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Let's think clearly in our debate on trade with Japan

Reasonable people can disagree about whether a "buy American" campaign makes sense. But we could do without several fatuous arguments:

1. You can't tell where this stuff comes from anyway. Even the hardheaded Mike Royko has fallen for this. In a recent column he said he'd bought an American car and a friend had bought Japanese _ but that the Japanese car was made in America and was probably more American than the real thing. Hah! The joke was on the buy-American crowd.

In principle, corporations might eventually lose all ties to their parent nations. This is nearly the case with American computer makers. None of the major components of Apple, Compaq, Dell or other "American" computers are produced in the United States, except for the microprocessing chip itself.

But "American" cars are overwhelmingly made in America. Because Chrysler buys many engines from Mitsubishi, the North American content of its cars is less than Ford's or General Motor Corp.'s. Because Honda builds engines in Ohio, its North American content is higher than Toyota's or Nissan's. But the Big Three are all much more "American" than any Japanese brand. The average North American content for Chrysler vehicles is more than 85 percent.

According to Canadian officials inspecting "made in Ohio" Hondas, it remains an open question whether the cars are even 50 percent North American.

This doesn't prove that Americans should reject cars from Japanese "transplants," or even that they should care where their cars come from. But we should stop pretending that the origin is an unsolvable enigma.

2. The whiff of racism is in the air.

It's foolish ever to rule out racism as a factor, but the term is being applied reflexively to controversies that have simpler explanations.

I don't care who owns the Seattle Mariners _ and if I did I'd choose Nintendo over George Steinbrenner any day. But there is no evidence that baseball is resisting the Nintendo owners because of their race rather than their nationality.

Suppose Sen. Daniel Inouye were buying the team. Would anyone complain?

If we think that clashes of national interests with Japan inevitably have the "whiff of racism" because the countries' racial makeup differs, then we're logically forced to consider Japan's many nationalistic policies racist as well _ including its ban on foreign ownership of its baseball teams.

Japan's ban on rice imports penalizes racially non-Japanese farmers from Thailand to Arkansas. It's enough to call this policy "pig-headed" or "protectionist," without insisting that it's racist as well.

If you disagree with the protests over Nintendo in Seattle, just call them "xenophobic." There's no reason to haul in the most loaded term in our political language.

3. If our schools are bad, then we've got no problems with Japan.

Most oratory suggests only two possible explanations for trade problems. Either the Japanese economy is unfair, closed and tricky, or else Americans are lazy, spendthrift and dumb. To the extent one explanation is true, we can ignore the other _ as the standard editorial does when saying: We mustn't lecture the Japanese until we (fix our schools, cut the budget deficit, stop crime, etc.).

But our brains should be big enough to contain two ideas _ that we have both internal and external problems.

Does anyone think Koreans are dumb and lazy? Yet Korea has a big economic imbalance with Japan, much like ours. So do Taiwan, Singapore and other get-the-job-done societies.

America's budget deficit and low savings increase the size of our trade deficit, but they're not the only factors involved. America has serious social problems, which would be serious even if there were no other countries in the world.

The auto-parts trade deficit is not the reason we should care about families or schools; the texture of our life is. But we also have long-term economic problems with Japan, which most other countries share.

Agree or disagree with Dick Gephardt and Lee Iacocca, as you choose _ but if you disagree, don't assume they're bigots or they're trying to distract attention from America's shortcomings.

James Fallows, Washington editor of The Atlantic, is working on a book about East Asia.

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