Like most of his automotive industry peers in Detroit, Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca has often railed against government interference and extolled free enterprise.
But last Tuesday in Detroit, Iacocca was singing another tune, publicly applauding the Japanese industrial system in which government, business and organized labor work together.
"We gotta cooperate," he said, referring to the economic situation in the U.S. car business.
Scarcely a year ago, most businessmen and politicians dismissed such notion as smacking of outworn New Deal programs -- even as being vaguely subversive.
But today, through that mysterious process by which ideas ripen in America, it has become fashionable to advocate that government, industry and unions set aside their rivalries and pull together to restore the strength of the nation's industrial base.
Under the rubric of "reindustrialization," politicians, corporate executives and commentators call for "teamwork," a "new social consensus" and "partnership" among the adversarial elements in the American economy.
The elements of big business that have embraced these concepts have done so out of self-interest. Corporations see a chance to make a deal with the government that will enhance profits, gurantee security and perhaps ease labor problems.
President Carter, speaking of a "permanent partnership," last week announced plans for a formal committee made up of busines, labor and government, to help with the rebuilding of the U.S. auto industry. Aides said it could be a model for industrial policy in the 1980s.
The federal government already has taken a role in the rebuilding of the industry, through its $1.5 billion bailout of the Chrysler Corp., in the form of federal loan guarantees.
Earlier, Carter's rival, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), proposed creating a quasipublic body, the American Reindustralization Corp, to channel government and private money to a range of industries.
A similar proposal by Carter has resulted in the Synthetic Fuels Corp., which will issue federal loan and price guarantees to help utilities, pipeline and energy companies build synfuel pilot plants as part of the government's $20 billion commitment to speed production of synthetic oil and gas.
Support for various modes of public-private cooperation also has been advanced recently by Business Week magazine, investment banker Felix G. Rohatyn and Rep. Henry S. Reuss (D-Wis.) of the congressional Joint Economic Committee.
Industrialist Sidney Harmon, former undersecretary of commerce, sums up the position: "This nation is being hobbled by the adversary system. It's Neanderthal."
Some critics of the Administration say there is less in all of this than meets the eye. They view the latest White House statements as an election-year ploy to mask a government bailout of the politically potent automobile industry. They note that the Republican platform proposals for tax and regulatory relief for business fall far short of the "partnership" favored by Carter, thus providing Carter an opportunity to outflank the GOP on the reindustrialization issue.
But some industrialists and economists believe the developments are the forerunner of a marriage of convenience between Big Business and Big Government, brought about by the extraordinary economic pressures of the 1970s.
Many of them say that this, in turn, would have fundamental consequences for U.S. society.
At the least, the possibility of a strong partnership among the most powerful forces in the U.S. economy raises thorny social and political questions.
How, for example, would such a system safeguard the pluralism and diversity of American society? How would interest groups, from consumers to environmentalists, be represented? Would small businesses be protected adequately?
Barry Commoner, the scientist who is the presidential candidate of the new Citizens Party, contends that the trend eventually would lead to fascism, as more and more power was concentrated in government and industry.
"Italy and Germany dealt with the Depression by establishing the corporate state," he said. "Society was run by an alliance of government and corporate managers. Krupp and Thyssen were allies of Hitler."
Commoner says that what is now on the drawing board in Washington is a plan for "state capitalism."
"What you have is the Establishment solution," he insists."They want to put public funds back into the hands of the mangers who caused the trouble in the first place. They are gathering funds through taxation and letting the mangers do what they want with them."
Commoner favors a much more radical program of reindustrialization in which "we begin to assert social governance over the means of production." He has proposed public control of energy industries, and the use of public funds to reopen shutdown automobile plants under the control of workers and local communities.
On the other hand, a number of thoughtful businessmen and scholars believe that the time is long overdue for a cooling off of the conflicts among economic interests in the United States.
They contend that a period of cooperation would unleash creative forces, encourage problem solving and elminate wasteful fights. They see what is happening as part of the normal ebb and flow of American political life -- the flexible American system at work. It follows that the current interest in "teamwork" is a natural reaction to the sharp conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s, and a response to a real economic crisis.
"We're paralyzing the whole system because people want to fight for their our special interests," says Dupont Corp. Chairman Irving S. Shaprio. "We've ended up with an adversary syste. Now we have to have a condition of trust. In the 1980s, we've got to get back to the belief that we all have an obligation to make the system work."
Harmon says, "We have this unprecedented supervisory system and enormous costs resulting from the distrust one group has for the other. Do we even know the costs of the conventional, idiotic process of labor negotiations -- 99 percent of which come to a settlement?"
Harmon favors a debate on a national industrial policy "consonant with the new world economic order."
Such ideas, however, fly in the face of deep-rooted American culture and tradition. In U.S. democracy, economic disputes do not tend to be resolved cooperatively at the factory or community level, as they often are in Japan. Instead, they work themselves out through an adversary system in which government -- the courts or Congress -- often is called on to act as final arbiter.
Contrary to the Japanese, U.S. groups look to law and regulations, not cooperation, to safeguard economic interests.
This has given the country such things as environmental and safety regulations to control industries that pollute the atmosphere or jeopardize lives, the National Labor Relations Board to set ground rules for the highly formalized system of U.S. labor negotiations, and antitrust laws to police corporate mergers.
The concern among labor and environmental groups is that the businessmen who now speak so highly of the Japanese system don't fully understand it -- or want to borrow from the Japanese only that part that involves government help.
Ezra Vogel, author of the book "Japan as No. 1" says that the basis of the Japanese industrial system is not massive government support, as some Americans believe, but a broad sense of responsibility on the part of business and labor. Japan, he points out, has very few government corporations. And companies such as Sony and Matsushita have had to face the severe pressure of the international marketplace on their own.
Initially, Japanese business tired to suppress reports about pollution, says Vogel. But when this played impossible the business community "accepted responsibility for policing its own shop." A report of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development now shows stronger pollution control programs in Japan than in any other country.
However, many say that the Japanese system simply wouldn't work in a country with the traditions of the United States.
"Let's not forget that the Japanese system is built on the remnants of feudalism -- Japanese workers live in dormitories," says Commoner.
Commoner favors for the United States a system of far-reaching public involvement and participation in corporate decision-making.
"Business here isn't in a position to control itself," says Vogel. "The idea of a 'common problem' simply doesn't exist in U.S. business."
This may have to change if business is to get the deal from government that it wants in the 1980s. In return for the tax breaks, incentives and subsidies, some industries may have to accept more public participation in their decision-making. Chrysler already has on its board of directors United Auto Workers President Douglas Fraser. Some wonder whether the next board member might be a consumer advocate such as Ralph Nader.
This, however, would involve a break with American tradition.
A government role in the economy is hardly unprecedented in the United States.
A War Industries Board worked closely with companies as early as World War I. Later, Franklin D. Roosevelt's National Recovery Administration became a forerunner of the corporate planning toward which many capitalistic economies later moved even though some of NRA's powers were ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Government today supports industry and policies it in myriad ways, ranging from the tax code to trade policy.
But government industrial planning, and public involvement in it, are another matter. In this, the United States lags far behind Japan and the European industrial countries.
Eugene B. Skolinikoff, director of the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that the fundamental point in the reindustrialization debate "isn't whether the U.S. government impacts industry -- it clearly does.
"The fundamental question is about the process by which this comes about -- through lobbying and special interests rather than through a coherent thought-through policy."