The political question of the hour is this: If Atari goes, can the "Atari Democrats" be far behind?
Atari, the computer company, has announced that it will cut its work force in California (a sudden loss of 1,700 jobs) and shift video-game manufacturing to Taiwan.
That abrupt move carries grim implications for the "Atari Democrats" who foresee a bright economic future in so-called "high-tech" industries. Taken as a symbolic portent, the move may generate a touch of skepticism about the high-tech remedy for U.S. industrial ills.
Jobs in electronics and other advanced technologies (biomechanics, for instance) are as vulnerable to the lure of lower overseas costs as jobs in autos, steel and textiles, possibly even more so. Atari home computers and video games are going the way of watches, hand- held calculators and, before that, standard home appliances.
But even before the recent Atari shock, that danger must have been obvious to the Atari Democrats. So why do they bet so heavily on what seems a sure long- term loser?
A certain escapism seems to paralyze U.S. responses to the disciplines of a rapidly changing worldwide market. It is symptomatic, for example, that Democrats are busily talking up New Deal-era remedies like jobs bills and youth conservation corps.
Atari Democracy is of a piece with escapist import quotas and "domestic content" legislation--politically convenient measures that postpone adjustment at the risk of trade wars the United States may not win. Beyond that, one suspects, Atari Democracy is a formula for sparing Democrats a serious disruption of their political base. Ever since New Deal days, Big Labor has supplied the Democrats with much of their election-day firepower.
But Big Labor is in deep trouble today. American workers in heavy industry face some tough choices. They are losing jobs to overseas workers willing to work for less money, and in some cases more productively.
The easy remedy is protectionism. The hard but probably more pertinent answer is a drastic rethinking of work habits, attitudes toward management, and even levels of remuneration.
Democrats are understandably reluctant to plunge headlong into that mine field. Meanwhile, American competitiveness suffers. The high cost of labor makes American products too dear, while "paper entrepreneurialism," as economist Robert Reich calls it, has removed business management farther and farther from the realities of the market and the shop floor.
It is easier for both labor and management to pretend that no drastic adjustments are needed--none in wage expectations or work habits, none in managerial habits.
Politicians, perhaps, can respond no faster than key constituencies. And it will take time for union leadership to draw realistic conclusions about the world market.
Meantime, the Atari Democrats are doing little to educate working people in the changes that spirit their jobs away. Instead, they seek shelter in the trendy myth of high-tech salvation.