Don't be so hard on yourself, America

Published Jan. 11, 1993|Updated Oct. 8, 2005

You might easily succeed if you set out to prove Americans are the most self-critical people on earth, an effect and example, perhaps, of the high regard in which free speech is held.

Sometimes, though, the criticism falls into a negative rut, and not even the facts can force it into another course. Such as: Americans rely too heavily on the domestic market; they'll have to learn how to export.

The United States learned a long time ago, and it is exporting very well _ better than Germany, Japan, France or the United Kingdom, which is to say that it exports more than any other nation on earth.

According to the International Monetary Fund, these were the top exporters in 1991: United States, $421.8-billion; Germany, $403.2-billion; Japan, $315-billion; France, $216.5-billion, and Britain, $185-billion.

The confusion and self-criticism arise from the fact that the United States is also the world's leader in imports, spending $509.3-billion on them in 1991, and therefore running up an imbalance in trade.

The United States, however, is not the only major nation with a so-called negative balance. France imported more than $16-billion more than it exported, and Britain around $25-billion.

Besides, imports aren't always bad. Remember, it takes a strong economy to finance such a level of imports.

Of the top five trading nations, only Germany and Japan exported more than they imported, the former by about $13-billion and the latter by $78-billion.

Americans also have been heard to compare negatively their standard of living, but the fact remains that the per-capita purchasing power of Americans is in a class of its own, far ahead of the other large industrial nations.

You might not have guessed that from comments by candidates, officials and academics during the past year. Many such observations, however, are based on fear that other nations are catching up. If so, they've got a long way to go.

A United Nations report published this year but based on 1989 data lists per-capita purchasing power of Americans at $20,998, followed by Germany at $14,507, Japan at $14,311, France at $14,164 and Britain, $13,732.

Another widely held notion in 1992 was that housing was in the doldrums. In fact, most of the housing industry did well, the big exception being multifamily structures.

In spite of weakness in multifamily building, starts for the year may total 1.24-million units, up from 1.01-million in 1991. In the first 10 months, 157,000 more single-family units were started than in the same period of 1991.

While the housing recovery wasn't as strong as it typically is when the economy is emerging from bad times, it certainly wasn't a disaster area, as it sometimes was depicted. And neither was the condition of American industry.

True, some of the biggest corporate names in America went through the wringer in 1992, and the bad times might not yet be over for them. But those who have faith in America saw at least two bright aspects in this scene.

The first: Big corporations finally bit the bullet and did what they should have done long before. They faced up to the reality of changing markets and restructured to meet them. Painful now, the process bodes well for the future.

The second positive in an otherwise negative interpretation is revealed by looking for the causes of big-company woes. While some problems were brought on by poor management, some also were caused by good management.

The good managers were in all those entrepreneurial enterprises that grew up and stole the markets away from the older, larger companies by providing more innovative products and services at lower prices.

That, too, bodes well for the future.