Son of Synfuels


WHO is the most powerful business executive in the United States today?

She is Dr. Mary Good, President Clinton's undersecretary of commerce for technology, who has quietly been designated czar of the U.S. automobile industry.

The heads of her divisions -- GM, Ford and Chrysler -- are delighted with the government's friendly takeover. These newly middle managers no longer bear responsibility for R&D;, can relax about antitrust, and can forget about the old competition among one another and from abroad. Fatigued by the stress of capitalist risk? Dr. Good will see you now.

Corporate statism arrived in America last week in the back seat of a dream car. The White House announced "a historic new partnership aimed at strengthening U.S. competitiveness by developing technologies for a new generation of vehicles." Triple the fuel efficiency; ultra-capacitors from despised "Star Wars" projects; stealth-technology windows; "virtual design and prototyping from the Army Tank Command."

And here's the beauty part: It's all free! "This project will not increase the government's total spending on research," promises the White House. But somehow, as "government money will be spent on riskier, longer-term projects," the Washington-Detroit axle will "produce competitively priced, high-performance, low-pollution, safe vehicles."

Do you believe that? The presumed guardians of free enterprise do. I called the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose president, Richard Lesher, called it "a step forward. It makes sense for the government to work with industry to advance the public good."

At the National Association of Manufacturers, President Jerry Jasinowski said: "This agreement to improve manufacturing techniques seems generally reasonable."

What a marriage: the Washington-knows-best set of liberal Democrats, going down the primrose path of industrial policy with a posterior-protecting bunch of corporate managers and business lobbyists who think they can get government money and management without government control.

Bill Clinton is making no secret of his policy of half-free enterprise. Following the R&D; takeover of the auto industry, he announced the taxpayer bailout of the leaky shipbuilding industry, piling billions in new liability on today's economywide $6 trillion in loan guarantees.

Then the 800-pound gorilla groom gave its blushing corporate bride a wedding present: an export-subsidy policy to join -- rather than continue to fight -- the nations that use tax money to prop up inefficient industry.

Why is the power-to-the-center crowd in Washington able to get away with this radical restructuring of the American economy?

Because fat-cat managers and their nail-nibbling lobbyists love it. Who wants to risk failure, hostile takeover and accountability by the bottom line -- when an eager government is ready to relieve you of the rigors of competition. Only entrepreneurs object, and those non-team players are too busy creating new FTC industries and jobs to join the hired managers at the public trough.

Can you imagine a self-starter with a far-out invention going up against the Big Three Plus the Bigger One? The Det-Wash deal to monopolize R&D; eliminates innovative outsiders and makes a mockery of antitrust.

Do you remember Synfuels, the cockamamie Carter-era solution to high oil prices? Our super-efficient government created a giant corporation to produce oil out of rocks, with big business' blessing. After a decade of taxpayer losses in the billions, Synfuels was quietly folded up because the free market brought down prices with no government help.

Proponents of today's "partnership" cloak their takeover in the rhetoric of savings on research, promotion of exports, job creation, all those good things competent executives do better than bureaucrats. Ironically, we're aping Japan just when the terrible weakness of the protective Japanese system is becoming manifest.

Who will save the free enterprise system from Dr. Do-good?

Commerce Secretary Ron Brown is paralyzed by fear of indictment; the department's top level is wandering about unconfirmed; and its bureaucracy is disconnected from policy. Fortunately, this is the outfit charged with leading us into Clintonism's brave new world. That is how God protects drunks and the free market.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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