Do We Have What It Takes?

More Like Us: Making America Great Again

by James Fallows
Houghton Mifflin, 245 pp., $18.95

As we now know to our shame, the US, once the world’s prime industrial power, is now the largest debtor in international trade. Of the 110 countries listed in our published accounts, we ran a deficit with seventy-one of them. As the table on the facing page shows, in only three exchanges among our twenty top trading partners was the surplus on our side.

THE TOP TWENTY TRADING PARTNERS OF THE US

We import more than we sell to our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, and also to Germany, Italy, and Japan, nations we defeated in war. Similar shortfalls occur in our trade with Sri Lanka and Romania, Bangladesh and Burma, Tobago and the Ivory Coast.

True, many countries have borrowed heavily from the US, adding some black ink to our accounts. Still what troubles James Fallows and many others is that for every $100 in manufactured goods we import, we sell only $55 of our own manufactures abroad. Indeed, even the agricultural surplus is fading away: the grain and soybeans we export barely pay for the shrimps and coffee beans we are bringing in. None of this bodes well for our living standard or national autonomy. The longer the US is in the red, the more our creditors will exchange their IOUs for pieces of our economy. And that means decisions affecting us can and will be made in Tokyo and Toronto and Amsterdam.

The problem has two sides. On the one hand, Americans have become the world’s most voracious consumers, and other countries love to sell to us. The other is that we no longer produce much that other people want. Our only alternative, we are told, is to make America “competitive” again. Many books have been written advising American managers to emulate the Japanese, using such techniques as worker discussion circles and delivery of manufacturing parts just at the time they are needed—in order to avoid the large inventories. Here Fallows disagrees. Japan’s success, he maintains, springs from fusing modern capitalism with an ancient culture, emphasizing hierarchy and the obligations people have to the groups they belong to—family, company, country, and race. Their methods work because they build on social customs and traits of character.

If the United States is to revive its economy, it must also draw on its own strengths. Hence Fallows’s title: instead of trying to imitate others, we should, he argues, concentrate on skills and strategies that are “more like us.” Thus his central thesis: “Japan is strong because of its groups; America, because of its individuals.” His book urges Americans to have confidence in their individuality, which built a great economy and can bring it back again.

Americans perform best, Fallows says, “in situations where old rules and limits don’t apply,” since our society “has consistently set the balance in favor of economic adaptability, not tradition and order.” The book presents vignettes illustrating “the resilience that has always distinguished this country.” The author tells us about …

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Letters

Having What It Takes November 9, 1989