Getting America moving again

AMERICANS are an intensely practical and competitive people. And right now, from the halls of government in Washington to Boston's Route 128 to the high-technology corridors of California's Silicon Valley, Americans are coming to realize that it's time to open up the throttles on old-fashioned US competitiveness - to get their economy, in words right out of the early 1960s, ``moving once again.'' The emerging consensus is more than just a political bandwagon, although politicians of all persuasions have discovered the new buzzwords: ``competitiveness,'' ``rebuilding productivity.'' President Reagan, for example, is expected to use his forthcoming State of the Union address to build a case for a new commitment to American competitiveness and productivity.

But private economists, labor leaders, and academicians, as well as workers, are coming to the same conclusion: The United States must be more competitive.

The US, of course, is not unproductive. It continues to lead the world in overall productivity - that is, what one individual worker can turn out in one hour of work. The challenge is that the US is falling behind other nations in terms of productivity gains - which have been running only some 1.5 percent annually since the early 1950s and as low as 1.3 to 1.4 percent the past few years. In fairness, the relative productivity lag cannot be laid solely to factors within the US: Affluent West Germany and Japan have newer industrial bases, because of the devastation of those countries in World War II; many third-world countries base their recent remarkable growth rates on a form of economic servitude - marked by low wages and long hours. Moreover, third-world growth rates are high because those countries started from a very low base.

Still, all the explanations in the world will not make the dramatic changes now faced by the United States go away. Manufacturing jobs continue to be lost. But so too do jobs in high-technology and service professions, such as finance.

The picture is not entirely grim. The industrial sector commands about the same percentage of the overall economy as it has throughout the past decade or so - 21 to 22 percent. Moreover, manufacturing output is up by some 30 percent since the early 1980s, the result of cost-cutting efforts and the introduction of new technologies. Still, while the total civilian payroll has expanded by some 12 million jobs since the bottom of the last recession in 1982, only 1 million or so new jobs have been added in manufacturing. The rest are in low-paying service-sector jobs.

Surely the American people are not willing to become merely a service economy. The American character is as much built around the sinew and muscle of the factory line as the white-collar office. American industry, including its trade unions, has been a major force for progressive social change.

Americans will have to cut through the cant that will be heard during the months and weeks ahead to find the proper balance of responsible ideas that could make up a new industrial-competitiveness policy. Among possible goals:

US companies must look away from short-term profit considerations to long-range objectives - such as winning market shares, researching and developing new products, and building products for specific users, at home or abroad.

The US must revitalize its educational system so that young people have sharper skills in mathematics, the sciences, and languages.

The federal government must find ways to underwrite funding for R&D outside defense industries.

The US should persuade its allies and trading partners to develop a new international trade agreement that curbs protectionist restraints on commerce.

Congress should look at how existing tort laws, antitrust laws, and energy laws inhibit meaningful joint efforts within American industry. At the same time, costly nonproductive mergers - of which there have been more than a few in recent years - should be curbed.

Job retraining programs make sense - but only if they include ways to get the new jobs to the worker, or vice versa.

Finally, it is well and good for companies to cut the fat out of their businesses. But such downsizing should not mean a lessening of America's traditional regard for basic safety nets, such as the minimum wage. The US must continue to set an example to other nations in regard to work policies. It must avoid accepting wage and hour policies that are throwbacks to a meaner, darker era.

A stable work force, one that feels it has a stake in the system, is central to a competitive and progressive economy.

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