A government authority for US industrial planning?
Houston — James F. Bere was purposely testing his idea in what, he admitted, could be hostile waters. The chief executive of the Borg-Warner Corporation was advocating a mechanism to draft a long-range industrial policy in the United States, and doing so deep in the heart of laissez faire Texas.
This idea of the nation's adopting some sort of system to plan its industrial future has picked up some popularity lately. The House Democratic Policy Caucus has been talking about an ''Economic Cooperation Council'' to help the nation ''gather the right information and improve our ability to make long-term economic decisions.'' Various academics have suggested the US should emulate Japan, where the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) steers industrial development rather forcefully - and with much-admired success. In fact, Borg-Warner itself, a diversified manufacturer, had been directed in the past to form a joint venture with a different Japanese company than it first proposed, and did so.
Advocates less often mention France, which has practiced ''indicative planning'' for years. French governments have always intervened to some extent in industrial decisionmaking. But under recent conservative governments, plans have been drawn but little enforced. Officials in today's Socialist-Communist government talk of making the plans actually work.
In any case, Mr. Bere last week told a meeting here of the International Center for Business that the federal government should form a ''National Industrial Policy Authority.''
He explained: ''. . . it would be an action organization - because policy without action is meaningless, and action without policy is self-defeating.'' It would be permanent. Its commissioners would be appointed - perhaps jointly by the president and Congress - for staggered, nonrenewable terms of six or nine years. This would give it some continuity and a degree of insulation from political pressure.
The authority's policy proposals, the Borg-Warner chairman continued, would have to be approved by both Congress and the administration. But once approved, the authority would have the freedom to carry out those policies autonomously.
One function of this body would be ''to provide a place and a method under which American companies could combine resources for specific defined purposes of international trade.'' In other words, the companies could cooperate on certain projects to compete against foreign nations without running afoul of the antitrust laws.
As an example, Mr. Bere suggests that his proposed authority could approve cooperation by several US companies to develop a so-called ''fifth generation'' computer with genuine learning ability, a project he regards as too large for a single company.
In Japan, he noted, MITI and five electronic companies are funding an elaborate experimental project to make such a computer.
Another purpose of the authority would be to permit voluntary ''rationalization'' of industries that are no longer competitive. For instance, domestic steel companies would be allowed to form ''large-scale combinations to eliminate redundancy and join strengths.'' At present, antitrust laws would likely make such mergers illegal, unless a company were failing.
Mr. Bere explained: ''As an impartial arbiter, together with the industry's own representatives, it (the authority) could legally redeploy the assets of the industry - including . . . assistance to employees - leaving it with, say, the most modern, most efficient 50 percent of its facilities. That healthy nucleus would probably serve our domestic needs economically, provide an adequate strategic base for defense, and give us another chance in foreign markets.''
Another role for this body might be to allow joint marketing operations by several companies outside the US.
Mr. Bere sees such action as necessary because the market in many cases is now global, not just national or regional. Moreover, he said, ''The competition is single American companies against the combined weight of entire national industries subsidized and owned by governments.''
A national industrial policy, he says, is ''the only way we will be able to compete from a position of strength rather than weakness.''
Mr. Bere's suggestions for authority powers are, to say the least, controversial. Would a government authority know better than International Business Machines Corporation, for instance, whether or not a fifth-generation computer is feasible scientifically and commercially? One report says IBM plays down such a computer; another, that it is working on it secretly. Whatever, giant IBM would have the resources to work on it.
Would government officials be more savvy than private corporate officials in choosing the best investment path for industry? Perhaps some government authority could focus information and ideas for the voluntary consideration of industry. Perhaps it could offer useful proposals to business.
But if an authority had real authority, it would stand in danger of making mistakes on a grander scale than those that corporate officials often make.