Trade lessons

December 31, 1991

When President Bush got the message that the American public considers him less interested in domestic problems than in international affairs, he hurriedly transformed his Far Eastern trip from a diplomatic mission to a traveling trade conference focusing on shoring up American jobs through increased exports. Serving as props for the journey are 21 business executives, including 12 chief executives of major U.S. corporations. But the Japanese, the main target of Bush's open-up-the-market efforts, are unlikely to be impressed by the corporate brass.

After all, those dozen CEOs averaged $2 million in compensation last year, despite the fact that many of their companies were mired in recession and laying off workers. To cite one example, GM president Robert Stempel received more than $2.18 million last year -- from a company that is now shedding 74,000 jobs and 21 plants. He is a member of the president's delegation, as are the heads of the other two major U.S. auto companies.

The exorbitant level of executive pay, seemingly unconnected to performance, has become an issue in this country only recently. True, the fact that Americans have always prized individual achievement, while the Japanese reward team work, helps account for part of the discrepancy in pay levels. Even so, the spectacle of multi-million-dollar compensation packages for executives of crumbling American companies has long been an irritant for the Japanese, where top executives usually earn in the $300,000 to $400,000 range, pay sharply higher taxes than do their U.S. counterparts and are expected to take pay cuts or resign as a matter of pride when the company falls on hard times.

President Bush seems unconcerned about how this plays iJapan. But the fact remains that in trade relations, as in most other aspects of diplomacy, appearances count. It's unfortunate, but hardly surprising, that the paycheck issue may well divert attention from the serious trade matters that threaten to strain the U.S.-Japan relationship, which former U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield was fond of calling "the most important bilateral relationship in the world."

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