In his suave, clipped style, David Brinkley signed off his Sunday TV talk show on Dec. 15 with a seemingly simple suggestion on the Japanese trade problem -- one he said that even Congress could understand: "Let them sell the U.S. all the Japanese goods they can, so long as they buy an equal amount in this country."
Solves the problem, right?
Wrong. The seductive idea of trade reciprocity assumes that all nations can and will produce the same goods at the same price and quality; that cultural differences do not exist; and that all nations are equally endowed with nature's supply of raw materials and energy.
Brinkley was provoked by a report that Japan would next year lift its export ceiling of 2.3 million cars, worsening a U.S. trade deficit that promises to run $45 billion with Japan this year.
What he didn't say is that the sale of a Japanese car is a two-sided transaction: not only does some Japanese company produce it, but some consumer -- without a gun at his head -- decides to buy it, most likely because of proven quality and performance.
Interestingly enough, General Motors' highly touted joint venture with Toyota to produce a hybrid vehicle in Fremont, Calif., hasn't been a howling success because American buyers demand "the real thing" -- a 100 percent Japanese car.
But the trade problem with Japan goes deeper. The Japanese market is tough to penetrate, especially in the area of telecommunications, semi-conductors, pharmaceuticals, and wood and paper products where the Japanese have protective nontariff barriers.
Brinkley is not alone in suggesting that, somehow, a simple rule of reciprocity is the answer. British Secretary of Labor and Industry Leon Brittain last week proposed that the Common Market demand that Japan publicly declare its import targets. Then, the Common Market would have a benchmark against which to monitor allowable quotas of Japanese goods.
And Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.), his earlier move for a 25 percent surcharge having stalled, is pushing a reciprocity plan devised by MIT economist Lester Thurow. Determine the largest bilateral deficit we can afford to run with Japan (Thurow says it's $8 billion) and prohibit their exports to us that exceed the total. All quotas and tariffs on Japanese goods would be removed; but in any three-month period, Japanese sales there couldn't exceed their quarterly average imports by more than $2 billion.
That would put the ball in the Japanese court, Thurow argues, and it would be up to them to do "something creative" about it.
Thurow doesn't tell us how he arrived at the $8 billion figure. But a study by the Institute for International Economics contends that as the dollar depreciates, a Japanese trade surplus of $20 billion to $25 billion with the United States would be indicative of a pretty good global balance. This takes into account the triangular pattern of Japan's trade: it runs large deficits with OPEC on oil, and with other countries selling essential food and raw materials, and surpluses where it sells manufactured goods. In this better-balanced situation, the United States might again enjoy offsetting trade surpluses with Europe and Latin America.
But numbers aside, the key flaw in the Brinkley/Brittain/Thurow reciprocity ideas is that they place the burden of solving the trade problem entirely on Japan. They make no allowance for the fact that the American deficit is also a global problem, the illegitimate child of high interest rates and an overvalued dollar created by the huge American domestic-budget deficit.
The extraordinary Japanese success in marketing its products can be attributed to a highly motivated, highly literate, work-oriented society that deprives itself of immediate consumption benefits, and saves for its future security. Japan has taken the best advantage of an open world market in which the entrepreneurs of other societies (including our own) have been lazier and in some cases not so smart. There are no simple, clever solutions to this problem. What the situation cries out for are new international trade negotiations -- that will help solve all aspects of the problem.
Included would be further opening the Japanese market to American manufacturers when they have something to sell that the Japanese want to buy and is competitive in its own right. American manufactures might try, for starters, right-hand drive cars for the British- style Japanese road system. (There's a market for the Mercedes and BMWs in Japan, but not for Cadillacs and Lincolns.)
The game won't end with a mindless call for bilateral "reciprocity" with Japan. Look at the success of the Korean Hyundai in Canada. In less than two years, this cheap but apparently reliable little car has become the No. 1 Canadian import, replacing the Japanese Honda. Early in 1986, the Hyundai will start its invasion here. And with American dealers standing hat in hand to get the franchises, it could be a major threat to both Detroit and Tokyo.
Then, Messrs. Brinkley, Brittain, and Thurow, do we tell the Koreans they can sell as much as they buy from us? And then, perhaps, the Canadians? The West Germans? The Mexicans? The Brazilians? The . . . ?