We Are Driven

'YOU ASKED for it, you got it--Toyota."

This now-familiar commercial jingle tells the sad tale of the U.S. automobile industry's inability to compete with its Japanese counterparts' successful invasion of the domestic market. Japanese auto-makers' skill in producing relatively inexpensive, fuel-inefficient cars has provided the only solution for many American families stricken by exorbitant prices of gasoline. Thousands upon thousands have passed up our time-honored petropigs for the smaller, less expensive models.

But if Toyota, Datsun and Honda spell relief for many American families, they spell crisis for the Big Three U.S. automobile manufacturers. The Chrysler Corporation's crippling drop in sales has turned it into a ward of the government, while Ford's and General Motors' record sales drops have left the two companies begging for help in protecting against a further Japanese on-slaught. Detroit has recently requested that the government help limit imports, so that it can recoup sales and build a base for developing new car lines to compete with its formidable opposition. In response, the Reagan administration has reported its willingness to consider negotiating "voluntary restrictions" with the Japanese to give the ailing U.S. automakers some breathing room and ample time to get their wheels rolling again.

And that's exactly what import restrictions are--buying time. It is doubtful that a momentary respite from foreign competition can promote the radical changes necessary to bring the American auto industry back to its feet. Temporarily postponing the foreign threat can only add to the mistaken belief that its problems are overseas and not at home. The Big Three must move swiftly to develop quality cars that attain high gasoline mileage. Meanwhile, both the corporations and the automobile workers' unions must strive to improve relations and guarantee greater productivity in the workplace. Automobile workers are among the highest paid laborers in a nation which has a right to demand better performance and productivity standards than it now tolerates. Perhaps efforts to give workers more control over their workplace--thereby inciting pride and incentive--will provide improved productivity and accountability.

Protectionists' charges that free-market forces can only bring on a depression are alarming, but unfounded. Federal assistance should be made available to those workers who face the prospect of unemployment spells during the industry's transition to a more efficient production system. The recessionary effect that short-term drop in automobile sales might have on industries that depend on Detroit can be offset by discreet use of demand management policy.

In asking the automobile industry to shape up, we should all remember that the fault for its current troubles lies not only with the Big Three, but with the entire nation. Our appetite for large and expensive gas-guzzlers has for too long been fed by the pipe dream of cheap gasoline prices. In fact, expectations during the '70s that oil would remain cheap stymied Detroit's efforts to sell an array of smaller models at a profit. The Japanese have shown us that we no longer possess a monopoly on technological creativity and innovation. Spurred by the Japanese example, the American spirit of cooperation and enterprise can come through when put to the test.