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Getting out of debt

Most citizens are probably more attentive to their own pocketbooks than they are to the financial accounts of governments. But they should be aware that the world in general faces a severe debt problem. In the words of United States senator Charles Mathias, as quoted in today's Monitor, ''the dilemma we face is not just an economic one, but also one of general confidence in our financial system.''

The debt challenge is economic and political, of course. But it is also moral. For it urgently calls on the leaders of the industrial world to recognize the inherent unity of humanity and to foster a global economic community - a community that seeks expansion, growth, and abundance instead of limitation, austerity, and retrenchment.

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The world banking problem does appear awesome, with the debts of third-world nations reaching more than $500 billion - up from roughly $100 billion a decade ago. Over 60 percent of that debt is owed to Western banks, many of them in the United States. Yet it is important to remember that the major industrial nations have already taken a number of concerted steps to prevent the type of default that could spell disaster for the world economy. Through the intervention of the US and other world lenders, for example, rescue packages have been put together for Mexico ($80 billion in debt), Brazil ($87 billion), and Poland ($26 billion). And in the past several weeks the leading Western nations - the so-called Group of Ten - have committed themselves to making more money available to hard-pressed nations through the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Such actions prove that even further steps can be taken:

* The IMF needs a new early-warning system in order quickly to identify a potential debt crisis as well as a sizable emergency fund. In an an age of high-speed computers the world should not have to reel from one financial crisis to another in part because of poor monitoring and contingency planning.

* With 30 million persons unemployed in the industrial democracies, the time may well be at hand for governments to begin the task of reflating their economies. There is always the risk of reigniting inflation. Yet, with world industrial capacity so underused, that risk would seem modest compared to the dangers of continued recession.

* Protectionist pressures that would cut off trade should be avoided at all costs. Encouraging maximum possible free trade is more than just altruism.It is sound economics. Third-world nations, for example, buy 39 percent of all US exports.

* The IMF and the major lending nations should avoid imposing austerity measures on third-world nations which would inhibit expansion or bar essential imports.

In the most fundamental sense, the major industrial nations will have to muster the kind of vision and resolve that led to the Marshall Plan at the end of World War II. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has written, ''no single American initiative would more effectively reverse the deterioration of the Western alliance than a call for a coordinated program to insure the general economic expansion of the free world.''

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The debt problem threatens to overwhelm the world economic system. It cannot do so if the leaders of all nations, industrial and third-world, pull together in a spirit of mutual need and trust.

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