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Domestic Agenda: From the Left [ cf. ... and From the Right ]

AMERICA is starting to resemble an over-ripe cantaloupe - tough on the outside but rotting underneath. We're standing tall and proud in the Gulf, but inside we're suffering from decaying competitiveness, declining wages, and a growing gap between rich and poor. These troubling domestic trends began long before the current recession. Controlled for inflation, the wages of non-supervisory workers (about two-thirds of the work force) are now 16 percent below what they were in 1973 - just about their level in the late 1950s. They've fallen 2 percent since George Bush became president. The only way most Americans have managed to prop up their family income is by sending another family member into the work force and having fewer kids. Meanwhile, average wages in the former West Germany are already higher than here, and if present trends continue, Americans will fall further behind the citizens of other nations. We'll be their mercenaries, creating a ``new world order'' in which they will live better than we do.

Since George Bush became president, another 3 million American children have slipped into poverty. One out of five is now without adequate food or shelter. Our rate of infant mortality is higher than 18 other industrialized nations.

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What to do? We must invest in ways of allowing Americans to live productive lives in the 21st century. This means investing in our future brainpower - our skills and insights, and the infrastructure necessary to link them with the emerging world economy. The Bush administration has been doing just the opposite.

Bush said he'd become the ``education president,'' but the federal government spends less on education than it did when Bush took over, continuing a trend that began in 1980. Money isn't everything, of course. Responsibility for teaching should be given back to classroom teachers, and there should be renewed emphasis on basic skills. But research shows that money is at least relevant: Schools with smaller classes and better-paid teachers produce young people who command higher salaries once they join the work force.

Because the largest share of the cost of public schooling is now borne by local communities, our poorest cities and rural towns with the worst social problems have been hardest hit by budget cuts. Half of the poor kids eligible for Headstart - a preschool program with a demonstrated impact on future learning - don't have access to the program. Inner-city and rural public schools are literally falling apart. And if you're a kid from a poor or working class family, you can forget college. Because of cutbacks in federal aid, your chance of affording it is worse now than at any time in the past quarter century.

Federal funding to train and retrain workers, meanwhile, has dropped more than 50 percent from its level in 1980, from $13.2 billion to $5.6 billion. Most other industrialized nations devote a much higher percentage of their GNP to workplace training.

EVEN our researchers and engineers are losing out in the global race. American defense contractors may be crowing about how well their complex technologies are working in the Gulf. But military systems are so complex and specialized that they have almost no bearing on technological prowess in commercial sectors of the economy. While we pour billions of dollars into Patriots and Tomahawks, other nations are pouring billions into advanced semiconductors, superconducting materials, high-definition television, monoclonal antibodies, and other industries of the future.

Government support for non-military research and development in the US has dropped to about one-third of 1 percent of our gross national product - its smallest proportion in 20 years. All told, nondefense R&D accounts for 2 percent of GNP, compared with almost 3 percent in Japan and 2.6 percent in the former West Germany. Federal funding of university research - the intellectual seed corn of the future - dropped 18 percent in real terms from 1967 to 1990.

Meanwhile, our infrastructure is crumbling. We have grown used to dangerous bridges, pot-holed highways, and rush-hour traffic jams. Spending on new infrastructure has plummeted from 2.3 percent of GNP in 1963 to 1 percent today. As Western Europe and Japan lay plans for ``smart'' roads, high-speed trains, and national information networks, America lies dormant. The nation has not even built a new airport since 1974.

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George Bush tells us we have ``more will than wallet'' when it comes to investing in the future. But the events in the Gulf have shown that we have as much wallet as we need when the will is there. America was willing to dig deep into its pockets to rebuild Western Europe and Japan after World War II, and those countries' successes are a lasting tribute to our foresight and commitment. With a US economy four times as large as it was in the late 1940s, we should be able to rebuild America.

Where's the money to come from? First, a more progressive income tax. Last year, the top fifth of America's income earners took home more money than did everyone else combined. Were the personal income tax as progressive as it was even as late as 1977, the top fifth would pay about $100 billion more in federal taxes this April 15 than they will in fact pay. Between now and the year 2000, they would contribute close to $1 trillion more.

Second: Limit entitlements to those who need them. If there were no cap on the income on which the retirement and disability portions of Social Security payroll taxes are levied, and if all Social Security benefits were treated as taxable income, another $600 billion would be freed during the decade.

Third: Cut defense. If defense spending were to fall during the decade by only 15 percent (a fairly modest, and by most accounts realistic, decrease, even considering the cost of regional conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere), we'd have an additional $450 billion.

The grand total: more than $2 trillion for the 1990s - a significant down payment on the future productivity of all Americans. This sum should not be used to reduce the budget deficit. There's nothing wrong with being indebted so long as the borrowings are invested in means of enhancing future wealth. Our future capacity both to pay off the debt and to assure our children and grandchildren a high standard of living depends largely on today's public investments.

The war in the Persian Gulf continues to distract us from this more fundamental agenda. We may feel tall and proud to fight for freedom in the Gulf, but what's happening on the home front should make us feel small and ashamed.

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