Priorities for Uncle Sam

There is one thing the falling of the votes does not change. Uncle Sam still has a priority problem on his plate. That problem is to get the United States back into a competitive position in the world.

And this is one thing which the man in the White House cannot do by sending bills to Congress or issuing edicts. All the president can do, no matter who he is, is to keep calling attention to the problem and keep trying to persuade people and the Congress to do all the little things which will someday once again balance America's trade with the world and thus restore the dollar to soundness -- because, so long as Americans insist on buying more from other countries than they sell to them, there will continue to be a trade deficit and the dollar will sag farther and farther on world exchanges.

This is probably not as difficult to correct as it may sound because the trade gap has been narrowing of late partly because of poor harvest in both the Soviet Union and China and partly because there is an ever rising market for American coal.

Fortunately for the United States it has an almost unlimited supply of coal and its farmers seem to be able to produce an almost unlimited quantity of grain. But coal and grain are not by themselves enough to pay for the quantity of oil and foreign cars which the US has grown accustomed to buying.

Although coal export is increasing about as fast as the railroads can move it down to the loading wharves it is still only three percent of exports. Soybeans also provide three percent of exports. So coal and grain and beans together are only 16 percent.The biggest item on the US export list is machinery at 27 percent of the total. The US is still an important exporter of machinery. It has not yet slipped into being an exporter only of raw materials and food -- as in the colonial period.

The whole would come into balance and on into the black almost overnight if only the US could manage to get back to self-sufficiency in energy. Oil is the biggest import item, by far, amounting to nearly a fourth of th e total of all US imports. Foreign motor vehicles are second at nearly 15 percent.

Conservation of oil by all possible means is going to help close the gap. Someday synthetic fuels may take over part of the burden of running the US economy. More fuel-efficient engines for motor vehicles will help. And a big boost will come if the cars beginning to come off Detroit's assembly imports.

Detroit always used to boast that it could complete with small foreign cars any time it wanted to do so. Well, that time is here, and the next 12 months will tell the story of whether Detroit can in fact build as good or better a small car at a competitive price. If the new American cars prove to be reliable and comparable in quality and can be sold at the same or lower prices -- then the days of the massive imports will recede into history.

Fuel conservation plus the slowdown in the US economy due to the recession have in fact reduced the trade gap substantially. It was down in 1979 to $24.7 billion. Commerce Department experts think it should be down in 1980 by another foreign car imports enough to make a difference in the balance.

Americans are currently spending well over $1 billion a month on foreign cars. The figure for 1980 will probably run to about $15 billion, or over half of the trade deficit. If American manufacturers could recapture half of their lost motor vehicle market from the foreigners, and if Americans would manage to cut down further on their need for foreign oil -- the gap could be closed.

It is not likely to be closed in 1981 or 1982. But very little gain helps. Every gas guzzler scrapped, every themostat turned down, every boiler room converted from oil to coal, every gallon of synthetic fuel produced, and every automobile run made at legal speed will advance the day when the United States will once again pay its own way in the world and once again have a dollar as good as any other currency.

When that day comes Americans will again be able to afford to travel overseas -- at reasonable cost.

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