Here Comes The Uncle Sam Mobile

On the campaign trail, Bill Clinton and Al Gore promised to promote America Inc. Uncle Sam, they said, would help industry nurture future technologies. In February, the White House announced a $17 billion plan to support everything from the "information superhighway" to advanced factory tools.

Much of that fell victim to budget-cutting. But the White House is starting to deliver on promises that don't require much money. On Sept. 15, it unveiled plans to promote the fiberoptic "superhighway." And on Sept. 29, Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown trumpeted a scheme to boost exports.

The plan that may best capture the public imagination is Clinton's partnership with the Big Three to produce a clean, fuel-miserly car. Also announced on Sept. 29, the program's 10-year goal is to as much as triple the mileage of a typical car (chart). That won't aid just auto makers, says White House science adviser John H. Gibbons: "If you look at air pollution, oil imports, [carbon dioxide] emissions, and foreign competition, there is a long list of public benefits that come from a breakthrough in automotive technology."

Detroit is delighted. "By working together, government and industry offer the best chance of achieving the necessary breakthroughs," says Ford Motor Co. CEO Harold A. Poling. Instead of cash, Clinton is offering research help in fields such as lightweight materials and computer-aided design. And the White House has agreed not to push hard for big increases in mandated fuel economy.

Free-marketers are dubious. The idea that government can succeed where industry has not "is almost beyond belief," scoffs Cato Institute economist William A. Niskanen. But others are hopeful. A high-mileage car "is a good example of where government and industry can do something jointly," says former National Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch. With little new money involved, it's industrial policy on the cheap.