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Fine-tune the recovery

If there is any good news for the Reagan administration to cheer about these days - despite all the difficulties for the White House in the Lebanon bombing incident and the invasion of Grenada - it would have to be the continuing strength of the economic recovery. The United States economy grew at a robust 7. 9 percent annual rate in the July-September period. Factory utilization in September reached 78.1 percent - the highest level in two years. Moreover, the latest inflation figures released this week show only a moderate increase in prices. The upshot: There should be continued economic growth accompanied by a relatively low rate of inflation right into presidential-election year 1984.

That is not to say that there are not elements of concern on the economic front. There are, and the White House, Congress - and the American people as a whole - would be remiss in not taking all possible steps to address them. Three concerns seem especially troubling: inflation, unemployment, and the federal deficit.

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* Although the rise in inflation going into next year is expected to be in the 5 percent to 6 percent range (compared with the double-digit rates of 1979 and 1980), that is still too high. Inflation works against genuine economic growth. Inflation tends to forestall investment in ''smokestack'' industries such as steel and autos, which require long-term borrowing.

* Unemployment, although it is expected to continue to fall off - it is now down to 8.8 percent for the civilian population - will still be high for a period of economic expansion. Many firms, particularly in some smokestack industries that were forced to retrench and introduce labor-saving practices and equipment during the recent recession, have found that they will not need to rehire former workers. That makes job-training programs and plant-relocation initiatives all the more urgent.

* The most pressing challenge, however, remains the need to bring the federal budget under control and head off deficits that are expected in the range of $ 200 billion or so during the next few years. The deficit for fiscal year 1983, just announced, was $195 billion. Granted, there is increasing speculation on the part of many economists that the deficits will not be as large as had been thought likely a few months back. Why? Because of the very extent of the recovery. Many welfare-related expenditures linked to the recession will slacken off. Such a drop in federal poverty and other support programs would mean lower federal spending and, thus, smaller deficits.

But that misses the larger point, namely, that the structural deficit - beyond and above recession-related federal spending - will continue to remain at historically high levels. It is the need to finance large structural deficits that could lead to a collision in credit markets next year or in 1986 between Uncle Sam and the private sector - a rivalry for investment dollars that could force out private borrowers and endanger the recovery.

Lawmakers must make every effort to slow the growth in federal spending to help bring the federal budget under control. The time to do that is now, before election-year pressures make such an effort impossible. Modest tax increases, perhaps involving higher excise taxes or taxes on imported oil, will surely be required. But as pointed out by economist Alan Greenspan, it will also be essential to reduce benefit increases in federal entitlement programs. At the least that would mean reducing such benefits hikes to a level slightly below the increase in the Consumer Price Index.

In short then, barring any unforseen international incident that could affect the US economic setting, the outlook is promising for the next six months to a year. Continued and steady economic growth. The leadership challenge is to take the necessary steps to ensure that the recovery continues well beyond that point.

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