What Can Save the Economy?

Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe, and America

by Lester Thurow
Morrow, 336 pp., $25.00

State of the Union Address and ‘Highlights of the President’s Growth Agenda’

by George Bush
The White House, 2 pp., free

A Call to Economic Arms: Forging a New American Mandate

by Paul E. Tsongas
The Tsongas Committee, 86 pp., free

A Plan for America’s Future

by Bill Clinton
Clinton for President Committee, 15 pp., free

For a well-known writer, Lester Thurow has a peculiar prose style. His book is not exactly a heartening example of the pride in American craftsmanship he is trying to revive. Early in his book, Thurow refers to Gianni De Michelis, Italy’s foreign minister, as “the rotating head of the EEC.” You know what he means, but surely Thurow could have found a less clownish way to make the point. Twice on the next page, and in many other places in the book, Thurow makes singular terms like “no one” or “anyone” correspond to “they” or “their.” (For instance, “No one will plant apple trees…if they do not expect to be around when the apples are harvested.”) Thurow also seems indifferent to the burdens that writers normally bear in order to sustain the reader’s interest. He provides surprisingly few examples or anecdotes to illustrate the contrasts that he draws among American, European, and Japanese economic behavior. He doesn’t introduce previously unpublished facts, or use interviews to support his arguments. He seems to have written his book as if it were a series of lectures for his economics classes at MIT: the students have signed up, they’re obliged to listen to what he says, and they will be penalized if they don’t.

His book is one long, oracular statement of his opinions and theories. If Thurow didn’t have anything to say, this approach would become tiresome. Fortunately, he does, and by the time I reached the end I found that the artlessness of Thurow’s presentation did not undermine the appeal of his pithy, clarifying, and important book. Its subject—the long-term weakness of the American economy—is in itself hardly news. But Thurow adds a number of nuances and surprising observations that could help our thinking about economic policy.

One observation concerns the nature of the economic competition the United States now faces. The standard view, routinely presented in Wall Street Journal editorials and by various other editorial writers, is that the Japanese, Germans, Koreans, and so on have simply bested America at its own game. Their auto executives are paid less than ours, but they plan better for the long term. Their governments can reduce deficits by passing measures like a gasoline tax; ours cannot. Their students spend their evenings studying trigonometry or other worthy subjects; ours are at the local shopping mall, or watching smutty (but made-in-America!) music videos on Japanese-made TVs.

When I was living in Japan, I saw references nearly every week to a comparative survey of the opinions of teen-agers in America and Japan. When asked what worried them most, Japanese high-school seniors answered, “Exams.” The Americans answered, “Sex.” The Little League World Championships, held each summer in Pennsylvania, can serve as a metaphor for this interpretation of America’s problems. For the last two decades the teams from Taiwan and Korea have just been better—harder-working, better trained—than the young Americans, who have no one but themselves …

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