Rehoning America's competitive edge

Americans are having to face up to the fact that, throughout Asia in particular, millions of people around the world work harder, for less pay, and with great skill at tasks that Americans used to do supremely well.

Essentially, experts agree, the United States has two choices - to find its manufacturers increasingly outclassed by overseas competition or to reorient its economy toward a new kind of leadership.

Assuming, as most people do, that the US chooses the latter course, the process for a great many people will be painful.

Throughout history, great economic changes often have brought hardship to millions of people, and, for Americans, the changes likely during the decade that lies ahead may prove to be no exception.

No longer, as in the easy decades after World War II, do Americans live within an insular economic world, largely shielded from foreign competition.

Recently, in a Washington department store, a shopper bought a supply of new shirts of a popular ''American'' brand. Some, according to the labels, were made in Hong Kong, others in China, some in Singapore - none in the United States.

Foreign cars are 1 in 4 on American roads. TV sets, videotape recorders, cameras, radios, clothing, shoes - the list of products that flood in from overseas lengthens.

The tide cannot be stemmed. Americans, as consumers, want the best value for their money and find it in a wide range of foreign-made goods.

Bumper stickers that plead ''Buy American - save US jobs'' miss the point. Millions of Americans earn their own livings by making things that are sold to peoples overseas.

Block the flow of goods into the United States, and barriers against US exports would go up in other lands.

Top US officials, including US Trade Representative William E. Brock, insist that more American jobs are created through exports than are lost because imports throw people out of work.

This is cold comfort to hundreds of thousands of laid-off American industrial workers, many of whom may never get their jobs back. US industries hard hit by foreign competition - steel, autos, textiles, and others - will reemerge, but in leaner form, employing fewer people.

This will result partly from increasing use of robotics, partly from the construction of modern plants that can better compete in cost and quality with their counterparts overseas.

Says Robert W. Crandall of the Brookings Institution: ''No new steel plant has been built in the United States since 1962. Japan, meanwhile, has doubled and redoubled its capacity. Taiwan, Korea, and Japan - all can construct and operate modern steel plants more cheaply than the US can.''

Part of the reason is labor costs. The wages of American steelworkers, Mr. Crandall says, are 70 to 75 percent above the average US manufacturing wage. The income of US auto workers is 60 percent above the average.

Today a quarter of a million American automobile workers are idled. So are nearly 60 percent of America's steelworkers. High labor costs and unemployment are directly linked, experts agree.

The hopes and aspirations of countless American workers were rooted in economic conditions that no longer exist. Those earlier conditions bred rising expectations that gradually priced US workers and their industries out of the competition.

Wage contracts aimed at an average 3 percent annual rise in worker living standards were sustainable as long as US productivity climbed an equivalent rate. But output per hour of work stagnated in the 1970s. And only in the last few months has productivity begun to climb again, mostly because employers are getting more work out of reduced labor forces.

During those years wages and benefits continued to rise at the accustomed pace, but productivity did not. Higher labor costs were passed on the consumers, widening the price gap between many US and imported goods.

Today, in some key areas of technology - aircraft, computers, petrochemicals, telecommunications, space research among them - the US still maintains a competitive edge over Japan and other rivals.

The great task is somehow to broaden that range enough to reemploy as many as possible skilled workers who have lost their jobs and to provide career opportunities for young people.

A start many be evident in two emerging developments on the labor front. Wage demands across the economy are considerably more modest than in years past. Workers in some industries are accepting changes in work rules designed to make better products and at lower cost.

This trend, if extended, will do far more the enhance the nation's economic future than pleas for protection from goods made overseas.

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