SENATOR BILL BRADLEY, New Jersey Democrat, and Rep. Jack Kemp, New York Republican, two of the more cerebral members of Congress, took their semiannual road show to New York last week. The announced topic: Third World debt and trade.
It's hard to imagine politicians seizing upon Latin American debt, a crisis that somehow seemed to have been shoved under the rug, as a pressing political issue. Four years ago, as Sen. Bradley noted, Mexico nearly defaulted on its foreign debt. And everyone - government types, bankers, economists - called it a liquidity problem.Now at long last it is beginning to be seen as a political problem affecting factories and jobs in Joliet and Ashtabula as well as the political stability of new democracies below the border and in the Philippines, fighting desperately to stay afloat.
And, if special emphasis was needed, Sen. John C. Danforth, the Missouri Democrat, was on hand to assure listeners that next year, like it or not, the nation was going to get a trade bill, a protectionist trade bill. Moreover, there was a good chance that there would be enough votes to override a presidential veto.
Participants in the conference were a star-studded lot, key leaders from government, business, agriculture, the financial community and academia in the developing countries, the United States, Europe and Japan.
The Third World didn't hang back. Representatives of Argentina and Brazil made a telling point that because of economic reforms in their countries they would be running health payments surpluses - except for debt payments, which continue to overwhelm their trade gains.
What was needed, another participant said, was a Chapter 11 for the LDCs, some way of holding interest as well as principal payments on past debts in abeyance while, through reforms at home and growth policies abroad, they were able to get on their feet.
Several themes were sounded time and again:
* That no longer could Third World debt be viewed as an isolated,
financial problem, that it was intertwined inexorably with world trade and growth.
* That the United States had no hope of righting its huge trade deficit unless markets in the developing world could be revived.
* That there were no quick fixes, that we were all in this together and would continue to be for years to come.
Jim Baker, the U.S. secretary of the Treasury, was lauded for his emphasis on growth as a necessary ingredient to solving the problem, a discovery made a year-and-a-half ago. To achieve growth, he told the meeting, we need neither partial debt forgiveness, a key item on Sen. Bradley's agenda, nor a huge infusion of official foreign capital, a new Marshall Plan.
What is needed, he said, is major reforms not only in the Third World but in the United States and the rest of the developed world. This suggested greater emphasis on reducing the U.S. budget deficit, a theme others came back to over and over.
The meeting abounded in ideas for refunding LDC bank debt with marketable securities, some of which would be written down to market. There was no dearth of innovative ideas.
But the most significant probably was Sen. Bradley's. The world foundered in the 1930s, he said, because there was no plan to stave off the depression. What was needed now, even more than the important specifics, was a vision, a look ahead that would help lead us out of the present morass.