ECONOMISTS: STICK TO ECONOMICS

If you call Van Doorn Ooms in Washington, a recorded voice comes on the line and repeats a couple of times that "You have reached a non-working number in the United States Congress." But Mr. Ooms is the farthest thing from a non- working number.

As chief economist for the House Budget Committee, Mr. Ooms will play a key behind-the-scenes role in the congressional attempt to keep the budget deficit in fiscal 1987 to $108 billion - the target set by Congress for itself under Gramm-Rudman.Sitting in his large book-lined office, his right leg swung loosely over his left leg, Mr. Ooms tilts his head slightly while looking down at you through his glasses, which are perched on his high bridged nose. A Rhodes Scholar with a Ph.D. from Yale, he originally came to Washington to help out for one year. That was seven years ago.

Books and sheets of information are piled up in several spots around the room like sacrifices ready at hand to appease some work-demanding God.

Intense. Totally cerebral yet warm and wanting to help. "What Congress needs to do," he says, talking about the budget deficit, "is to do something about what we know how to do." He smiles a satisfied smile for having chosen his words so well. "The administration and Congress itself are enthralled with a new buzz word. America needs to be competitive. We do. But determining government policy that can make us competitive is not easy to come by. But we do know how to solve the deficit problem. That's relatively easy. We either raise more revenues or cut spending."

When Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, the deficit was $73.8 billion. By fiscal 1983 it reached $207.8 billion. But the problem has not been increased spending so much, says Mr. Ooms, as insufficient tax revenues. Between 1981 and 1985, spending grew at a rate of around 9.9 percent, which is somewhat high but perhaps defendable, he says. But in fiscal 1986, he continues, swinging his left leg over his right leg, it grew at a rate of 4.6 percent and in 1987 at a rate of only 1.9 percent.

Although as a member of the congressional staff he is careful not to overstate the obvious, the problem is that more revenues need to be raised. The tax reform bill passed last year will not do that. "That was not its purpose," says Mr. Ooms.

He hands Keith Rockwell, our enterprise editor, and me a copy of a speech he had given earlier in the morning. "And as these figures seem to indicate, as the federal deficit has increased, the nation's trade deficit has increased, and almost in direct proportion. The direction of the charts for both the budget deficit and the trade deficit is too similar not to think that there is some relationship between the two.

His left leg swings down and his right leg now swings over the left. The movement of his mind and limbs are so well coordinated that you begin to understand why he was an outstanding squash player during his college days.

I thought of our meeting with Mr. Ooms, which took place a couple weeks ago, while reading a summary of the annual report issued last week by the president's Council of Economic Advisers. Free market types, they concluded that the trade deficit stems not so much from a lack of competitiveness in this country as it does from the high value of the dollar over the last several years. Now that the dollar is falling, the theory goes, our domestic products will not only compete much better against foreign imports, but they will be able to compete abroad as well.

A lower dollar will certainly help. And Mr. Ooms is probably correct that the government is better at doing things like raising taxes and lowering federal deficits than developing programs to make U.S. business more competitive. But basic to the problem is the fact that we must produce goods and services that people want and want more than the goods and services offered by other nations.

If you think about it, it was the economists who got us in this mess to a large degree in the first place. The auto industry is a perfect example. Henry Ford got the industry going with the idea of building more and charging less. He made his profit on volume. An engineer, he also was greatly concerned with the quality of his product. In the 1950s, the economists began to have an in ordinate influence in Detroit. Rather than build more and charge less, they reasoned, more profit could be realized by building fewer cars and charging more for them. Not being engineers, they also were less quality conscious about the product.

My point is that, like Mr. Ooms, the economists should stick to what they do best, economics. And engineers, manufacturers, marketers and business people should get on with developing products and services that again are competitive with the rest of the world.

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