What passes for speech in the Senate today is, for the most part, dreary and empty. Normally perhaps only a dozen members of that exclusive body are on the floor at any given time and their attention to what a senator happens to be reading - a marked change in the rules that once forbade written speeches - is indifferent.
The other day, however, a carefully prepared speech that ventured some stern thoughts on the unthinkable shook up both Republicans and Democrats. The speaker, Sen. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), was a member of the delegation headed by Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to the Conference on International Economic Cooperation (popularly know as the North-South conference) in Paris.
While Javits did not put undue stress on the failure of that conference to reach any significant agreement between the developed and developing nations, he left no doubt of the intensity of his feelings about the related question of the strains on the International Monetary System. Those strains, Javits said, threaten the U.S. and the world with a deeper recession than 1974.
Moreover, he privately told senators who congratulated him that unless action comes quickly to meet at least some of the demands from the developing countries, containing three-fourths of the world's population, we will see a major depression.
The root of the trouble is the way in which the developing nations have undertaken to solve their grave balance-of-payments deficits, growing in large part out of the quadrupling of oil prices by the OPEC countries and through private and government borrowing. Private bank loans to these countries total more than $70 billion, of which $42 billion is from U.S. banks.
This skirts on the delicate ground of continuing reports of the excess of loans by the big New York banks of the poor nations. Whether these loans can be repaid or even recycled is a question raised only in offstage whispers.
The basic point Javits made is that the OPEC countries are free to deposit their billions of dollars in surplus revenue in the banks of strong industrialized nations. Then these banks have felt obligated to lend to poor nations to make up for their payments deficits. Statistics published by the Federal Reserve, Javits noted, show that for the U.S. alone bank claims of over two years' maturity in the non-oil developing nations total over $13 billion.
The debt to governments by these same nations is $80 billion, of which $29 billion is owed to the U.S. This staggering accumulation, both private and government, grows out of a system - if indeed such an improvisation can be called a system - that cannot long continue.
One of dismaying aspects of the North-South conference was the refusal of the developing nations to give anything reciprocally for the large amounts of aid they are demanding. (To compply fully with the demands of the developing nations, U.S. aid would have to be tripled.) They could, but won't:
Increase the volume of commodities they can sell on the world market.
Improve agricultural production.
Curb the domination of narrow elites.
About all, increase family planning to put a brake on the population explosion.
The next flow of private funds to developing countries continues, with the total at $23 billion in 1976, most of it financed by banks. International financing systems are so strained by this arrangement, according to the senator, that some banks in certain countries are fully "loaned up."
The U.S. import of oil, greater than for any other country, must be cut back to reduce the imbalance in international payments. The danger is so great, Javits said, that even gasoline rationing cannot be ruled out.
One essential is to bring private enterprise in the developed countries into play with the use of the multinational corporations that have been regularized following revelation of abuses. By an interesting coincidence, about the time Javits was speaking, the president of the Ford Motor Co., Lee A. lacocca, was addressing the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce in Zurich on the need to raise the economic level of the Third World through the instrument of the multinational corporation.
How much of a dent this will make on public opinion is highly questionable. At a recent press conference, President Carter remarked that with the start of the tourist season the use of gasoline will reach a record high of 7.7 million barrels a day. We seem to take it for granted that we can use the major share of the world's resources without regard to what may happen elsewhere.