The economic crisis has forced the nation to face up to its deteriorating industrial base and the need to rebuild it, Ford Motor Chairman Bill Ford told a meeting of business and government leaders on Monday. And rather than questioning the government's growing role in private industry, speakers opening the National Summit seemed focused on defining that role.
"If there's a silver lining to all this, it's the rest of the country is waking up … that the industrial base is eroding and that prosperous nations don't let that happen," said Bill Ford, chairman of Ford Motor and co-chair. The three-day event sponsored by the Detroit Economic Club is expected to draw 3,000 leaders to plan for making the U.S. more competitive in the areas of technology, energy, the environment and manufacturing.
Ford urged the group to develop a "national to-do list": "If this is all rhetoric, then we will not have optimized the outcome."
The summit, held in the same building that General Motors calls home, takes place as the U.S. government is pumping cash into Chrysler and GM in exchange for stakes in those companies.
Planning for the summit began two years ago, when the Detroit area already was mired in an economic slump, but the rest of the U.S. appeared fine.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told the group the tone in Washington has changed and the time is ripe to craft a national industrial policy: "It is a fundamental awakening that it is not the company in China making the small cars that we are competing with, it is the governments who support those industries. You want an aggressive active government" with a policy to support industry.
But developing an industrial policy must not veer into protectionism, warned some leaders. Charles McClure, CEO of Troy, Mich.-based auto parts giant ArvinMeritor, said "Buy American" policies that mandate government bodies buy only U.S.-made items go too far. More than half his sales last year were outside the U.S.
"The natural reaction is to put up walls," he said. "This country can't afford to become very protectionist."
Meanwhile, Andrew Liveris, co-chair of the event and CEO of Dow Chemical, called for a "sane" energy policy, and said the U.S. needs to pair education reform with worker training for economic health.
"We need a modern industrial policy, one built for the 21st century," Liveris said. "If we want the American economy to reach its full potential, it's not the time to say, 'It's over,' but to say, 'It's just beginning.' "