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Tomorrow's industry

Joblessness is an insidious, heart-rending problem which ought to be tackled with all the political, economic, and spiritual resources society can muster. Nothing is more debilitating to an individual than to be unable to use his God-given capacities for useful, satisfying work. The right to be active is no less inalienable than the right to be free.

Unemployment has now reached proportions in the United States where it has become the primary concern of policymakers and politicians. Election season, unfortunately, is the poorest time to give the issue the thoughtfulness it deserves. Much of the public discussion, moreover, revolves around such traditional antirecessionary solutions as loosening up on the money supply, or lowering interest rates, or subsidizing trade.

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These are legitimate considerations, to be sure. But, given the global nature of the problem, are more fundamental approaches called for? Has the time come, for example, to introduce a system of joint government-industry planning - a so-called national industrial policy?

Americans should bear in mind what is happening in the world and the vast adjustments being forced by technological change. A vigorous economic recovery will send many of the 10 million US jobless back to work. But it will not end what is termed ''structural unemployment'' - the growing gap between the supply of workers and the skills demanded for available jobs. This is a built-in joblessness - and some 6 million US workers fall in this category - caused by the decline of traditional US industries such as steel and autos, the shrinking competitiveness of the US in world markets, the growth of high-technology industries for which many workers are not trained, the shift from a predominantly manufacturing to a service economy, and the computer and robotics revolution that is causing displacement of workers.

To put the problem in its global context, a more plural world is emerging. Many Americans may think that the US is still dominant economically, but the fact is that economic power today is far more diffused. Japan and Western Europe have emerged from the ashes of war to establish vigorous competing economies. The oil-producing countries have coalesced to demand a greater share of the economic pie in return for their oil. Then there are the newly industrializing countries - the so-called NICs - which are fast becoming mature economic powers in their own right and challenging the older industrialized nations.

None of this is to be regretted. The trend, in fact, has been actively fostered by the United States and points to the rapid gains nations are making in income and living standards. In a way it is the century's biggest success story. But the rise in the number of strong competitors in the economic club - combined with the explosion of technology - creates problems as well as opportunities.

The Reagan administration places its faith in market forces to make the needed adjustments. It eschews government involvement. Yet many thoughtful analysts - academics, corporate leaders, industrial consultants - believe it will take government and the private sector working together to cut though the problem. When they talk of industrial planning, it is not in the sense of communist-style state economic planning, which is anathema in any capitalist's books. It is in the sense of corporate-style anticipation of long-term trends and needs, setting of goals, and implementation of policies designed to achieve them. The Japanese do it with great success.

What industries, for instance, should government help support to make the US more competitive again? Should it bail out the nation's Chryslers when other countries can produce cars more efficiently? If the US needs a steel industry for security reasons, how much of a steel industry? If the present infrastructure - bridges, roads, canals - needs to be rebuilt, what regions should have priority? Should antitrust laws be reformed to permit companies that are no longer competitive to merge and combine their resources? What industries should be heavily invested in?

How such critical questions might be addressed is a matter of current debate. Some advocate an industrial council comprised of government, business, and labor representatives to serve as an advisory body. Others propose a permanent government authority which would be appointed by the president and Congress and whose recommendations would have to be approved by the legislative and executive branches. Still others, like Wassily Leontief of New York University, favor a strong economic autonomous research center which would provide a coherent statistical base on which to make policy decisions.

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There are pros and cons to such approaches. Obviously they would need to be weighed carefully before embarking on any far-reaching program. It is unlikely, for instance, that a government authority would be as efficient as private industry in making good investment decisions. Nor would one want an industrial policy to end up with government subsidizing inefficient industries (as it has in Britain).

But some system of cooperation is needed to study these larger questions and help evolve government and private-sector policies which, instead of trying to recapture a world gone by, respond creatively to new conditions and demands.