel jacked up its prices by 600 percent throughout the United States shot up. The cartel raked in billions in profits.
Yet the one cartel member American authorities could take direct action against -- Gulf Oil -- was fined a measly $40,000 for its share of the loot.
When the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the utilities ripped-off by the uranium gouge, brought suit to recover part of its increased costs, anguished diplomatic protests came from countries where other members of the cartel were based, such as Canada and Great Britain. Vital documents were withheld to frustrate congressional probes and sebsequent lawsuits.
When a federal judge in Chicago, Prentice Marshall, considered sanctions against the cartel members for ignoring his orders to produce internal documents, John Shenefield, associate attorney general, took the unusual step of writing to the judge. He warned Marshall that the foreign countries would be offended if Marshall's rulings were perceived as "threatening to their sovereign interests."
The television dumping and uranium price gouge are viewed by some observers as characteristic of Jimmy Carter's ineffectual handling of the ever-deepening recession. Reagan has already demonstrated that he can appeal to blue-collar workers. If the unemployment rolls continue to grow, he may ride the crest of their resentment all the way to the White House.