AS INDUSTRIAL POLITICS, President Carter's program for steel is not a bad solution. It was worked out under especially unpromising circumstances -- an election campaign, on top of a recession, on top of all steel's familiar troubles and its engrained habit of blaming them on everyone else but mainly on its foreign competitors. If the Carter compromise falls short of the ideal, it certainly avoids the worst of the dangers toward which the steel-makers -- companies and the union together -- were pushing earlier this year.
The administration, until last spring, had been giving the steel producers a measure of protection through a system known as trigger pricing. The trigger price was the Japanese mills' cost of production, and anybody selling steel here for less than the price was presumed to be dumping. But one company, the United States Steel Corporation, decided that trigger pricing wasn't good enough. In March it filed its own dumping charges against most of the European producers. The American law on this point is peculiar, tilting heavily toward the protectionist side. Its definition of a fair price has no relationship with the way commodities are actually bought and sold -- particularly in recessions, when producers cut their profit margins to stay in operation. U.S. Steel had embarked on a reckless strategy that threatened to entangle steel and many other industries in a widening trade war, as tariffs automatically applied here by this defective law were met with countertariffs abroad.
The Carter steel plan is a deal. Under it, U.S. Steel drops its dumping case. In response, the administration not only reinstates trigger pricing. It also commits itself to seek faster depreciation allowances for the steel industry under the tax code and, in some cases, slower enforcement of the air pollution standard. The stretch-out of the pollution requirements does not do serious damage to the drive for improvement in air quality, and it brings one large political benefit. The Clean Air Act has to be rewritten by Congress next year. Since a truce has already been negotiated between the steel-makers and the environmental regulators, the steel industry will presumably not join the usual lobbying against the basic concept of the act.
What about jobs? It's important to remember that, even if things turn out well, the number of jobs in the steel industry will drop and some of the mills will close. That's what rising productivity means. It's the number of jobs in the whole economy that counts, not the number of traditional jobs in one line of work.
As for imports and foreign trade, the relief for steel is being purchased at some considerable expense to other American industries. As trigger pricing goes back into effect, the trigger is a fat 12 percent higher than it was last March. That too, is part of the deal. It's always possible for the government to cut down the imports of crude steel, by raising trigger prices. But then the foreign steel arrives in the form of highly competitive machinery, refrigerators and automobiles.