Hi-tech, low-tech and world recovery
Around the world, governments are giving their high-technology industries a special helping hand:
* In France, President Francois Mitterrand plans to energize the electronics industry with a $5 billion infusion of government-directed funds over the next five years.
* In Japan, the government is spending $80 million to develop fiber optics, ''wires'' of light that promise to greatly improve phone, computer, and video transmissions. At least 11 other high-technology industries have been targeted for similar treatment.
* In Britain, the semiconductor industry gets $110 million in government aid.
* In West Germany, the government provides its ''chip'' firms with a $150 million subsidy.
In the United States, government policy toward high-tech seems sure to become an increasingly visible issue as the 1984 presidential campaign progresses. Both parties agree Washington should take some further action to aid technology-oriented firms. The question is, how far reaching should those measures be?
''Foreign government industrial programs to promote high-technology industries have adversely affected (the US) and will, if trends continue, place US business at a disadvantage, even with an ideal environment for high technology within the United States,'' warns an unpublished Cabinet Council report on high technology.
Reagan administration officials stress their aversion to the industrial policies of other nations, where governments directly intervene in the marketplace to protect and nurture individual industries. They say the government can best aid US computer, aircraft, bioengineering, and other high-tech firms by putting the economy back on its feet, then stepping back out of the way.
But critics say the US already has an ad-hoc ''industrial policy,'' a scattershot approach to aiding individual industries. Harvard Prof. Robert Reich notes the US gave $455 million in tax breaks last year to the timber industry, but none to semiconductor firms. Five times as much government money went to commercial fisheries research as into new steel technology research and development (R&D), Mr. Reich says.
And the Reagan administration, inevitably, is not taking a strictly laissez-faire, that's-too-bad-but-what-do-you-expect-us-to-do-about-it approach to the problem. Government aid for basic scientific research is a ''federal trust,'' notes presidential science adviser George Keyworth - and the White House is proposing to increase such aid 10 percent next year.
In 1981, the White House tried to throw small, fast-growing firms a tax break , but missed. The big tax bill passed that year contained a 25 percent tax credit for increasing investment in R&D. But the credit has proved ''totally useless'' for small firms because it requires an established R&D track record, which new firms obviously don't have, says D.Bruce Merrifield, assistant secretary of commerce for productivity, technology, and innovation.
Another administration effort intended to aid high-tech, says Dr. Merrifield, should be more effective: Last January, the White House issued regulations that allow firms to coordinate their R&D efforts without violating antitrust laws. Ten electronics firms have already joined in a semiconductor research team, headed by Bobby Inman, former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency , and funded with $75 million in venture capital.
There are signs that the White House may consider more help for US technology industries. The Cabinet Council report on high-tech competitiveness urges consideration of further aid, and the administration is expected to name a commission on the problems of technology-intensive firms soon.
But what form might that aid take?
''We have to get barriers out of the way and provide incentives (for high-tech firms),'' insists Merrifield. ''If we have a national strategy, that's what it ought to be.''
Specifically, the government ought to be able to provide more data about the strengths and weaknesses of US industries compared with their foreign counterparts, he says.
As for barriers, Merrifield mentions a bioengineering firm that was recently stymied in efforts to sell a product to Japan because the product hadn't yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration - though Japan has its own version of the FDA.
And US antitrust law, Merrifield insists, is ''at best, irrelevant; at worst, anticompetitive.''
Meanwhile, eager to present alternatives to Reaganomics, Democrats are busy churning out all sorts of high-tech aid alternatives. While Republicans say the government should play the role of disinterested referee while industries argue their future, Democrats generally propose that government join the debate.
The House Democratic Caucus, for instance, has proposed an Economic Cooperation Council for mapping long-term economic strategy. Along with collecting data, this council would provide a forum for government, business, and labor leaders to discuss trends in the world economy, says Rep. Timothy Wirth (D) of Colorado.
Without such an organized approach, says Representative Wirth, US high-tech industries ''face an inevitable decline.''
Democratic presidential contender Gary Hart (D) of Colorado says he thinks the President, instead of a separate council, should help map economic strategy. He also proposes some changes in antitrust law, further incentives for private investment in R&D, and relaxation in banking and pension regulations to improve high-tech firms' access to funds. Another Democratic theme is a tough line on trade with Japan, to ensure US high-tech companies fair treatment overseas.
Wirth, Senator Hart, and other Democrats also insist they wouldn't pick ''winners'' - firms whose promise would qualify them for government support. Such an approach invariably draws harsh words from Republicans. The one thing the country doesn't need ''is some sort of central planning agency,'' scoffs Rep. Ed Zschau (R) of California, chairman of a GOP innovation task force.