It has been six years since Harvard professor Ezra Vogel published "Japan as Number One," the book that, perhaps more than any other, analyzed and defined the emerging threat from the Far East to America's dominant position in international trade.
I remember reading it, on the advice of friends who knew much more about Japan and commerce than I did, and being very skeptical about its dire forecast. But everything that has happened since then in the battle for the international marketplace has confirmed Vogel's judgment.
Now, in 1985, the year in which the U.S. trade deficit has reached such heights that this nation has become officially a debtor nation, Vogel is back with a new book, "Comeback." Read it yourself and push it into the hands of any member of Congress, businessman and opinion-maker you know.
As the title implies, Vogel's ultimate message is optimistic. But the first half of the book, explaining why "the American response to the Japanese challenge has thus far been woefully inadequate," is scary. Simply doing what we have been doing, he makes clear, will see the competitive advantage widen in Japan's direction. In half-a-dozen chilling pages, he draws a picture of a 1990s world, in which Japan has extended its domination from autos and other manufacturing areas to high-tech industries and services including banking, insurance, engineering and personal needs.
Although the Japanese are dominant in this scenario, even they cannot enjoy the spectacle of a United States forced to resort to protectionist meas higher taxes and ever more repressive police tactics in a vain attempt to deal with the economic and social consequences of its competitive decline.
But Vogel's purpose is not to demoralize us with frightful pictures of the 1990s. His message is that the United States can bootstrap itself back into a healthy position, not by aping the Japanese, but by observing and learning from our own successes.
The final hundred pages -- probably the most valuable part of the book -- argue that we have models of such success available to us. His examples are the space program, the expansion of American agriculture exports in the 1950s and 1960s, the private housing industry after World War II and the development of the North Carolina Research Triangle. None of the four is unfamiliar, and none has lacked for publicity. But linking them, Vogel is able to identify the common elements for an "American- style competitive strategy" that is something other than mimicking Japan or throwing up trade barriers.
His view is expressed in these paragraphs: "Competitiveness is the combined result of all the national qualities and policies that help people and companies perform at more effective levels. Success will not come primarily from legislation or reorganization but from wholehearted efforts of government, business and labor working toward common goals.
"Better national competitiveness draws on better educational standards, more dedicated workers and more successful management. It is helped by a predictable economic environment and the lower cost of capital that gives companies greater leeway to consider long-term results. It is therefore affected by savings rates and budget deficits and requires effective monetary and fiscal policy.
"It is helped by strong companies led by effective managers. But to deal with complex issues that require national coordination, there is no alternative to developing a selective industrial strategy. The government is already involved because public interests are at stake; the only question is how to improve that involvement."
He offers specific policy suggestions for dealing with strategic industries and those harmed by foreign competition, for expanding trade and especially for improving the development and commerical application of new technologies.
Many of his proposals are familiar; some are politically controversial. But after reading this book, you cannot avoid thinking that these issues deserve far more attention than aid to Nicaragua, MX missiles, "Star Wars" and other such preoccupations of the administration and Congress. They have to be at the forefront of budget, defense and tax policy, for they are, quite literally, survival issues for this country.
As Vogel's examples demonstrate, this challenge will be met only by a nation whose government is ready to face its responsibilities, a government that knows it has to be part of any solution. If President Reagan is looking for a fight worth winning for "the Gipper" and his grandson, this is the fight.