In Europeans' view, US economic policies are less than angelic
A border was once defined as the line separating two groups, each of which believes that civilization ends at that line. Somehow, this view is a vivid reminder of the current state of US-European economic relations.
It is fascinating to participate, as I have been doing recently, in a discussion across the Atlantic on the role of the United States in the international economy. It is so different from the discussion of the same subject on this side of the ocean.
We Americans tend to see our nation as the embodiment of fairness and idealism in an otherwise nasty and selfish world. In that view - which we can label the ''angelic'' US - our strong recovery has been the engine that is pulling Europe and the rest of the world out of recession. Our triple-digit (in billions) import deficit reflects the tremendous market potential which, in our naivete, we are permitting other countries to take excessive advantage of.
In this angelic view of the US, Western Europe talks about government aid to developing nations, while the US acts - providing, via open trade, opportunities for these nations to earn the foreign exchange they so badly need. America also invests a growing percentage of its national wealth in the nuclear umbrella that protects the entire free world. As a result, other nations are free to increase investments in their own productive capacity, allowing them a competitive advantage over aging American industry.
And, of course, the angelic view maintains that the US is an island of free trade in a sea of subsidies and protectionism.
That is not the picture that we get on the other side of the Atlantic. Our friends overseas remind us of the evils arising from our loose and irresponsible fiscal policy, how those $200 billion budget deficits have pushed up interest rates, and how the resultant superstrong dollar is bedeviling the economies of every other nation. All this supposedly forces our European friends to take some painful actions. To limit the outflow of their capital to the US, they must maintain high interest rates in the face of high unemployment - at considerable expense to their own social needs.
Rather than being a firm apostle of free trade, the US is seen as the hypocritical nation that maintains a firm ''buy American'' policy while berating the trade barriers of other governments. Focusing on its huge trade deficit with Japan, the US conveniently overlooks the large trade surplus it ran with the European Community over the past decade (although not in the most recent past).
Also, the US, it is recalled, tried to force an embargo of the Soviet pipeline while selling the Russians its surplus grain. Speaking of the Russians, we are told that the Americans - especially Reagan administration spokesmen - delight in irritating the Soviet Union. The Americans, in that view, conveniently overlook Western Europe's proximity to, and our own great distance from, the ''evil empire.''
Despite some overstatement in each of these two views, the attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic are still very different. Let us try to develop a more balanced view of the international role of the American economy. In doing so, we should remind ourselves that those truly outrageous budget deficits have helped to generate a strong recovery in the American economy. That has led, simultaneously, to important desirable results in the international economy - such as providing a growing market for Western Europe and the developing countries - and many undesirable results as well: high interest rates, rapid appreciation of the dollar, and extraordinary inflows of capital into the US.
There are two notions that can be developed from this general point. One is that the pluses and the minuses go together. In the absence of the huge budget deficits and their ramifications, it is doubtful that those substantial trade deficits would have developed. The second point is that US policies and practices are not the sole major source of the difficulties facing other nations.
Surely, the fall in the value of the franc and other adverse consequences that followed the 1981 election victory of Francois Mitterrand were not caused by any US action. Those consequences came from the financial markets' correct anticipation of the economically troublesome policies Mr. Mitterrand would introduce.
Although some of our European friends believe budget deficits are a means of exporting our domestic difficulties, they overlook the obvious fact that many parts of the US economy suffer from them as well. Important examples include housing, agriculture, and durable goods production - all sectors of the economy especially sensitive to high interest rates.
It is always easier to blame the actions of foreign devils for domestic difficulties. But protectionist responses only exacerbate underlying problems. When economists are on this side of the Atlantic, we invariably find ourselves opposing those who blame forces overseas for domestic difficulties. It is delightful to take that position in Western Europe, where we are those foreign devils.