FORD Motor Company chairman Harold Poling says Washington should take decisive action to get the economy growing again. The success of his company, which will produce some 12.5 million cars and trucks this model year, relies on robust economic growth.Plummeting consumer confidence in the United States economy, which in November reached its lowest level in its recorded history, "has significantly impacted our businesses," Mr. Poling noted at a recent press luncheon. Car sales are in their worst slump in a decade. Sales by Ford, the country's No. 2 carmaker, dropped 23 percent in November over the previous year. Slow sales have caused Ford to idle plants across the US this year. While the Ford chairman expects the US economy to grow by 2 to 2.5 percent next year, and 3.5 percent in 1993, he predicts the first three months of 1992 will continue to be flat, with activity only picking up in the second quarter. To ensure that the economy does pick up, he says the Bush administration should initiate a number of pro-growth actions to boost consumer confidence. "The government ought to err on the side of action by further reducing interest rates, encouraging investment through a tax credit," and other incentives aimed at stimulating the economy. Poling's pro-growth package would clearly affect Ford by encouraging car purchasers with lower rates and enabling the company to invest in desperately needed research and development. The investment incentive is particularly important, says Poling, "because it provides jobs, and provides a greater feeling of security for those who have jobs at the present time." Fear of unemployment can paralyze consumer spending, he adds. A common charge against Ford and other US carmakers is that they cannot keep pace with Japanese car designs. Would investment incentives help, or must Ford's priorities be re-ordered? Poling quickly defends Ford's performance on redesigning cars, admitting that Ford takes longer than Japanese manufacturers but insisting that "we have a broader range of products than the Japanese; we can't redesign every product every year. The perception is that the Japanese are the best. We're not as good as the best, but we're getting better. We've got to bridge the gap." Poling says the competitiveness problem goes well beyond Ford's ability to finance research and development, or Ford's priorities. The US government has cost the US car industry much of its advantage against Japan, he says. "We have [corporate] benefits that they don't have - such as costly medical coverage and pensions [for company employees]. In addition, the Japanese can manipulate the exchange rates, and that can make all the difference for Japanese exports" to the US. And other US government regulations, such as industry compliance with the Clean Air Act, have eaten into carmakers' profits. "Everyone wants clean air but they think it's for free." Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he says, the government should not allow the huge trade imbalances that have been built up over the past 40 years with the Japanese. "It took time for them to build up, so I'd give 'em five years to move within a $5 billion to $10 billion range of a trade balance," he says. "We have a hang-up in this country called free trade. I was a free trader when I was in college. After spending six months in Europe I became a fair trader. If we're going to move toward free trade, we've got to move all together. One cannot move unilaterally in an opposite direction." Poling will join President Bush on an unprecedented trade mission to Japan in January. There, no doubt, he'll have a chance to voice his grievances.