Time for tough talk in land of the setting sun


NOW that "Rising Sun" is off the best-seller list and the hysteria surrounding the novel has faded, it's worth noting that the issue at the center of it -- America's long-term economic decline -- continues to be ignored.

The only candidates to address our long-term economic troubles, Ross Perot and Paul Tsongas, are gone.

Neither George Bush nor Bill Clinton seems willing to talk about anything except near-term palliative steps. Meanwhile, America's strategic long-term problems are growing rapidly worse.

A decade ago this country was the world leader in every major technological area and had the world's highest gross national product per capita.

Today we have lost the lead in most technologies and are falling behind in the rest.

In no area have we gained ground. We now rank fifth in GNP per capita. Real wages have slipped to 1960s levels. And our national debt has tripled, creating a burden that threatens our economic recovery.

It's against this background of precipitate decline that the reviews of "Rising Sun" derive their significance.

The thrust of the reviews has been to deflect attention from the underlying issues.

I don't know why we can't talk about our decline, but we can't. We're in severe denial.

Instead of discussing that decline, reviewers talked about racism or anti-Semitism or evoked conspiratorial imagery about our economic competitors.

In tone this misdirection smacks of political correctness and it profoundly trivializes the problems we face.

Espousing the right views at a cocktail party or in a newspaper column is no substitute for capital investment.

Nor will opinion change the harsh reality of declining real wages, stagnant productivity, shrinking capital investment and mounting public and private debt.

Yet these economic realities determine the quality of life for the people of this or any other country.

For example, there has been much concern expressed about the widening gap between rich and poor in America, as if this were a moral issue. But there is plenty of evidence that this gap is simply a function of disinvestment.

Historically, nations with a healthy, growing economy have a small gap between rich and poor, as America did in the '50s. In stagnant economies the gap widens, as it has lately in America.

Should we bemoan our state -- or take the steps necessary to get our economy growing again?

Certainly, attacking the bearer of bad news does not impugn the economic message. Calling me a racist does not address the economic issues I raised.

Before I began "Rising Sun" I worked on a book about Benjamin Franklin, a man of infinite good sense.

After a vicious, humiliating public attack on him in 1774, he said: "Grievances cannot be redressed unless they are known; and they cannot be known but through complaints . . . If these are deemed affronts, and the messengers punished as offenders, who will henceforth send petitions? . . . Where complaining is a crime, hope becomes despair."

Finally, without a full discussion of the roots of America's economic decline and its profound impact on American society we are doomed to more of the same. Because the global economy requires that we now reinvent ourselves economically -- just as the Germans reinvented themselves in the 19th century, to meet England's challenge; just as the Japanese have twice reinvented themselves, since the arrival of Admiral Perry's ships in 1853.

Now America must reinvent itself to survive.

Are we, as a nation, to be rich or poor?

Are we going to increase our productivity or sink further into decline?

If we are to reverse the trends of three decades, what steps must we take?

These complex questions affect the lives of every American, rich or poor. They will require planning and sacrifice.

They will involve a change in the way power is administered in this country and by whom. Such change can occur only after passionate and heated debate.

We need to begin that debate now.

Our relations with Japan are just one aspect of our economic future. That relationship is useful as a yardstick of our decline -- as a way to assess what we are doing wrong. But here too we must have freedom to debate.

In the decade since Chalmers Johnson first proposed the "revisionist" view of Japan, ever more thinkers have come to agree, in some form, with his perception that differences between the economic systems of Japan and America must be addressed.

The discussion has widened from academic to journalistic circles and now to popular culture.

Whatever the merits of the revisionist position, it will only be resolved by a free expression of opinion on all sides.

We have had a long time when it was deemed impolite to discuss Japanese-American conflicts in any detail. As a result, our ears are unaccustomed to the sound of sharp voices on this subject.

But the problem is not that voices are now too strident. The problem is that there has been silence for far too long.

NTC Michael Crichton is working on a novel about the press. This article is adapted from a speech he gave to the Japan America Society of Southern California in June.

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