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Agents of Influence’: An Exchange

To the Editors:

The exchange between Fred Bergsten and James Fallows [NYR, January 17] over the latter’s review of Pat Choate’s Agents of Influence [NYR, November 8, 1990] is a superficial skirmish that provides entertainment. But it fails to illuminate why scholars, not just of Japan, find the book reprehensible.

Among the Japan-in-America-focused allegations contained in Choate’s chargesheet, two are prominent:

First, that American scholars essentially produce apologetics or propaganda on behalf of Japan because their institutions and projects are financed by Japanese funds (the very prospect of losing them being enough to produce compliance); and

Second, in the more benign version favoured by Fallows, that by financing those whose research findings are “pro-Japan,” the Japanese funds put at disadvantage in the policy debate those who find Japan different or wicked and therefore inimical to American interests.

The “facts” on which these judgments are based are themselves dubious. It is untrue that the scholarly critiques of the endless litany of complaints by the Japanworriers of Japan’s uniqueness and perfidy are overwhelmingly, even largely, financed by Japan. The error arises from the vulgar assumption, readily made by those inside the beltway and hence outside the universities, that research requires, not reflection and scholarship, but that wonderful American invention: “financial support.” Many of us are still content to do research on our academic salaries: after all, that is what Professors, who are a public good, are traditionally supposed to do. Many economists whom I know, and not just I, write on Japan just as Maynard Keynes wrote on India and Joan Robinson on China: without financial support beyond our university stipends!

If anything, many more get funds from American sources, including predominantly our corporate sector whose economic (self-)interests are not necessarily congruent with our national interest, as the older Democrats should remind the younger ones. Indeed, many of these corporate interests are engaged in intense competition with Japanese firms. Surely, Messrs Choate and Fallows, whose worries about such matters are destructive of the delicate fabric of our civil society (as I argue below), must know that the academics who support the semiconductors agreement imposed by us on Japan include those who serve on the boards of directors of silicon valley firms. Also, the economists who ask for aggressive strikes against Japan to “open her markets” include those who accept moneys to lend their distinguished names to pamphlets published by corporations with a stake in the Japanese market. All this is possibly imprudent, and certainly (by my book) even in bad taste; but none of it is venal, wicked or proof that these economists speak, not for themselves, but for these corporations.

And that is the heart of the matter. What Choate wounds more than the facts is the shared belief, uniquely American, that we can transcend the constraints imposed by the special circumstances and interests that define our social and economic situation. Thus, when Henry Kissinger and Congressman Solarz (both Jews) support the Congressional resolution on the Gulf War, or when Congressman Mitsui (a nisei) advocates restraint in trade disputes with Japan, or Zbigniew Brzezinski (a Pole) advocates militancy towards the Soviet Union, we correctly do not insist on their identifying their ethnicity, for we presume that they speak as Americans. So do we permit our universities and think tanks to accept funds from foundations and from corporate and labour groups, whether domestic or foreign: we trust the good sense of our citizens to protect their integrity and of our institutions to preserve their independence (as they, in fact, generally do through appropriate procedures and restraints).

These values make our civil society less fractious and more harmonious; they also tend to be self-validating. They would surely begin to erode if we were to surrender to the hysterical reaction to Japan’s economic success that Choate represents and recommends.

Lest anyone doubt this, may I note that both Fallows, and Karel van Wolferen in his equally sympathetic review in The New Republic (February 11), feel constrained to identify themselves as Choate’s acquaintances and the beneficiaries of his attention? If “full disclosure” (van Wolferen’s phrase) were required each time Mr. Silvers published a review, and whenever each of us expressed views other than bland banalities, we would surely have turned into an uncivil society of humourless, suspicious, finger-pointing and conspiracy-minded citizens.

Jagdish Bhagwati
Arthur Lehman Professor of Economics and Professor of Political Science
Columbia University
New York City

James Fallows replies:

Professor Bhagwati’s passion is attractive, but it has led him to an elementary error in logic. To the illustrations he provides—Solarz on Israel, Brzezinski on the Soviet Union, “Mitsui” (it’s actually Matsui) on Japan—he might have added Mario Cuomo on Italy, or Andrew Young on South Africa, or Paul Sarbanes on Greece. All these cases concern race, ethnicity, and religion. That is, he is talking about the way people are born or the beliefs and identities they acquire early in life. The American assumption is that in arriving at judgments we should try to overlook these differences, so that people can argue on equal footing. As John Searle has discussed in these pages, some universities seem to be taking a step backward by saying that ideas cannot be separated from the ethnic or sexual identity of those who propose them.

Pat Choate’s book, and my review, were about a different subject: not the way people are born but the way they make their money. Surely this distinction is not too subtle for Professor Bhagwati, an economist, to grasp. Nothing in the American tradition suggests that it is indecent or repressive to look into the financial motives or consequences of someone’s argument. Judges “recuse” themselves from cases in which they might have an appearance of impropriety; politicians must issue lists of campaign contributors; bureaucrats, stockbrokers, and corporate executives are subject to conflict-of-interest laws.

Professor Bhagwati asserts that scholars are not affected by such considerations and should be trusted to preserve their independence. I should note that, even though most of his letter is a defense of academics, I did not mention the activities of a single university scholar in my review. (Pat Choate does discuss several scholars, and I mentioned the director of a Washington think tank.) The American system assumes that all participants in a debate, including scholars, should declare any financial interest in the outcome of the argument. They should not be pilloried for having a financial interest; they should not be assumed to be corrupt; but they should make information about their funding sources known. Professor Bhagwati might like to think of disclosure as a way of removing market imperfections, so that the consumers of data will have the fullest possible perspective on the things they hear.

Even when money is not involved, the liberal intellectual tradition recognizes the existence of other distorting factors. Spouses cannot be compelled to testify against each other, because of conflicting loyalties. People who write book reviews owe their main loyalty to those who will read the review and form a judgment about the book. No one should write a review without feeling confident of being able to put that loyalty above others, including a bond to the author of the book. But in fairness to the reader, any such complicating bond should be mentioned if it exists. That is why I disclosed that I knew Pat Choate and that his book included several passages that quoted my own articles. I would not have written about the book if I thought I could not discuss it honestly, but the reader deserved to know that I had to make that internal decision about Choate’s book—and not about the other book under review, by William Holstein, whom I have never met.

To be sure the point is clear to Professor Bhagwati, let me remind him that I did not say: “Pat Choate and I are both white, male, heterosexual Protestants who have earned money writing about Japan, and therefore I am incapable of exercising critical judgment about his book.” I do not say now: “Professor Bhagwati and I are from different races and religions, and so I oppose what he says.” I disagree with him because his logic is wrong.

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