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Gone to Look for America : MORE LIKE US : Making America Great Again <i> by James Fallows (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95; 245 pp.) </i>

James Fallows raises interesting questions about America’s sense that it is losing energy and purpose in the face of harder-driving competitors such as Japan. Less interestingly, he answers them.

Fallows is an incisive and provocative journalist, as he has shown in writing about Washington, national defense and the Far East for the Atlantic Magazine, among others. It was his time in Japan that seems to have sparked this effort to discover why our society is apparently falling behind; and how we are going wrong.

We should not try to become more like the Japanese, he argues; more orderly and self-denying. We should become more like ourselves--hence, the title--more free-swinging, democratic and risky. A kind of cautious rigidity and the beginnings of a class system have clouded the traditional American inclination to be mobile and innovative.

This last claim has its interest, and Fallows has gathered some alluring specifics to support it. But his back-to-the-old-virtues remedy sounds hollow; even hollower are the timid and fairly commonplace proposals that he makes to achieve it.

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Journalism at its best tells us about what we do not know. There is a deeper kind of writing that tells us about what we do know, and transforms it. Fallows’ virtues and limitations are journalistic ones; on the whole, he is better at giving us a distinctive image of Japan than of ourselves.

Any effective society needs a “radius of trust” to allow its energies to work, he tells us. Japan’s comes from two things: a racial uniformity that lets it regard itself as an extended family and a belief in effort for its own sake.

Japanese society is exclusive; a foreigner does not become a Japanese, and, if he enters a public swimming pool, the Japanese may climb out. But this family identification means that from the factory worker to the corporation executive, there is a sense of belonging. Of course, some do much better than others--an early educational selection is crucial--but those who “lose” are not “losers.” They are not “the Other,” as with us, Fallows writes; they are “brothers and cousins.”

And the Japanese belief in effort for its own sake is so strong that the economy protects producers, not consumers. Not only rich producers but all of them; the “uneconomic” farmer and Ma-and-Pa stores as well as the electronics giant. Food prices are so high, accordingly, that all but the rich must eat with austerity. And the small shopkeeper survives and accounts for 60% of all sales (3% in the United States).

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There is no way that Americans can or should try to emulate this, Fallows argues. Our talent is flux, not stability. The radius of trust we need to mobilize our energies depends upon a belief that the rules of the game are the same for all and that we are always able to start over and elsewhere. Such a belief allows us to accept changing values, immigration and the rise and fall of industries and even of entire regions.

America collapses, he writes, if it stagnates, “if it becomes an ordinary country with people stuck in customary chessboard roles.”

Fallows goes on to tell a number of individual American stories; that of his own parents, first of all. His doctor-father bundled wife and children into a new car, drove from Philadelphia and settled in Redlands. The move liberated him, Fallows tells us; he took up sailing with an instruction book in his lap; he learned to ride.

There is something very thin about this. A different kind of writer might have been more interested in Fallows’ mother, who chose the most Eastern-looking house she could find in Redlands, filled it with antiques and insisted on wearing tweeds.

We may wonder about Fallows’ America-is-change theme, if only because he adds no new inflection to what we’ve heard so often. He tells us about Ginn, a failed Indiana policeman who starts over again as an oil driller in Texas, and, when the boom dies, starts over a third time as a mechanic. The story is well told; it has teeth.

So does his account of a man who stayed home in a little Georgia town and fought the local paper company. So does the story of Ngyuen Doc and a dozen relatives, each of whom made a precarious way out of Vietnam to California and who, together, have already made it into the middle-class and seem bound for something more.

These are good stories; and yet, there is a puzzle. Each of these--the indomitable driller, the local hero, the immigrant--demonstrates a prowess and resolve that undoubtedly built America, 50, 75, 100 years ago. But what about today’s grandchildren of those grandfathers? What about Nguyen Doc’s grandchildren 30 years from now?

Can a country-empire heading toward the 300-million mark and clogged and depleted to some degree--like Alice’s tea party--with the debris of those who move on, keep building along Fallows’ radius of trust? That is, for Americans to be “More Like Us,” must we feel that we can move on, remake ourselves and prosper?

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It’s almost, not quite, like saying that Americans can only preserve their souls if they think they can get rich. Why should most of us think so? Most of us can’t.

Fallows’ argument that America must re-create the belief that everyone has a chance, a second chance, a third chance, has its appeal. Some of the best parts of his book are his reports on an incipient class system that denies the belief. He recalls how, as a Harvard student, he and his classmates were able to avoid being drafted to Vietnam, while the blue-collar kids had to go.

He writes very well of the growing reliance on educational qualifications--essentially elitist--to restrict access to the professions and to management; even when those qualifications have little to do with the actual work to be done.

But, when he gets to specifics and to remedies, his overview crumbles. For the black underclass, his solution amounts to little more than strong inner-city school principals and school vouchers. For blue collars and white collars who feel that the cards are stacked against them, his solution--interesting but surely insufficient--is to de-emphasize educational requirements in the professions and strengthen on-the-job training.

He would encourage immigration, although he would not actually increase the numbers. The difference may be hard to discern; the difference, he writes, is that we are to feel happy about them instead of wary. We need new institutions, he argues; he doesn’t tell us what they are to be. We need a moral equivalent to war.

“More Like Us” would have been a stronger book had Fallows stuck to his questions. They are good, even radical questions. They do better unanswered than answered, for the most part, with such a bland and dying fall.


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