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Will the Rockettes Wear Kimonos?

LAST week the Rockefeller family announced it would sell New York City's Rockefeller Center, home of NBC and Radio City Music Hall, to a Japanese company. Coming just weeks after the news that Sony would buy Columbia Pictures, the report unsettled many Americans. It wasn't only that these acquisitions were further evidence of Japan's economic muscle; concern was heightened by the place that movies and New York skyscrapers play in America's self-image and popular culture. America itself seemed threatened, to be less the master of its own destiny.

How ironic, then, that just a few days later Ford said it would purchase Jaguar, the famous British luxury-car maker. Britons shuddered. Few other names short of Windsor bear such symbolic meaning for the English. A significant piece of England's heritage was being gobbled up by those pushy Yanks.

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Americans thought the globalization of business and finance was a fine thing, when it was almost exclusively their game. US multinationals bought up property and built factories around the world. Our investments are strengthening economies, creating jobs, the companies said. Foreigners concerned about economic sovereignty were dismissed as xenophobic.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. American alarmists (and Britons upset about Jaguar) are overreacting. Japanese investment in the US barely makes a dent in America's enormous economy. Indeed, Japan is only the third largest foreign investor in the US, behind Britain and the Netherlands. Americans have to be alert that they aren't raising the cry against Japan's economic ``invaders'' for racial reasons.

Yes, there are serious questions to be asked about changes in world economic patterns, about American competitiveness and productivity, about Japanese protectionism. But the sale of a few national icons shouldn't skew the debate. Thinking people have to get beyond the wrong issues so they can focus on the right ones.

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