THE 1981 FIGURES for American automobile production have now been added up, and they bear a somber message. The industry's troubles won't pass with the current recession. Over the past several years, Americans seem to have been spending less of their money, in good years as well as bad, on cars. This departure doesn't have much to do with the Reagan administration's policies, nor can the administration do much to change it. But if it continues, the consequences will be enormous.
The automobile industry has always been sharply cyclical, swinging abruptly from very bad years to very good ones. But from World War II until the late 1970s, the pattern always pointed upward. Each peak of the cycle was higher than the previous one, and each trough was not quite so low. Things changed several years ago. Passenger car production crested most recently in 1977, well short of the 1973 record, and began to fall long before the 1980 recession began. The 1980 production level was the lowest since the 1960-61 recession that helped bring President Kennedy into office. It now turns out that the 1981 level is, by a small margin, lower still.
For the past generation, there has been a slow but visible movement of wealth and employment from heavy manufacturing into services. With the contraction of the automobile industry, that movement is likely to accelerate. The right response to this challenge would be to design and build new products better able to compete in the world, rather than trying to protect and pump up the old ones. But people don't always give much attention to that kind of disinterested and detached wisdom when their own jobs and their own incomes are at stake.
New industries constantly replace old ones. That's how economies grow and raise standards of living. But it's never a comfortable process. The person whose job evaporates in this process of changes is not always the person for whom a new job appears. Perhaps the required skills differ. Perhaps the new jobs appear in regions far from those in which the old jobs fold; the outlook for the upper Midwest, with its dependence on the automobile plants, is particularly bleak. It's always easier, and more congenial, for political intervention to support and defend the accustomed order of things. But the automobile data hint that the great task of the 1980s may be to ease a painfully rapid transition for a great many Americans into an altogether different kind of economy