KEVIN P. PHILLIPS is an astute political analyst. His Emerging Republican Majority is a critically important study of the balance of power in the United States at the middle and end of the 1960s and it reflected a significant understanding of the relationship between demography, power and the ideological content of both politics and governance. His Post-Conservative America is a significant exploration of the distortions of the political right following in the wake of Watergate, and was one of the earliest attempts to examine the complex amalgam of forces and interests making up the majority behind President Reagan.
Right or wrong, Phillips has been a pleasure to read. He has a genuinely curious mind, interested most of all in power. A committed conservative, he has exhibited a basic allegiance to the truth, publishing his work in a host of magazines of all ideological stripes.
Phillips' fine track record stands in direct opposition to his most recent book, Staying on Top: The Business Case for a National Industrial Strategy. By his own standards, it is junk.
In the introduction to Post-Conservative America, Phillips described his approach as a "rather populistic, a vaguely neo- Marxian brand of conservative analysis." In Staying on Top, Phillips has abandoned this eclectic, and highly productive, intellectual stance. He has replaced it with a willingness to be a flack for one wing of the Washington business lobby.
Staying on Top purports to be an attempt to "outline a workable bipartisan 'industrial' or 'competitiveness' strategy for American business." Instead, much of it reads like a General Accounting Office compilation of congressional testimony and corporate speeches.
Phillips grandiosely proposes a 15-point "practical agenda for U.S. industrial competitiveness," but his plan for a revival of American international competitiveness reads like a frayed legislative wish-list carried in the collective briefcases of the Chamber of Commmerce, the American Council for Capital Formation and the American Business Conference.
In fact, it is just that. By his own account, a "fair part" of Staying on Top "is devoted to spelling out the evolving position of major elements of the U.S. business community on the notion of an industrial strategy." If done right, this might have proved to be a significant contribution to the debate over trade and industrial policy. A book describing how alterations in the tax code, antitrust policy and trade law enforcement potentially influence competing corporations, consumers, union members and varying regions of the country would be a major addition to the debate. As a journalist covering generally political subjects, I make no pretense of being an expert in either trade or industrial policy, but it is a testament to the superficiality of this book that I learned nothing substantive from it.
Phillips' 15-point strategy is, in fact, a glossed over list of proposals that have been voiced from a number of quarters: a call for the creation of a Department of Trade, tougher enforcement of trade laws, increased loans to exporting corporations by the Export-Import Bank, organized overseas lobbying in behalf of U.S. business interests, tax breaks for both research and development and for exports, a shift to a consumption tax and a "redirection of labor-management relationships."
These proposals possess varying degrees of merit, but simply listing them would not justify a 1,000-word article on the op-ed page of a newspaper, much less a 161-page book costing $15.95.
Phillips readily acknowledges that he is no specialist in trade policy -- "I have not plumbed the depths of the various legal, economic and technological issues at stake." As a result, his detailed exposition of his 15-point proposal in chapter four suffers from a use of unsubstantiated claims instead of hard-nosed analysis, an evasion of intellectual discipline more characteristic of contemporary liberals than of conservatives.
What, for example, does "We must also make our concept of antitrust global" mean? Or: "any serious national competitiveness strategy must include tax incentives and export credit devices." Or: "bluntly put, American exporters, when in Rome, should be allowed to do as the Romans do." When you hear lobbyists talking this way, it's time to hold on to your wallet.
This substitution of corporate hype for serious study could be overlooked if Phillips used this book to apply the kind of political insight characteristic of his earlier work to questions of trade and industrial policy. He does not.
Phillips has collected extensive poll data to show that a strong majority of Americans support what amounts to a get- tough trade stance, but many of the findings are so methodologically flawed as to be virtually meaningless. In order to support the contention that there is "circumstantial survey evidence" suggesting that "the public endorses a more assertive trade policy," Phillips quotes a 1981 poll showing that 58 percent of the public supports "strengthening the U.S. government agencies responsible for developing long- term foreign trade policies and coordinating them with domestic economic policies." The only suprising finding in this case is that support was limited to a paltry 58 percent in the face of such a softball question. Similarly, Phillips cites a poll sponsored by Union Carbide that asked respondents whether the "U.S. should try to negotiate new rules of international trade" to make international competition "fairer." Again, only 59 percent said yes (with 29 percent unsure and 15 percent opposed), but Phillips uses the data to justify a call for: "A major world conference -- a trade version of the 1945 Bretton Woods convocation."
Phillips's ultimate failing, however, lies on his abandonment of analysis for advocacy. The forces of populist-conservatism, which so intrigued Phillips in his past writing, are seen in Staying on Top as forces to be manipulated. In one of the more revealing lines of the book, Phillips, using a communal "we" to address the business community, says: "Given the right national agenda, I think we can discount, or at least rechannel, protectionist sentiments among the public." Phillips, in fact, "cannot remember another time when a potential business agenda was so centrally placed to become the consensus and to dominate a vital national political debate."
Phillips, who writes a newsletter targeted to the business community, apprarently has a very short memory. It was just four years ago that many of the same business leaders on whom he depends now for insight into trade -- Charles Walker, Jack Albertine, and Richard Lesher -- capitalized on a moment of public sympathy with corporate goals to win enactment of the business tax cuts in the 1981 tax bill, the section known as 10-5-3. While there was general public and political support for a business tax cut that year, the proponents of 10-5-3 used the legislation to grab every ounce of tax "juice" they could find -- creating a system of negative tax rates, or corporate tax subsidies, and a system under which corporations could sell unused tax breaks. Within a year, public and political sentiment had turned against the corporate community, and much of the tax cut was repealed. With this kind of track record, the business lobbying community for which Phillips has chosen to act as spokesman in Staying on Top is a highly unreliable group to trust for a comprehensive 15- point industrial strategy.