The plight of the Chysler Corporation defines a gaping hole in the American system. Washington has no direct means for promoting that high national priority, the reindustrialization of America.
The United States shapes industrial policy case by case or, rather, firm by firm. So only the very largest companies receive attention -- usually when it is too late.
Until recently, to be sure, this country did not need an explicit industrial policy. Business preferred to take the risk of failure the better to heighten the profits of sucess. Labor and most local communities also wanted it that way. Federal authorities were supposed to step in only when general conditions -- a war, a depression or monopoly power -- clobbered the economy as a whole.
But recovery from World War II brought in train a genuinely international economy. The big players are the multinational firms, and just how they play depends in large measure on the rules of the game in their home countries.
In that respec, Japan has been as Ezra Vogel of Harvard pointed out in a recent book, number one. Through its Ministry of Trade and Industry and its control over the banking system, the Japanese government has nursed fledgling companies into giants in steel, chemicals, automobiles and electronics. Through subsidies it has weaned labor and capital away from declining industries.
West Germany, France, Holland and the Scandinavian countries have done nearly as well in pushing their major firms. Even in Britain and Italy, government regularly steps in to prevent industrial failtures.
Not only has the United States not developed an instrument for framing industrial policy, but Americans less interested in the ouput of goods than in the quality of life -- the group I have called Little America -- have taken over many command posts in society and government. They have used their influence to impose upon industry new standards for safety, environmental quality and fair-employment practices.
So Big America -- the part of the country most interested in producing goods -- has recently experienced acute difficulities. Railroads, highways and ports have been allowed to run down. Basic industries -- steel, shipbuilding, autos, chemicals, rubber and textiles -- have lost their competitive edge or been forced to change locactions in ways that leave behind industrial wastelands.
Numerous firms within these industries have gone bust, or close to it: Penn Central in the railroad field, for example, or Youngstown-Lykes in steel. Chrysler represents the auto industry's entry into the bankruptcy sweepstakes.
The company has always lagged behind General Motors and Ford, and it slipped further behind in the '60s because of bad management. Though it led the other two American manufacturers in the development of smalll cars after the oil embargo of 1973, Chrysler lacked the resources to finance what amounts to a tolal conversion of plant. So all this year it has been losing money and market share.
Hundreds of thousands of jobs are now in jeopardy. Most of them are in the city of Detroit, and a large fraction are held by blacks. GM and Ford cannot take up the slack. Unlike Chrysler, which has 23 plants in Detroit, GM and Ford have long moved out of town and toward other parts of the country. Ford does not have a single one of its 28 recent or pending plants in Detroit. GM has only one of its 33 recent or pending plants in the city.
Perhaps the ideal way to save the jobs would be an arranged bankruptcy -- with the management going down but some flush foreign firm stepping inquickly to take over and operate what is left behind. But there is no facility for such an arrangement, and an unmanaged bankruptcy would take years, and force suppliers and dealers to the wall.
So the Carter administration has stepped in with a plan to save Chrysler. It calls for government guarantees of $1.5 billion in bank loans -- far more than orginally stipulated by Secretary of the Treasury G. William Miller. An equal amount of money will be raised elsewhere -- mainly from pension funds and local state governments. The deal smells of a political favor done by a weak president for a powerful constituent. Still it will probably not be enough to save the company in the long pull.
The lesson is that this country needs to develop an industrial policy with an agency responsible for its application. Otherwise, there will be more and more Chryslers, and less and less chance of achieving the reindustrialization of America.