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Taking aim at the deficit

Former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have agreed to be honorary co-chairmen of ''Proposition One,'' whose purpose is to eliminate the federal deficit by 1989. Economist Walter Heller is on the advisory board. Republican Gov. Richard Snelling of Vermont launched the movement. It deals with a worrisome problem that will be around no matter how the election goes.

President Reagan asks voters, ''Are you better off today than in 1980?'' The answer seems to be that a lot are better off, some are about the same, and a goodly number are worse off. But I think the real question is what lies ahead: What's going to happen in 1985 and thereafter? Will the red ink be deeper?

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The United States is living beyond its means and accumulating a deficit that Dr. Heller calls ''frightening,'' accompanied by ''huge tax cuts, with huge spending increases (especially on defense), and presents us with not only the biggest deficits in all history, but wrong-way structural deficits (those that persist in full employment, that rise as the economy rises). The trouble is that everything that has to be done - boosting taxes, slowing the military buildup, cutting the growth of entitlements - runs smack into sharply focused, strongly organized, well-financed pressure groups.''

This is a critical time for the domestic and the world economy. The deficits got under way when President Johnson decided not to pay currently for the Vietnam war: He ended a six-year tenure with deficits estimated at $42 billion. President Nixon's five-year deficit was $68.7 billion; President Ford's for 27 months, $124.6 billion; President Carter's for four years, around $181 billion.

Now come the four years of President Reagan. His Office of Management and Budget, headed by David A. Stockman, sees the deficit tapering down to around $ 172 billion in the fiscal year of 1984. If this is right, perhaps no higher taxes are needed - will normal expansion of the economy straighten things out?

''Nonsense!'' cries candidate Walter Mondale; he charges that the President has a ''secret plan'' to boost taxes after the election.

So there it rests for a moment. But now a new voice comes in, this one from the Congressional Budget Office, headed by Rudolph G. Penner. It issues a survey in which it sees the deficit continuing to rise - reaching $263 billion in 1989.

Meanwhile, GOP platform writers add their comment: ''Our most important economic goal is to expand and continue the economic recovery. We therefore oppose any attempt to increase taxes, which would harm the recovery. ... We favor reducing deficits by continuing and expanding the strong economic recovery ... and by eliminating wasteful and unnecessary government spending. We categorically reject proposals to increase taxes in a misguided effort to balance the budget.''

So much for Republican goals in 1984. When the new Reagan regime took over in 1980 it was vigorous, too; it felt it could slash taxes, enlarge national defense, and balance the budget - all at the same time. But the budget never did balance.

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Now Proposition One utters a warning: ''The main thrust,'' says Dr. Heller, ''will be to alert citizens to the terrible toll the huge deficit takes by overstimulating the economy, boosting interest rates, and undercutting economic growth.'' He fears overvaluing the dollar ''and zapping our export industries and the third-world debtor countries.''

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