An Epistle to a Japanese Friend


Washington. -- Dear Japanese friend,

I had a nice time visiting with you. I'm only sorry I missed the fun when President Bush came with his pals, the rich beggar boys of Detroit.

Your prime minister said that Japanese ought to feel "compassion" for Americans. Thanks. Then the emperor beat the president at tennis. Then the president went whoops! on the prime minister. Then the rich beggar boys didn't get enough dimes in their tin cups and snitched to the Congress.

Boo. Hiss. Some Japanese pundits are saying, "America is in decline." How very superior. Do you believe that? Dear friend, that would be too bad. It isn't true, and only trouble comes when policy is based on fiction.

I wouldn't blame the Japanese for buying it. We hear it in America. We are told that we are not "competitive," that our incomes have stagnated, that we deserve this recession to "pay the piper" for economic promiscuity.

I think the America-in-decline stuff is bunk, certainly when America is compared to Japan. So, this letter.

America, not Japan, is the world's biggest exporter. American exports have almost doubled in the last five years, particularly in high-tech, and rose almost tenfold in the last 20. (We didn't seriously get into foreign trade until recently.) Exports were up 7.5 percent even in the 1991 recessionary year. Competitive?

Our automobile industry is troubled, but not typical of American business. We are first in aircraft, software, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, oil technology, entertainment, computers, biogenetics, lumber and agriculture, to begin a long list. Our trade deficit is shrinking. Excluding oil, it's about even.

America has not lost manufacturing jobs, although factory workers now produce much more per person. But are factory jobs the most important? It was once said they were boring, that it would be better if more people were in professional and technical fields. That's happened here. We spend more on research and development than any other country, more on non-military R&D;, and we'll do even better as we switch from military research.

The recession is personally cruel, but numerically moderate. Unemployment is 7.1 percent, in a statistical system where 5 percent to 6 percent equals full employment. I know: The president said the economy is in "free-fall." But he's weird sometimes. He had it wrong going down, and he's got it wrong coming up. In fact, the last quarter apparently showed minuscule growth. By some definitions that could mean we're not in an official recession.

The recovery has probably begun. Our stock market thinks so. It's booming. The Japanese market fell 44 percent since 1989.

America has the highest per-capita purchasing power, 45 percent higher than Japan. Income is not stagnating. In the 1980s per-capita income rose 20 percent and family income climbed 8 percent; in addition, the value of "benefits" has soared.

As you know, I think Japan is a neat little country with a first-class economy. You make good cars. And other things.

But, by American and European standards, most Japanese are not living first-class lives. A typical Japanese family spends twice as much on food as an American family and lives in half the space. Car ownership is less than half the American rate. Japanese women are not treated nicely.

Anyway, "decline" or "ascent" are concepts that aren't only economic. Kuwait once had the highest per-capita income.

America is the greatest military power. That's new. Ask Saddam. American universities are the best. In the 1980s, American scientists won 40 Nobel Prizes, Japanese won two. English is the world's language and American is the global culture. Not the hallmarks of a society in decline.

America has twice the population of Japan. Because of sinking Japanese fertility, and because America takes in immigrants, in a few decades America will be three times as populous and the only major industrial nation that is growing. Diversity causes some turmoil here, but it has made America the only superpower, and the only global nation, ever.

We do complain about ourselves, all the time. But that ends up making us tougher. Sayonara.

Ben Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of "The First Universal Nation."

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