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How we thought, and thought, about balancing the budget

A presidential panel, conducting a ''Private Sector Survey on Cost Control,'' has decided the federal government could save $424.6 billion over the next three years. We are, it seems, building a lot of ''low-priority'' dams and maintaining quite a few military bases that ought to be closed. Government pensions are three to six times as fat as those in the private sector. Still more legendary extravagances have been uncovered - for example, the shelling out of $91 for a 3 -cent screw.

All in all, the panel found 2,478 cases of ''waste'' - not counting the panel itself, of course, which required a year and a half to come to this foreboding conclusion. If we don't amend our profligate ways, the country could arrive at deficits of $1 trillion to $2 trillion by the year 2000 - a threat that had us slipping pennies into our Miss Piggy bank with a haste approaching panic.

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But the warning that really rang our alarm came from the panel's chairman, J. Peter Grace, an industrialist. ''The government,'' said J. P., ''is run horribly.'' For an awful moment we thought Mr. Grace was speaking to us personally. ''Run horribly'' - what we laughingly call our budget certainly deserves those words.

''J. P.,'' we almost heard our voice sob, ''we've tried, and tried again. We made the lists: 'Household Expenses,' 'Food,' 'Automobile,' 'Entertainment.' We bought the little brown envelopes for receipts. We have more different-colored pens than a well-equipped kindergarten. We have a pocket expense book for every change of clothing, including our pajamas. What more can an incipient bankrupt do, J. P.?''

We still remember the day we bought the filing cabinet - antique pine with brass handles. After that, how could we go wrong? We applied a coat of lemon oil , threw the receipt for the new file in the same old soup carton in the corner, and, honestly, we thought we had the whole problem licked.

Maybe it was squandering money on all those budget-balancing toys that finally ruined our budget. Where did we go wrong, J. P.? But why take up J. P.'s time? - maybe another 18 months. Time is money, at least to people like J. P., and that's only one of the differences.

There are just qualities these other people have that we don't have, fellow budget-busters. How do They know, in January, for instance, how much money they're going to want to spend on the beaches in July? But They do. They look out their frosted window at a couple of feet of snow and write on the ''Entertainment'' list: $17.75, new swimming trunks. Then They put on their earmuffs and mush out to buy them at off-season discount, along with a year's supply of tanning lotion.

That's imagination.

But how consistent are They? Our consolation is that, in practice, They aren't doing a lot less ''horribly'' than We. As J. P. must realize, it used to be American to budget. Now it's American to talk about it.

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''Today,'' an economist writing on the budget remarked, ''virtually everyone is a fiscal conservative.''

In theory, that is. Everybody believes in fiscal conservatism. Almost nobody does anything about it.

Somehow being fiscally conservative on paper allows us to be fiscally unconservative in practice.

From the government on down, the idea with a budget is that you can't start quite yet because you have to clean up last year's mess. But boy, have you got one terrific budget for 1986! Our big complaint is that budgeting requires so much care. If you practice ''zero-base budgeting'' - questioning everything - you have to ''assign, and reassign, your priorities'' and go in for ''constant review and refinement.'' All the books say so.

This leaves you no time at all to blow your money. You have time to budget or time to live - but not both.

The one thing that might make it all happen, everybody tells us, is a home computer. Just punch in the figures, and the computer will sort out your resources into a ''decision package'' and do all the priority-assigning and zero-basing you could ask for.

But on our budget, who can afford a computer? In the meantime, we'll simply have to stick with our one fiscal law: When in doubt, keep the plastic in your pocket. Being the last of the cash customers hasn't saved us from some deep confusion. But, on the other hand, we haven't bought any 3-cent screws for $91 - yet.

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