French President Francois Mitterrand made a serious and thoughtful proposal at the Versailles summit: that the world's leading nations begin to think about how they might harness the new scientific and other technologies for the benefit of society.
In a perfectly reasonable way, Mitterrand said that depending on how the world manages the new methods, new materials and new techniques that come popping up every day, it "will have a positive, or dangerous, effect on unemployment, inflation, and growth."
Yet, the nearly incredible response of President Reagan was to brush aside Mitterrand's initiative with the simplistic observation that when the dial telephone first came in, it was thought that all of the female telephone operators would be thrown out of work. Yet, the president said, today there are more women employed in the United States than at any other time.
Reagan also observed that it was futile to try to guess what the future would bring. He cited as the authority for this statement the fact that former President Franklin D. Roosevelt had commissioned a study in the early 1930s of what the great innovations would be in the next 25 years. And guess what, said the president. The study failed to foresee television, plastics, space technology, jet aircraft, organ transplants, and laser beams.
And finally and triumphantly, Reagan held up his own ballpoint pen for the other summit leaders to see. "Even," he said, "even such a common item as a ballpoint pen was missed."
It is too bad that out of his concern that Mitterrand is pressing too hard for government involvement in technology development Reagan chose to ridicule what the French president was trying to portray: a world in which the computer and related technological marvels have revolutionized life styles before our very eyes.
One does not need to have a precise list of the new products that will come along in the next 25 years (Mitterrand, by the way, proposed a study of the impact of technology only over the next 10 years) to be certain that telecommunications, aerospace, medical and other scientific developments as applied to industry and the economy will be earthshaking.
President Reagan blandly assured his fellow summiteers that automation and technological advance result eventually in higher employment. And of course that's true--eventually. As British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it somewhat more intelligently, there will be a difficult interim adjustment, lasting perhaps the next 10 years.
To be sure, there may have been a certain idealistic overtone to Mitterrand's proposal. There may even have been a kind of "pie in the sky" element. But his adventuresome discussion demonstrated that of all of the current heads of government, he has the keenest realization of the economic impact of new technologies, and of the need for governments to play a major role in integrating new technology with the working population and society in general.
Mitterrand also is keenly aware of the advances that countries such as Japan have made in training engineers and technical people. He proposes beginning training programs in such new technologies as data processing, biology, and telecommunications. He also noted that there is an urgent need to expand the use of computers in the classroom at an early age in order to familiarize young people with the tools they will be working with in later life.
To be sure, the technology problem is not something that is a new discovery by the president of France. Voices in the wilderness have been raising the issue in different ways within our own society. Trade expert Harald Malmgren has forecast that the 22 percent of the American labor force now in industrial jobs will diminish sharply.
Moreover, if you think we have unemployment problems now in this country, wait until man-made materials like fiber optics replace copper and aluminum in communications systems. Malmgren says there are new ceramics that will compete with metals for use in engines, and carbon fibers that will challenge steel in automobiles. The suggestion is that a wholly metal-free automobile is a distinct possibility in the next 10 years.
These are dramatic developments whose impact cannot be fully assessed even five years down the road. Beyond that, advances in medical technology will lengthen life, changing the demographics of the work force. And the rapidly modernizing economies of some of the less-developed nations will be challenging the technological leadership of America, Japan, and Europe.
Presumably the technological future is just the kind of large subject for which summitry was designed. Reagan himself paid lip service to this notion in his windup statement at Versailles. But when it came to a practical application of it, his mind appeared to be elsewhere. Perhaps the charitable observation would be that his attention was focused on Lebanon, or on disputes between his secretary of state and his ambassador to the United Nations.