For all the talk of reindustrilalization, or -- as President Carter put it in his acceptance speech last week, "an economic renewal program" -- the Democratic approach so far consists mostly of a bail-out of corporate geriatrics.
Beyond Chrysler, comforted by $1.5 billion in government loan guarantees initiated by the Carter administration, there lies the troubled steel industry. White House aides have been touting the same "partnership" policy for steel that the president promised the auto industry and auto union leaders in July.
Cabinet officers talk of the need for a pro-business attitude in government, coupled with more generous tax treatment and a reduction of burdensome government regulations.
Details are yet to be sketched in, but they are promised for around Labor Day as the centerpiece of Carter's economic program for a second term, and as a challenge to Republican candidate Ronald Reagan.
The Republican platform, meanwhile, featured a strong free-trade plank, massive tax cuts and of course less, rather than more, active government as the way to revive the American industrial base.
To be sure, as a national industrial policy actually takes shape -- under Carter or perhaps under Reagan or Anderson -- the emphasis may shift away from mere protectionism to a more comprehensive economic plan designed to meet growing international competition in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, however, the problems of the auto, steel and textile industries -- exacerbated by recession in a political year -- have spurred the industrialization talk into the wrong channels.
A new Reconstruction Finance Corporation, as proposed by New York Sen.
Daniel P. Moynihan, is a Band-Aid for the symptoms, not a cure for the disease. There is the added danger of reckless cutting of business taxes by either major party without the assurance of getting the intended benefits for the nation.
Trade consultant Harald Malmgren pointed out in his World Trade Outlook newsletter that an RFC as envisioned by Moynihan "would probably become a political pork barrel." Distressed companies under Moynihan's bill would get government relief if a board decided that a shutdown could shake the economy as a whole or even a sizable part of it.
Malmgren notes the bad example already set by the Chrysler Loan Board, made up of government officials. It does not have the management skills necessary to assess the wisdom of Chrysler's production plans or to protect "the wider interests of consumers, taxpayers and workers."
Ironically, the White House, with taxpayers' money on the line, feels constrained to advertise Chrysler products: in a "background report," the White House press office said that Chrysler is expected to turn a profit in 1981 based in part on "the expected success of the company's new K-car."
If an RFC or other forms of bail-outs are not the answer to lackluster performance by some American companies and industries, what can be done?
A key to Japan's striking success has been its willingness to allow labor-intensive businesses to drift to other Asian countries, while Japan sets its own sights on high-technology exports.
To be sure, the United States cannot adopt the Japanese system in toto, abandoning faith in antitrust procedures. But without moving into a monopolistic, corrporate state, the United States can learn many lessons from those countries that do not panic at the mere mention of the word "planning."
Actually, it should be a relearning process. As Peter F. Drucker observed in a Wall Street Journal article earlier this year, all of the highly praised management practices that seem to give Europe and Japan an edge were originated in this country and adopted by others in the past 20 years.
In reality, the buzzword should be "adjustment" rather than " reindustrialization." It is a painful process, because adjustment means a loss of jobs in the short term. But this country had better adjust to realities by yielding up the obsolete and those products that others can make better and cheaper, and instead concentrate its industrial genius in the highly skilled areas where it is a leader.