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Book briefs.The latest in current affairs

Megatraumas: America at the Year 2000, by Richard D. Lamm. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 290 pp. $16.95. Colorado's governor, Democrat Richard Lamm, warns that our long-term problems are being ignored: The United States is a ``nation in liquidation'' heading into ``an era of multiple traumas.'' The bulk of this choppy but important book is devoted to a m'elange of imaginary memos and speeches prepared in the year 2000 to assist United States President Susan J. Hesperus (i.e., ``evening star'') on such topics as the overvalued dollar, lack of investment in new plants and equipment, too much technology in health care, the need to close US borders to immigrants, rising rates of violence and teen-age pregnancy, 19 percent unemployment, and the poisoning of America by toxic and hazardous wastes. The last third of the book is devoted to a more positive scenario, showing how President Martin Morgenstern (i.e., ``morning star''), elected in 1992, balanced the federal budget, sold the idea of ``shared sacrifice'' to the American people, reformed the tax code, instituted means-testing of all ``entitlements,'' and applied broader ``systems thinking'' to the problems of defense spending and health care. All are tough decisions, but who has a better alternative? Hunger in America: The Growing Epidemic, by the Physician Task Force on Hunger in America. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. 231 pp. $16.96 cloth. $8.95 paper.

After talking with hungry people and those who feed them, doctors from this task force estimated that up to 20 million Americans -- about 8 percent of the population -- may experience serious hunger for at least some period of time each month. The problem appears to be growing, although it is still not as extensive as two decades ago, before expansion of federal nutrition programs. But these programs do not reach far enough, and many citizens get no help because of ``mean-spirited bureaucratic practices.'' The task force, directed by J. Larry Brown of the Harvard School of Public Health, proposes emergency legislation, including more food stamp benefits and meals programs for the elderly, and fewer food stamp restrictions that exclude the working poor. Suggested long-term measures include a permanent and independent body to monitor the nutritional status of Americans, quarterly reports on progress in ending hunger, and a bipartisan commission to recommend legislative changes. An Environmental Agenda for the Future, by John H. Adams et al. Washington: Island Press. 155 pp. $5.95 paper.

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Congress has passed a multitude of environmental laws, but compliance and enforcement are still spotty, and the regulations often do not deal with root causes. ``Environmental Agenda,'' a two-year project sponsored by the chief executives of 10 major environmental organizations, examines such concerns as the environmental dangers of producing nuclear weapons, world population growth, threats to biological diversity, soil erosion, and pollution of urban areas. The agenda stresses that the best solution to US and world energy problems is the ``soft energy path,'' which emphasizes greater efficiency and more use of renewable resources. The same strategy holds for water: improving management of existing water projects and economical water use. A more effective Safe Drinking Water Act is needed, and the toxic-waste Superfund should be strengthened. Above all, the agenda concludes, the government needs to strengthen its ability to discern long-term global trends. The Nuclear Waste Primer: A Handbook for Citizens, by the League of Women Voters Education Fund. New York: Nick Lyons Books. 99 pp. $5.95 paper.

The vexing issue of managing nuclear waste got little attention from policymakers in the first three decades of the nuclear era. After some false starts, Congress passed two major pieces of legislation in 1980 and 1982, but these laws do not provide answers to all of the social and technical questions involved. This guidebook briefly and competently describes the sources of nuclear waste, the nature of radiation hazards, waste management, what other countries are doing, and what US citizens can do at state and national levels to help shape an effective and equitable nuclear waste policy. Also see a similar citizens' guide on the broad issue of toxic waste: The Health Detective's Handbook: A Guide to the Investigation of Environmental Health Hazards by Nonprofessionals, edited by Marvin S. Legator et al. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 256 pp. $27.50 cloth. $12.95 paper. Heavy Losses: The Dangerous Decline of American Defense, by James Coates and Michael Killian. New York: Viking. 430 pp. $22.95.

As suggested by the title of this well-researched survey by two veteran Washington journalists, US defense is both dangerously costly and dangerously weak. It lacks any clear strategy; spending methods are wasteful; and increasing reliance on nuclear weapons makes their use more likely. Aside from these controversial conclusions, the strength of this highly readable book is a fascinating tour of the major elements related to military matters, including the US Defense Department, Soviet military policy (the engine that drives US policy), advisers to the President, relations with Congress, interservice rivalry, the procurement elite, military personnel and their contractors, the antimilitary lobby, the Pentagon press corps, and the Congressional Military Reform Caucus -- depicted as America's best hope for intelligent change.

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