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Halley's Comet and other cost-cutting targets

Halley's Comet is hurtling at the Earth at 122,000 miles an hour and should be visible to all three years from now. It comes punctually every 76 years. Expeditions from Japan, the European Space Agency, the Soviet Union, and perhaps elsewhere will be up there to greet it, but not from the United States under present plans. We'll send up a package of space instruments on the European probe. Under the schedule so far, America is saving money on an austerity budget.

That's only one spot where economy is shaping policy. Here's another one.

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The federal government used to operate the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) but now it's fallen back on something else, the Jobs Training and Partnership Act. This may take some of the burden off Washington and save the government money. States will supervise local programs and provide matching funds for retraining skilled workers who have lost jobs through automation or other factory shutdowns.

In Baltimore such a retraining center has just started with help from the mayor's office and big private concerns like the International Business Machines Corporation. Will it work? Everybody hopes so.

The motto here is save money. We must retrench. We are in not merely a domestic but a global emergency.

But it requires wisdom to save money just as it does to spend it. The question is whether the nation in its austerity stampede is making its economies in the right places.

Examine, for example, the Labor Department where the figures are gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics on a lot of matters important to private industry. Dun's Business Review in October notes that ''an annual updating of local, state, and regional bases has been cut back to every-other-year by the Census Bureau.'' It charges that ''basic 'core' data series have been downgraded or indefinitely delayed.'' It says that ''for the lack of the $4 million to $5 million needed to conduct the 1982 Census of Manufacturers, widely used information on the status of US industries is going to be badly out of date for the next 10 years. . . .''

One of the worst epithets in America's political vocabulary is ''bureaucrat.'' Among other tasks bureaucrats run the government, take the census, try to level off employment, send up greetings to Halley's Comet (when there's enough money), and deliver the mail. We grumble about bureaucrats all the time, but at a moment of austerity like this we must decide whether they can be spared and who, if anyone, must go.

There's the military. Economist Walter Heller says President Reagan ''hasn't budged on the military budget in actual dollars for defense from about $212 billion in 1983 to $286 billion in 1985.'' This is a different order of magnitude from the three samples of economy that I gave at the start. Said Fortune magazine recently, if Mr. Reagan sticks to the same dollar amounts on defense, in the face of lower inflation, the real increase in the defense budget will be almost 12 percent a year.

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Or again, in another field, there is the staggering cost of ''entitlements'' such as social security. Congress must wrestle with this when it comes back to Washington next week. Surely there can be economies here. Social security and medicare alone account for one-quarter of all federal spending. As Congress reassembles, the time has arrived for a dispassionate, comprehensive, and stern look at federal spending. We must save money, but we must do so wisely.

Just as a personal prejudice I wish we could be a little more cordial about the Halley's Comet visit. It has been out there at the dark cold edge of the solar system all this time and now it is coming whizzing back for a look at us and the sun before darting off again. Its head will be 100,000 miles across and its tail 50 million miles long. Can't we arrange a space shot? Of course it will be back again around 2062. But that's a long way off.

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