WHEN younger American politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike, gather these days to dream and talk about the political future, the words heard most often are ``competitiveness,'' ``productivity,'' and ``education.'' The preoccupation with these key words reflects accurately the underlying anxiety of many Americans these days. What is happening to the American economy and to the standard of living which Americans achieved in the early years after World War II and which is perceptibly faltering now?
Americans once had the highest standard of living in the world, and their dollar could buy the good life in any other country in the world.
But the dollar has lost 40 percent of its value during the last two years. A rising proportion of the American work force is getting lower wages in the service sector than they formerly had in manufacturing. A new industry has grown out of finding new jobs for middle-level corporation executives. Also, half a dozen other countries have moved ahead of the United States in per capita national income and standard of living. Sweden, Denmark, and Norway are among them.
The essential fact is that the standard of living of the average American is slipping, and will probably continue to slip unless or until some new political leader can emerge with a new formula for reviving America's primacy in the world's economic pattern.
There is probably no such formula to be found. But the search is already under way, and it is transforming the American political scene.
There probably is no such formula, because the era of US economic superiority after World War II was founded on an unusual and short-lived condition. The rest of the world was either exhausted or wrecked by the war. The US had the only intact and modernized industrial fabric. It had not been bombed. It had not been financially exhausted. The US alone could produce the consumer goods needed by the others. The US supplied the world.
But what does the US produce today that is unique and unavailable from other sources? It still leads in air transport and in many areas of modern electronics. But today it buys more automobiles than it sells (by far), and the world market for American grain and cotton, once major supporters of the American standard of living, has shrunk drastically.
The only large buyer of US grain left is the Soviet Union. Someday, perhaps in Mikhail Gorbachev's time, the great grain lands of the Ukraine may once again feed all of the Russian people. They did back in the days of the czars and could again.
Today the US is producing some 30 percent more wheat and 35 percent more cotton than the world needs. Steel mills are closing, partly because there are more-modern steel mills in other countries, but also because other things, plastics, for example, are taking the place of steel.
There is no rational reason to think the US is likely ever to regain the unique position it held immediately after World War II, when it was the sole supplier of food, textiles, and consumer goods.
But it can keep in the forefront in ingenuity, invention, and pioneering. And here is the new ground for the politicians.
From 1948 until now the most important factor in American politics has been an attitude toward communism and the USSR. The most lethal weapon a politician could use against his opponent was the charge of being ``soft on communism.'' Fear of communism and fear of Russian military power have been central to every political campaign. They were central to both of Ronald Reagan's presidential victories.
Are we at the end of that era in American politics?
That depends on the Russians. If they were to invade another neighbor, or sponsor another communist movement in Central America, or back the communists successfully in the Philippines - then we would all be back in familiar territory. American political leaders would once again compete for being ``most anticommunist.''
But if Moscow should lapse back into being just another peaceable member of the family of nations, the new buzzwords would become central in American politics.
Who has the best formula for putting the US back at the top of the economic heap?