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A checklist for voters

AMONG the main issues in the 1988 presidential election: 1.Four of the last seven American Presidents came to the White House by way of the vice-presidency. The same yardsticks, therefore, that are applied by voters in deciding upon the choice of a president are essential for the vice-presidential candidates. Their strengths or weaknesses are a major issue in the election.

2.Key areas of government in the United States are gradually passing into the hands of its secret agencies. Originally created for the purpose of combating KGB operations, these agencies have been able to increase their power inside the US and to carry out actions abroad that have profound foreign policy implications. Secret agencies work largely with unvouchered Treasury funds and, in some cases, profits from undercover sales of weapons. They are therefore in a position to exert substantial political power. That this situation is not being openly discussed is a major issue in itself. It is doubtful whether this overriding problem will be addressed by either presidential candidate unless the American people themselves force the issue.

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3.Since the bombing of Hiroshima, the fundamental reality is that in a nuclear age the only defense against war is peace. A strong military posture is of value only if it serves as a shield behind which to press forward with a great idea for creating durable peace - not just between the US and Soviet Union but among nations in general.

4.Beyond a certain point, the accumulation of force subtracts from national security and becomes an economic liability. Everyone recognizes the absurdity of building 100 or more battleships. Yet every day we add eight nuclear explosives to our atomic stockpile, now in the vicinity of 40,000 bombs. One-tenth of that number would be more than adequate. Billions of dollars spent on military redundancy add to the stresses on the national economy.

5.World anarchy is reflected in actions taken by nations beyond their borders that affect the safety or economic well-being of other nations. Considering the growing availability of military force, the need to replace world anarchy with effective instruments of world order and law must be a priority.

6.Heavy federal spending, especially for military purposes, has resulted not just in massive budget deficits but in substantial opportunities for fraud, overspending, and inferior or flawed weaponry. Reports of the General Accounting Office and congressional committees indicate that in the past eight years, upwards of $50 billion have been misspent or misdirected. Legal requirements for competitive bidding have been bypassed.

7.The steady deterioration in the world's environment gives added force to the need to create global instruments to deal with global problems. The burning of fossil fuels and the buildup of exhaust gases from combustion engines threaten the global climate. Severe weather changes can have serious effects on the world's food supply, already a major problem because of the rising world population. What is needed is not just a mobilization of the world's top scientific talent to map a course of correction, but agencies carrying effective powers of world law to ensure compliance.

8.The US economy is falling behind, not just because of excessive and extreme military spending, but because of the decreasing competitiveness of the US in the world's marketplace. It is no longer cogent or accurate to use as excuses lower labor costs elsewhere. Salaries and taxes in other leading industrial countries are comparable to those in the US. Companies in countries such as West Germany, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China, in varying degrees, have been more efficient, more ingenious, more quality-conscious than many US manufacturers. Productivity is the key to national economic health.

What the US and the Soviet Union have most in common today is a lower place on the world productivity ladder than their size and world aspirations would warrant. At a time when Japan recognizes that its most useful resource is brainpower, reflected in its emphasis on higher education, the US has been cutting back in support for education, especially at the university level.

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9.Homelessness in the US is a national disgrace. A coordinated program involving local, state, and federal agencies is clearly required. Such a program should seek a fully integrated effort in the fields of unemployment, health care, relief, and educational needs. The program should be divided between short-term needs and long-range aspects of the problem. The president must be involved both in planning and executing policy.

10.Health care costs in the US are now close to $500 billion a year. The problem begins with the way the American people have been taught to think about their health. We have become a nation of sissies and hypochondriacs, intimidated and made panicky by the slightest pain. Proper health education should begin with an understanding of the magnificent robustness of the human body and its ability, 85 percent of the time, to write its own prescriptions. Unfortunately, physicians are not compensated by government and by private health plans for doing what is most essential in examinations - talking and listening to patients. They are paid for tests and procedures. The result is excessive use of expensive diagnostic technology. Because of new regulations, hospitals are now exerting pressure on physicians to put people into hospitals for short stays, even though hospitalization may not be absolutely necessary. Meanwhile, millions of people who require professional health care, whether in or out of hospitals, are not adequately covered by health insurance plans.

11.Just as government attitudes toward misspending and fraud in the military sector have been overly relaxed and permissive, so the cutbacks in relief for hunger, poverty, and squalor have been overly broad and indiscriminate. Programs in these areas need to be morally imaginative as well as efficient.

12.Everyone recognizes the threat of widespread drug use. A wide range of solutions has been offered, including sterner laws and more rigorous enforcement - all of which are essential. But it will be difficult to crack the drug problem in the US unless trafficking by undercover government agencies is rigorously exposed and eliminated. The Iran-contra scandal pointed to collusion between US government agents and foreign drug dealers. This connection deserves to be thoroughly aired.

It is of course myopic to expect that the next president of the US can bring about total solutions to all the major problems now confronting the nation. But responsible leadership begins with credible efforts both to define such problems and to mount intelligent programs to attack them.

In short, the two overriding issues in the coming election are the election of a team in which both president and vice-president are equally capable, and also the development of policies based on the interaction of America with world needs.

Norman Cousins, former editor of The Saturday Review, is on the faculty of the School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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