WHY NOT a trade war with Italy?
The United States last year imported more than $14.7 billion worth of merchandise from Italy, while Italians bought just $7.2 billion worth of goods from us. Our resulting trade deficit -- $7.5 billion -- is one of the highest we face anywhere. So why aren't President Clinton and his trade representative, Mickey Kantor, imposing harsh new tariffs on Ferraris and Lamborghinis?
And what about Germany? In 1994, Americans paid $31.7 billion to buy German products; Germans spent only $19.2 billion on ours. Balance of trade: $12.5 billion in Germany's favor, fourth-highest among all US trading partners. Shouldn't we teach the Germans a lesson -- slap BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes with crippling duties of 100 percent?
But the administration has no bitter words for Germany or Italy -- only for Japan. Pat Buchanan's call for sweeping trade sanctions -- "Time for Hardball With Japan" was the title on his New York Times column a few days ago -- isn't aimed at our allies in Rome or Berlin. Just our allies in Tokyo.
The Japanese are still our allies, aren't they? Perhaps we've forgotten -- amid all these bristling demands to "let Japan know we are serious" (Rep. Richard Gephardt), and make it swallow "strong medicine" (Sen. Bob Dole), and show that its "unfair trade practices absolutely will not be tolerated" (Sen. Tom Daschle) -- that Japan is our most important Asian friend. It has been a stable democracy for more than 40 years. Its relationship with us is the bedrock of Asian peace and stability.
So why the Japan-bashing?
Easy: politics. Brawling with Asians over trade issues is a time-honored way for candidates to score cheap political points. That's not a motive Clinton-Kantor-Gephardt can own up to; instead they berate Japan for refusing to open its markets to American products. Amen, chimes in the militant Mr. Buchanan; it's time to teach "predators" like the Japanese "that we Americans have begun looking out for America first."
What a crock.
Japan's domestic market is one of the most open in the world. In 1992, its imports totaled $233 billion -- as much as the combined imports of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium, and Luxembourg. We export more goods to Japan than to any other nation on earth save Canada. By a wide margin, Japan is the world's No. 1 importer of US agricultural products. And, again excepting Canada, no other nation supplies so many of the items American customers want to buy.
Japan, population 125 million, spent $53.4 billion on American exports last year. The United States, population 260 million, purchased $110 billion worth of imports from Japan. Per capita, we and the Japanese are spending roughly the same amount -- about $ 420 -- on each other's products. The Japanese, "predators"? Only if a predator is one who buys much of what you sell and sells much of what you buy.
Does Japan erect some barriers to trade? Does it build protectionist walls around certain industries? Unfortunately, it does. Unfortunately, so do we. According to a 1994 analysis by the International Monetary Fund, the United States imposes an average tariff of 5.4 percent on incoming products; Japan's average tariff is just 1.9 percent. And that is only one of the ways in which we close off our market.
Thousands of items -- from cheese to typing ribbons -- are subject to US import quotas. "Voluntary" agreements with other countries restrict the quantity of goods they can send us. So-called antidumping duties, such as the sharp tariffs the Commerce Department levied on steel imports in 1993, punish foreign exporters for not charging us higher prices! And, of course, we use retaliatory tariffs -- like Clinton's new tax on Japanese luxury cars -- to pummel other countries into buying more of our products. This isn't free trade. It's bullying.
And it's self-destructive. If the government wipes out the US Infiniti and Lexus markets, who is going to be hurt? Nissan and Toyota, two of the world's most successful and admired auto manufacturers? Hardly. The victims will be the hundreds of US dealers who make a living selling Infinitis and Lexuses. Plus the thousands of workers they employ. Plus the teamsters who haul the cars from port to showroom. Plus the mechanics who service them. Plus the advertising firms that promote them.
Plus every would-be Infiniti or Lexus owner whose freedom of choice will be stomped on by the US government.
The Clinton administration, in short, is going to be harming one hell of a lot of US citizens and businesses in order to make the Japanese -- what? Buy more of Detroit's mediocre autos and auto parts? Why should they? Just how would we react if Tokyo tried to force Americans to eat more Japanese beef or buy more Japanese computers?
The whole point of trade is for each partner to export the things it makes best. We sell Japan the airplanes, medicines, and CDs it wants; Japan sells us the microchips, cars, and cameras we want. Only an economic illiterate would demonize the Japanese for not buying from us exactly what we buy from them. And only a politician would rob Americans of income, jobs, and freedom in order to "let Japan know we are serious."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)