Executives join to lobby for better business practices at Pentagon

US Rep. Barbara Boxer fingers a tiny metal bracket she wears on a chain around her neck and notes that its retail value is $20, but that the Air Force pays $850 for it as a spare part for fighter planes.

Not a brow in the room is left unfurrowed over that informational bait as this US representative from California proceeds to reel in her catch, an audience of 200 business executives with a penchant for balanced budgets.

Congresswoman Boxer is appealing to their business sense on behalf of BENS (Business Executives for National Security Inc.), a nonpartisan Washington lobbying group recruiting members who believe sound business principles can be applied to military spending.

The BENS meeting here this week included bankers, lawyers, real estate investors, men and women, Republicans and Democrats. They may not have been convinced by the marches and rallies and demonstrations of the peace movement, but they respond to the economic effects of a costly arms race which they link negatively with the rapidly expanding national debt.

Nuclear-freeze and peace-movement leaders approaching the business community on its own turf and in its own language report a higher-than-ever receptivity to their causes. And the growth of groups like BENS across the United States suggests that the business-community effort to inject cost-effective alternatives to the arms buildup is providing new impetus for the movement.

''They spoke to me in terms I understood,'' says Whit Mather, vice-president and executive producer of One Pass Inc., a San Francisco film company. ''I've been disinclined to become involved in all these diffuse organizations. But I feel comfortable with this group. ... It's an opportunity for entrepreneurial America to come to the defense-spending establishment's door looking, dressing, speaking, and acting like them but bearing a different message.''

Mr. Mather's company often produces training or industrial films and recently established a policy not to take any more business from companies with nuclear-related contracts. The policy did not come from management but was pushed by lower-level staff at this 70-employee company. He says that if it were not for this policy change at One Pass, he would not have been aware of BENS.

''For my company, it (the motive) is more emotional. But my motive is based as much on national economy as anything else,'' says Mather, who says he is a Republican in spirit but sees BENS concerns as nonpartisan. (It was clear that the diverse crowd here was supportive of military spending reductions. But when Representative Boxer, a Democrat, turned partisan at one point, suggesting that a new president could stop the military spending, she received only scattered applause.)

BENS offers no apologies for playing on economic incentives instead of altruism, says another BENS speaker, Harold Willens, the Los Angeles real estate executive credited with starting the California nuclear-freeze movement, which spread nationwide in 1982.

''My devotion to the issue has nothing to do with altruism,'' Mr. Willens says. ''I don't want my family and assets and accumulations ... my buildings on Wilshire Boulevard to be barbecued,'' he said bluntly.

Willens, whose book, ''The Trimtab Factor,'' makes the case that business leadership can stop the nuclear-arms race by applying sound economic principles to military spending, stresses that he does not promote a unilateral nuclear freeze. That would not be good for business because national security would not be ensured, he reasons. But he says the old theory that military spending is good for the economy does not wash with a business community looking at a declining economy tied to interest rates that in turn are pegged to a high national deficit.

If the military establishment were using old-fashioned capitalism, he reasons , cost-consciousness would take charge. And it would follow that the costly proliferation of weaponry - matching the Soviets firepower for firepower, counterweapon for counterweapon - would be seen as an inefficiency. ''If our company was in a similar situation, we'd adapt our course to meet new requirements,'' he explains, reasoning that there would be no logic behind present plans to build 17,000 new nuclear weapons when it takes only a few to cause a nuclear winter that could destroy the whole earth.

This kind of reasoning, he says, is behind the ''new receptivity'' he has seen in the business community on a 26-city speaking tour. He does admit that those companies whose biggest contracts are with nuclear-related industries are not BENS members. But he is convinced that the other businesses associated with BENS are influential enough to make a difference.

''There are points in history when altruism and self-interests intersect,'' Willens says. ''Now the effects of the nuclear freeze (the freeze campaign of 1982) have created a dim, hazy stirring in the back of their heads that's asking , 'Can we really blow ourselves up?' That's intersecting with the skyrocketing budget deficit.''

Willens, who was pursued by backslapping, autograph-seeking admirers at the meeting this week, expressed one concern: ''Are they using this as their way to do their share by saying nice things to Harold Willens rather than pitching in and paying their debt?''

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