The watchword in Washington and the rest of the United States is competitiveness. There have been more discussions by more people about America's ability (or inability) to compete internationally than perhaps about any other topic this year. And with each announcement of further erosion in the U.S. balance of payments, the intensity of that discussion escalates.

The problem has been at least two decades in the making. American industry did not modernize its manufacturing processes soon enough. It did not pay enough attention to quality. It looked for high short-term re turns and neglected investments in R&D that ensure long-term prosperity. Moreover, the federal government has eschewed any thing like a coordinated industrial policy.

But now there is consensus that the federal government can and should play a role in improving America's competitive position. In his last State of the Union address, President Reagan underscored competitive ness as a priority...

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