When the Arab oil embargo of 1973 created block-long gasoline lines, we got an energy czar -- William E. Simon.
Four years later, when the nation seemed headed toward a dangerous dependency on foreign oil, we got another energy czar -- James R. Schlesinger. And when prices and wages began chasing each other up the ladder in the late 1970s, we got a succession of anti-inflation czars.
Now comes a proposal for a czar of competition.
Like the oil shortages and the outbreak of inflation of the 1970s, the abrupt collapse of the U.S. position in international trade is creating a snowballing sense of crisis.
No fewer than 17 separate studies by the cream of the nation's business, academic, labor, foundation and political leadership have been made on the competitiveness issue in the past 30 months. And there is a striking consensus among them about the gravity of the challenge facing the country, according to Pat Choate, director of policy analysis for TRW Inc. and a contributor to several of the reports.
"First, there was widespread agreement that increasing U.S. competitiveness is essential to meeting our nation's many objectives," Choate told a House subcommittee this week. "They are saying they don't believe fiscal and monetary policy will do it," he added.
"The ability of American industry to compete against foreign competitors, both at home and abroad, is central to our attainment or just about any other national goal to which we aspire," Hewlett-Packard Co. President John A. Young, chairman of the President's Commission on Industrial Competitiveness, told the same panel.
The United States can't meet its defense commitments, its social spending goals -- and assure a rising standard of living for its people -- unless a wide range of changes are made in government policies, business management practices and employe attitudes, according to Young's commission and many of the other study groups.
"The second common concern [among the groups] is the stunning confusion that wracks U.S. policy making," Choate said. "In report after report, a principal recommendation is the need for better coordination of the various government activities and U.S. participation in the global marketplace."
Most of the study groups recommend the appointment of a top-level White House adviser or coordinator on trade and economic issues, with the role and clout of the National Security Adviser, said Choate.
Although the recommendations differ, the idea is shared by groups as diverse as Young's commission, whose members included leaders from the steel, computer, investment and telecommunications industries; the Committee on the Next Agenda, headed by Thomas D. Bell of the Hudson Institute and including members from some leading conservative think-tanks, and the Business-Higher Education Forum, with leaders of top U.S. companies and universities.
"They're saying we don't need a MITI," said Choate, referring to a Japanese-style Ministry of International Trade and Industry (although some groups support creation of a Department of Trade). "And [they're saying] we don't need an industrial policy," said Choate (although that remains on the lists of organized labor and liberal Democrats in Congress). "But we do need to give economic competitiveness some high-level attention and coordination, in the same way we do it with national security."
But even though the problem has been documented, the histories of Washington's recent czars raise some large cautionary flags.
Schlesinger -- as energy adviser and then the first secretary of the new Department of Energy -- became the administration's broker in a brutal two-year political bout with Congress to rewrite the nation's energy laws.
He was the cynosure of a cyclone of conflicting political demands -- from coal state congressmen who wanted the government to promote coal use by utilities; from conservatives who wanted energy price controls removed and liberals who demanded protection for consumers; and from the many parts of the energy industry all seeking the best deal from the government.
"We have done a lot of odd things to ourselves," Schlesinger remarked ruefully in 1979 as his resignation neared: "Almost everybody can so 'no' " to the energy secretary, "and there is nobody who can say 'yes.' " The Carter-Schlesinger energy program, in hindsight, looks a lot better than the public perceived it to be seven years ago. But it fell prey to special interests on key issues.
A top-level adviser on competitiveness would face the same chorus of political demands that deafened Schlesinger. There would be appeals to do more to help industries hurt by imports or blocked from exporting by unfair trade restrictions abroad, to promote research and development spending and the training of engineers and scientists, to shift tax policies to favor particular industries, to tilt federal regulations in industry's favor, to boost trade with communist nations and to block it, and on and on.
There appears to be a consensus on the problem, but not on the solution -- in or out of the administration. And as long as that is so, the risks of trying to negotiate a new, comprehensive public policy on competitiveness with the Congress are very large.