White House conference delegates drawing a blueprint of America's economic future were urged yesterday to think about tax incentives and local initiatives, rather than direct government programs and controls, as the best way to combat unemployment, pollution and shortages.
The advice came from several leading businessmen, politicians and black spokesman featured on the opening day of the four-day White House Conference on Balanced Growth and Economic Development.
But the loudest applause went to an outspoken congresswoman who said the people in her neighborhood would ridicule and reject the "sterile, arrogant and dehumanized" approach reflected in the meeting.
Rep. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) brought the conference to its first boil late in the afternoon, when she said the talk she had heard from others about the limits on federal government action represented "lack of commitment" to deal with social problems.
The 1,000 delegates and observers at the Sheraton-Park Hotel laughed and cheered as Mikulski, a former Baltimore social worker and community organizer, told how the congressional delegation from her city had fought off a move to shift federal offices from there to Annapolis - "a fancy town where you can't wear blue jeans, you've got to wear white ducks and blue blazers," as she described it.
"Do we have to give the government tax incentives to keep jobs in the center cities?" she demanded.
Tax incentives were a popular item with other speakers, however, as the opening panels on the four-day meeting wrestled with problems of growth, the environment and jobs.
Henry Ford II began the day by decrying the web of government regulations which he said threatens the ability of the private economy to produce any growth at all.
"It seems to me," he said, "that we have made too little use of incentives in attempting to resolve many of our most difficult social and environmental problems . . . Even a donkey will respond to a carrot as well as a stick."
Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.), counterposed to Ford on the opening panel, differed with him, as expected, on several other issues, but said he agreed that tax preferences would work better than regulations in some environmental questions.
"I spent four years passing a stripmining law," the Interior Committee chairman said, "and I learned that people don't like to have you tell them how to do the job."
Udall added that, in oversight hearings last week, he found some regulations issued to carry out his legislation were "patently preposterous" in their complexity and reach.
That view was reinforced by Charles J. Hitch, president of Resources for the Future Inc., who said it would be better for the government to tax polluting industries than to regulate them. "Americans are adept at avoiding taxes," Hitch said, "not at being ordered around."
In the afternoon panel on jobs, tax subsidies for private hiring of the hard-core unemployed were endorsed by Reginald H. Jones, chairman of General Electric, and two major black spokesmen, economist Andrew Brimmer and National Urban League President Vernon Jordan Jr., before Mikulski unleashed her blast.
She was backed by Rudolph Oswald, director of research at the AFL-CIO, who said he saw "no responsibility on the part of government to underwrite private hiring.
But Brimmer, a former member of the Federal Reserve Board, said the $400 million recommended in President Carter's budget for next year could subsidize private hiring of 250,000 people, while the same money, used for public service jobs, would employ only 44,000 people.
Jordan and Jones also favored the hiring-subsidy features of the Carter bill, but the Urban League president was scathingly critical of other parts of the tax package, while Jones said that cuts are needed as an economic stimulus.
Jordan, Jones and North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr. (D), another afternoon panelist, agreed that local committees comprising business, bar, church, private and government officials, were better vehicles for combatting local employment problems than federal agencies.
But despite these common themes, there were frequent clashes among the panelists over the utility of the Humphrey-Hawkins "full-employment" bill, the "targeting" of federal aid programs and other current issues.
The views of the 500 official conference delegates, most of them chosen by the governors of their states, will not be known until Thursday. Meeting in small discussion groups, the delegates are hammering out positions on various aspects of the economic growth issue that will be outlined to President Carter when he appears at the conference's final session Thursday morning.