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'Resizing' GM

AS a metaphor, "winds of change" is too gentle for the 1990s. Those winds have grown to hurricane force. That's true in global politics - ask Mikhail Gorbachev. It's true in global business - ask Robert Stempel.

To Mr. Stempel, chairman of General Motors, fell the task of announcing this week that GM - the world's largest manufacturing company and for many years the archetype of American business prowess - posted a record $4.45 billion loss in 1991. Stempel informed company workers that over three years the automaker would "resize" by closing 11 plants in the US and one in Canada, eliminating 16,300 jobs.

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GM executives, like their counterparts at Ford and Chrysler, have made some decisions that, in retrospect, were wrong or at least shortsighted. Certainly not all of the troubles plaguing American business can be attributed to "economic forces."

Yet American enterprise has been buffeted by economic gales that few business meteorologists detected in their early stages. Finger-pointing will be unproductive except to the extent it will contribute to learning lessons.

The US faces a twofold task. The first is to improve its competitiveness in the world marketplace. Business will have to become more efficient; new compacts between management and labor need to be forged; American education, from kindergarten through science and engineering graduate programs, must be revitalized; national saving and investment habits have to be adjusted; limited experiments in business-government partnerships may be warranted.

At the same time, America's political leadership needs to manage this period of economic transition effectively and compassionately. Many US workers have already been turned into economic refugees by business upheaval, and many more will be. As with all refugees, these displaced workers require bridging assistance, and ultimately they must be resettled into permanent economic homes. These homes cannot all be low-paying jobs in the service sector.

If any of the presidential candidates is having trouble shaping a "vision" for America, let him talk to GM workers.

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