Economic progress

CONGRESS, the White House, and the American people need to put together a long-range program to deal with the fundamental economic readjustment now under way within American society - as the nation moves from a primarily manufacturing-based society to a high-tech/electronics/service-based society.

Certainly, there has been no end of discussion about the transition now taking place. Nor has there been a dearth of proposals about how to deal with the situation: Reindustrialization. Lifetime-guaranteed jobs. Special savings accounts for job retraining. What has been lacking is the type of practical long-range planning and coordinated approach - federal, state, local, involving private industry as well - that will ensure a far more orderly and successful adjustment than is now occurring.

The current readjustment must be considered as far-reaching as the shift that occurred in the early half of this century when the United States moved from a primarily agricultural, small-town economy to a manufacturing, big-city economy. Today's blue-collar work force makes up about 30 percent of the nation's total work force. But by some estimates, that percentage may shrink to as little as 10 percent by the end of this century.

And that is not all. Growth in real income per worker has dropped off sharply during the past several decades, in part the result of, in part accompanying, the changes occurring within manufacturing. National economic growth has continued. But such gains have not translated into major gains in disposable income. As pointed out by Peter G. Peterson in the May-June issue of the Harvard Business Review, there has been an almost ''complete stagnation of growth in real disposable personal income'' in the US. Between 1948 and 1967, real disposable income per worker increased by an average of 2.4 percent annually. During the past decade, it slowed to a rate that is ''barely perceptible.'' From 1973 to 1981 it grew at 0.5 percent each year. Take away government benefits and it did not grow at all.

In other words, the nation is now faced with the possibility of stagnant growth in personal income. Yet, this need not occur. Such a prospect is hardly what the American ideal of expanding progress has been about.

What's to be done?

* At the federal level the deficit must be reduced, and long-term investment in new plants must be encouraged, perhaps by changes in tax policy such as moving even more toward a tax structure that encourages savings as opposed to the present system, which discourages savings. The tax code has already begun to move in this direction.

* At the worker level government and private industry must ensure job-retraining programs for meaningful work. Financial assistance should be available to unemployed workers who cannot relocate because they cannot sell their heavily mortgaged homes in a local housing market where there has been a plant closure.

* Finally, as noted in the series ''Saving Our Cities,'' now running in the Monitor, cities must protect the quality of life in their communities - schools and housing, for example - to create the environment conducive to new industries. Many once-declining regions have posted turnarounds throughout US history, New England being the latest. There is no reason why older manufacturing regions such as the upper Midwest cannot do the same thing.

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