The competitiveness derby

A BUZZWORD by definition is a term used by insiders that sounds impressive to outsiders but means little if anything precise. So with ``competitiveness,'' Washington's latest ``bzzz.'' In sheer desire to get ahead, aggressiveness, relish for battle, American competitiveness has hardly waned.

In politics, for example, the Democrats bristle with ambition; they want to run as much of the country as they can from their new congressional stronghold.

Vice-President George Bush is showing a decidedly competitive streak in preparing to run for the Oval Office: He has sought to distance himself from President Reagan on the Iran scandal. Mr. Bush's own spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, has been installed in the President's briefing room. To replace Mr. Fitzwater, Bush has hired Larry Thomas, California Gov. George Deukmejian's press secretary - anticipating a shift into full campaign gear and an alliance that could help Bush secure California's delegate bloc.

Meanwhile, other appointees like Navy Secretary John Lehman are quitting to reposition themselves in industry and elsewhere, as Washington redeploys its political assets for competitive reasons.

Even in economic terms, it is hard to argue the US has lost its competitive edge. The trade deficit is one negative factor. At the dollar's present level, the deficit could be cut from its current $170 billion to some $90 billion by 1989, economists say, still a wide gap. Still, no one could argue that Treasury Secretary James Baker III has not been competitive enough to date in pressuring the West Germans and the Japanese by a dollar devaluation. The risks of further depressing the dollar are twofold: US producers could end up raising prices to levels just below those of their import competition, taking the advantage in profit rather than expanded unit sales. Second, the oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia, which key their economies to the dollar, could run up oil prices.

In manufacturing, Ford Motor Company has regained some of the technological 'elan of its Model T days: Highly automated production of cars like its Taurus have brought Ford back into the earnings lead among the Big Three.

In economic life style, Americans have become more entrepreneurial. In 1985, some 700,000 new companies were formed in the US, 400,000 new partnerships were created, and 300,000 individuals went to work for themselves - 1.4 million new ventures in one year - according to Inc. magazine. By comparison, in 1950 Americans started just 90,000 companies. Between 1978 and 1980, for the first time in the US, self-employment grew faster than wage- and salary-paying jobs.

These numbers have a downside. Takeovers, factory closings, pension and other benefit cutbacks - often in the guise of competition - have forced more Americans to look out for themselves. Many who are kept from entrepreneurism - because of disadvantage by race, education, age - find their positions eroded.

The prize for Washington's ``competitiveness derby'' is political. The President will travel about soon to tout his competitiveness package - job training, strengthened patent and copyright laws - and show he is back in action. A trade deficit turnaround, plus continued economic expansion and a healthy stock market, would help George Bush or his GOP rivals in 1988 - unless the Democrats wrest the credit. That's competition!

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