Trade restrictions get considerable support

February 23, 1992|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

Once upon a time, J. Bradley Barnhart worked for an American company. That was before his employer, the once-venerable Royal Business Machines Corp., turned Japanese.

It started with a gradual move toward importing foreign typewriters and copiers, German as well as Japanese. Then all U.S. manufacturing eventually stopped. Mr. Barnhart, who worked in the company's Baltimore office, places the blame squarely on Connecticut-based Royal and its inability to make a competitive product.

The difference between the old copiers Royal used to make and the ones sold by its new Japanese owner, the Konica Corp., was "like the difference between a Chevette and a Corvette," Mr. Barnhart said.

Eventually, Royal became a Japanese company when Konica bought it. Frustrated with the company's evolution from manufacturer to importer, Mr. Barnhart quit his job as senior service technician at Konica to become a physical therapist.

He now sides with those Maryland voters who agreed in a Sun Poll this month that "Japanese products are made better than American products." Of the 1,210 people who responded to the telephone survey, they split almost evenly on the question -- 47 percent agreed; 46 percent disagreed.

Almost half the respondents in the poll said that it's best to buy the quality product, regardless of where it's made. Mr. Barnhart said he agrees with that but sympathizes with the 39 percent of those polled who believe that it's better to buy only American products. He owns two "American" cars, for instance, which he acknowledges are made largely of foreign parts.

When it comes to his own business, following the "Buy American" ideal is not always that easy.

A piece of medical equipment from Holland costs him $1,500 less than its U.S.-made counterpart and performs better. "I'm really pressed to say it's worth that extra $1,500 to be a patriot," the 38-year-old Baltimore County resident said.

Because of the success foreign companies have had in America, and because of a perception that some countries, especially Japan, do not play fair, the majority of Marylanders said they would support stronger trade limits. While that could lead to higher prices for foreign products that many Marylanders say they might favor, almost 64 percent of those surveyed said that the United States should impose stricter tariffs to limit the entry of foreign goods.

"My feeling is it should be a one-for-one swap," Mr. Barnhart said. "It should not be a one-way flow" of goods from Japan to the United States.

It's not entirely one-way, but trade figures for 1991 showed that Japan had a $43 billion surplus with the United States -- about three-quarters of this country's entire trade deficit. Those figures, and sharply adversarial statements made by both U.S. and Japanese leaders of late, have breathed new life into a protectionist movement in America.

"I think that if a country restricts what we sell in their country, we ought to restrict what they sell in our country to the same degree," said Michael Simms, a 41-year-old Salisbury city employee.

It's not only Japan that bothers Mr. Simms. He used to grow soybeans and corn on 1,200 acres of Wicomico County farmland. But with rising prices for equipment, and lower prices for his product, he gave up the farm in 1987.

"I just couldn't cut it," Mr. Simms said. The subsidies many foreign countries provide to their farmers were partly to blame, he said.

Whatever their feelings about other nations, The Sun Poll shows that most Marylanders view Japan as a trade villain. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed agreed that Japan does not compete fairly; less than 20 percent disagreed.

"Japan needs to relax a lot of their rules and let the U.S. companies come over and compete," Mr. Simms said.

It's true that foreign countries that restrict the sale of American goods deserve "some sort of limitation on the number of products they can sell here," said Mary Lippman, a Howard County real estate agent. But American business is partly to blame, she said.

The Pontiac J2000 Ms. Lippman and her husband bought in 1983 gave them nothing but trouble, she explained, while the more expensive BMW purchased in 1988 has been problem-free ever since.

The drive for profits has crowded out the desire for quality in many companies, Ms. Lippman said.

"I think our companies have probably gotten a bit greedy. The almighty dollar speaks."

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