It's time we point the finger at ourselves

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 12, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

This Neanderthal on Eastern Avenue points his finger at my car and urges me to drive it off a cliff. My car was made in Japan. The Neanderthal says I should be ashamed of myself for not buying American. I say the American carmakers should be ashamed for not building better cars.

We are now witnessing that most ancient of all defense #i mechanisms for those who are in trouble: Find someone to blame.

In Detroit, the U.S. auto industry last week called 1991 its worst sales year in nearly a decade and blamed it on Japan's closed-door trade policies. In Queen Anne's County, a billboard has been unveiled with U.S. stars and stripes being covered by a rising sun. The billboard bitterly calls America a colony of Japan. And on Eastern Avenue, it is considered an act of national disloyalty to drive a Honda.

''I hope you get killed in it,'' the Neanderthal says. ''What's the matter with an American car?''

''Drop dead,'' I explain.

I do not bother telling him about the incident with my old Chrysler product. A man hit my Chrysler product several years back, and for the remainder of the life of the car -- a period of nearly two years -- Chrysler never did get around to furnishing me with all of the replacement parts.

Nor do I bother telling him about the General Motors car that had to be towed to the mechanic at regular intervals while my repair bills mounted, nor do I mention the other Chrysler product of mine which failed to start whenever a cloud passed over.

Is this an indictment of an entire industry based on anecdotal evidence? Never mind that, let's talk about America feeling so sorry for itself that we express it by taking shots at villains real and imagined.

On the president's trip to Japan last week, we saw the genius of our time, Chrysler's Lee Iacocca, a man whose company is hemorrhaging money under his leadership. A year ago, Iacocca was paid $4.65 million and given $718,000 in Chrysler shares. The latest figures from Detroit showed Chrysler sales were down 11.2 percent last year.

Also aboard was GM's chairman, Robert Stempel, who was paid $2.18 million in immediate and deferred compensation a year ago. He then closed 21 plants and killed 74,000 jobs.

Nobody in power talks about trimming his own salary in failing times rather than taking thousands of jobs away. Nobody says maybe Detroit's in trouble because the design makers and the marketers took American buyers for granted for too many years.

And so we have Iacocca telling reporters how much Japan is to blame for America's troubles, and this president of ours, George Bush, traveling 26,000 miles so that no one should miss the point about precisely who's to blame for the American economy breaking apart.

Memo to Bush: We get it, we get it.

On Maryland's Eastern Shore, along U.S. 50 in Wye Mills, there is the billboard proclaiming, ''Americhuko -- The Colony of Japan.'' Americhuko reminds us of Manchukuo, the puppet regime installed by the Japanese in occupied Manchuria 60 years ago.

Whoever's doing the reminding, though, chooses to remain anonymous. The billboard was paid for by an advertiser who wishes to speak merely in codes and not have to defend his complaint with actual ideas.

But, as the billboard is unveiled only weeks after America's remembrance of Pearl Harbor, we are brought once again to images of another Japanese invasion, and the implication that the attack may be less bloody this time, but an attack is an attack.

Nobody ever calls it an attack when the Germans sell cars here, or the British buy huge blocks of real estate. The Brits happen to own twice as much of America as do the Japanese, though nobody in Washington ever mentions that. (The English are our kind of invaders, aren't they?)

Instead, we hear talk of the Japanese playing unfairly. Americans would never play unfairly, would we? Are you kidding? Americans spent the last decade in an orgy of mercantile cannibalism: mounting unfriendly takeovers and leveraged buyouts, moving factories abroad for cheaper labor, lopping off workers while feeding executives breathtaking salaries and benefits.

And so we have George Bush, looking around for someone to blame for his country's economy -- what's he going to do, blame himself? -- and pointing to trade barriers erected by Japan.

For what it's worth, Robert B. Reich, professor of political economy at Harvard, points out in ''The Pearl Harbor Metaphor,'' published by the Center for War, Peace and the News Media at New York University:

''Japan isn't a fortress when it comes to trade. In 1988 the average Japanese citizen purchased $344 worth of goods from the United States, while the average American purchased $378 worth of goods from Japan -- not much of a difference. That same year the average West German bought only $272 worth of American goods.''

And yet this image persists that America is somehow at the mercy of the Japanese. Who promotes the image? People who need someone to blame. If George Bush makes Japan the villain, maybe no one will notice that his is the first presidency since the Depression when the standard of living has actually fallen.

If the big car executives blame Japan for not allowing American ** car sales, maybe nobody will notice that Americans don't seem to be buying many American cars, either.

Finding somebody to blame is an old trick. But making it an act of disloyalty not to buy an American car is a cheap trick, and even the Neanderthal on Eastern Avenue should have figured that out by now.

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