The shutdown of a steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio, is bothering the people in President Carter's administration who worry about economics, and so is the decision by Zenith to make television sets abroad. But the fact is that there is no mechanism in our government to plan consciously and carefully for what some economists predict will be more of the same.
According to these economists, we are now entering a period in which we may expect dislocation throughout this industrial nation. Partly this is because a great many of what we used to call underdeveloped nations have developed and in such a way that they can offer us better goods at less cost than we can make at home. The shoe industry is an example.
Partly, also, the dislocations will come as the result of the failure of U.S. industry to reinvest in new plants and equipment. This is true of our steel industry, equipped with plants built before World War II but trying to compete against Japanese plants, most of which have been rebuilt since 1960.
Arms decisions on the part of the government will cause similar dislocations. The President's decision to scrap the B-1 bomber is an example. It would have been unwise to build this bomber for the sole purpose of providing jobs and profits. Yet there is no blinking the fact that the decision not to make it is hard on labor, on industry and on the communities where it was to be made.
A group of young economists here under the leadership of Gar Alperovitz has been proposing that the government - in cooperation with local communities - organize itself for these dislocations. As they see it, the choice is between rational planning and irrational restraint of trade.
As each community is hit by adverse competition or adverse government decisions, the call for building tariff walls or restraining trade through "orderly marketing agreements" becomes stronger. As George Meany remarked the other day, "for all the years that I've been around, American labor has been a free-trade organization. But the last five or six years there's been a very, very definite change because we're losing jobs to overseas competition."
Meany is for restraining that competition and for very good reasons. On the other hand, if his point of view is accepted, the American consumer will pay the bill in higher costs and less choice. Eventually, also, the Meany formula may provoke retaliation by other nations and loss of jobs in American industries that export.
Alperovitz and his associates agree with Meany that, unless something else is done, trade restraint is inevitable. But they believe they have found something else. They advocate "community stabilizing planning." The idea is that government would compile a shopping list of things the country needs or will shortly need: rails and railroad beds, solar-heated houses, mass transit, garbage-conversion plants. Through a system of government-encouraged financing - the Japanese stell mills were rebuilt with government encouragement -plants to build these needs would be started in communities such as Youngstown, where the closing of the steel mills has brought depression and near panic.
In some communities - and Alperovitz points out that Youngstown may be one of them - the planners might suggest government financing to upgrade existing facilities. In others the shopping list would be consulted for a project that matched the community's particular skill.
As things now stand, whenever a Youngstown comes along, economists in government run around like chickens with their heads off trying to think of something to do. Usually, they wind up agreeing reluctantly to trade restiction.
Alperovitz wants government to organize itself for what he thinks will be a great many Youngstowns down the road.