The United States needs a clear strategy to remain a competitive leader in industry and other sectors of an economy in crisis, business leaders have told a national summit that has opened in the country.
The three-day summit in Detroit, Michigan aims to develop a national consensus on policies for technology, energy, environment and manufacturing.
"Our goal is to develop a to do list of actions that will revitalize and revive our economy," said Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. and co-chair of the summit's opening session.
Ford said the global economic crisis "increases the urgency to begin a national dialogue on the economy."
The meeting reflects growing momentum for the United States to formalize an "industrial policy" similar to those implemented in Asia and elsewhere to help nurture businesses in a tough global environment.
The summit also seeks to define policies on energy, environment and technology.
Although industrial policy is often equated with protectionism, Ford and other speakers said the United States needs to be tougher with trading partners to maintain prosperity.
"Having no policy is a bad policy," Ford said. "Other countries understand this and they work hard to maintain a strong industrial base.
"They bend or even break the rules to maintain a competitive advantage over the US. We need to do something different," he added.
Echoing those calls, fellow co-chair Andrew Liveris, chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical Co., called for "a modern-era industrial policy, one built for the 21st century.
"The life force and strength of this country has to be rebuilt," Liveris told the gathering of several hundred people.
"It has to be rebuilt by American industry."
Liveris said that "maybe we all became enamored with the idea of making money from money. And we forgot that making real things, real innovative things, still matters."
Michigan Senator Carl Levin said the notion of industrial policy for many years was "anathema to many people ... it was a killer label."
But he said there is a growing recognition, including at the White House, of the need for more government involvement in the economy.
"There is a recognition finally in this country that our global competition is not just with companies, but with the governments that support those companies," Levin told a summit forum. "It's a fundamental awakening."
Thomas d'Aquino, president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, acknowledged the need to shift policy.
"There is a perception that America has been weakened by the financial calamity," he said. "I think the US has been too much the boy scouts, and we're working in a different environment."
One note of caution came from Bud Peterson, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology, who warned against following the models of some countries that invest directly in companies.
"In this country, we have invested in universities in research, and that drives the technologies that create the companies that create jobs," he said.
The summit, which may continue as an annual event, grew out of conversations at the Detroit Economic Club about the future of the US economy.
The speakers include chief executives Richard Anderson of Delta Air Lines, Steve Ballmer of Microsoft Corp., Vikram Pandit of Citigroup, Fritz Henderson of General Motors and Alan Mulally of Ford.
From government, new US chief technology officer Aneesh Chopra and Commerce Secretary Gary Locke will appear among the 90-plus speakers.
Called last September, the summit has taken on new importance amid a recession that is the worst in decades, costing more than six million US jobs.
About 200 protestors marched from a nearby park, where a shadow "people's summit" was being held to try to draw attention to those affected by the current economic crisis.
Carrying signs demanding an end to foreclosures and the capitalist system they chanted "Bail out the people not the banks" and "Come out! Come out! Stop meeting in secret" outside Detroit's Renaissance Center, home to both General Motors and the conference.
"The banks and the corporations are taking over people's homes," said David Gilbert, 27, who like 13.6 percent of the city's population is unemployed.
"They don't care about homelessness. They only care about profits and people are expendable."