The U.S. economy is a bewildering patchwork of contrasts.

Like the fabled blind men who touched different parts of an elephant -- trunk, tail and tusk -- and all imagined a different creature, observers looking at different parts of the economy see a very different beast.

That is the dilemma that has confronted the president's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness.

Seen from one vantage point, the economy is soaring, the envy of the world. Over the past two decades, 33 million jobs have been created. Meanwhile, Europe has experienced a net loss of jobs.

The upward march of the dollar -- seen by many as a crippling burden on U.S. manufacturers -- is a tribute to the allure of the American economy to foreign investors, the administration insists.

U.S. spending on research and development exceeds the combined total for Japan, West Germany and France. The economy is a greenhouse for inventors and entrepreneurs, whose new companies -- 700,000 of them last year -- thrive on a mixture of plentiful venture capital, a highly trained and mobile work force, and wide-open, unregulated markets.

All this the commission acknowledged in its report on competitiveness, released yesterday at a Commerce Department briefing.

But the report went on to say that even with all these advantages, American industry is losing its stuff.

The ability of American firms to export -- and the ability of American firms to compete at home against foreign products -- are "the very foundation" of a rising standard of living, the commission concluded.

It has not sunk in everywhere, but trade and competitiveness are essential to the nation's economic health: nearly one-fifth of everything made in this country is exported, and 70 percent of the goods U.S. firms produce face competition from abroad.

But that ability to compete is seriously threatened, both for older basic industries and newer high-tech manufacturers, the report concluded.

Some of the problems run to the core of the way Americans believe and behave. A nation of spenders, who borrow without a care to finance houses, cars, stereos, vacations and college educations, we give a precious edge away to a nation of savers, like Japan. The Japanese economic miracle of the past two decades was financed by the savings of Japanese consumers.

A combative distrust between management and employes in many industries stands in the way of a common appreciation of the dangers both face, the commission said. Only 9 percent of American workers in a recent survey said they believe they stand to gain personally from an improvement in their company's productivity. In Japan, 93 percent of the employes surveyed felt that way.

Policy-makers also are a major part of the problem. The commission faulted the economic policies of the Reagan administration and Congress for creating a huge budget deficit that raises the cost industry must pay for investment capital.

It called for a recognition from the White House that trade is now as important a priority as economic policy and national defense, and that research and technological development are priceless competitive advantages that must be nurtured, rewarded and protected.

What does John Young know about the problem? Hewlett-Packard, the Silicon Valley company he runs, is in many ways a prototype of the the American company of the 1980s and 1990s.

A leading manufacturer of computers and other high-tech equipment, 45 percent of its business is outside the United States, making it one of the nation's leading exporters.

"We have serious competitive problems," Young says, particularly in Europe, where the dollar has risen nearly 70 percent against the German mark, adding, in effect, an export tax onto Hewlett-Packard's American-made products.

Its natural response is to rush as much production overseas as it can, and once that investment is made, it is likely to endure, even if the dollar does come down. That means fewer jobs here, in one of the most important sectors of the economy.

Young's hopes are that the commission's report will help create a new national consensus on the importance of trade, of technological development and education, and cooperation among management and employes.

The commission's report is the work some of the most influential leaders of business, labor and academia -- Robert Baldwin, chairman of the advisory board at Morgan Stanley Inc.; B. Kipling Hagopian of Los Angeles, a prominent financier of high-tech start-ups; Ian M. Ross, the president of American Telephone & Telegraph's Bell Laboratories; Howard D. Samuel, president of the AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department; Donald Ephlin, vice president of the United Auto Workers, and Gerald D. Laubach, president of Pfizer Inc., among them.

If Young is right, the work of this group has come out just as the government is edging toward a rare, wholesale review of tax and trade policies, and he hopes that in time, its recommendations will be accepted.

For that to happen, though, the president and the administration will have to recognize the same side of the elephant that Young and his commission have touched.