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What the US Can't Afford

Bank woes, industry decline, scandal, debt - and doublespeak at the top - may indicate a long-term 'hollowing out' of the US economy

THE rapidly growing doublespeak in American political discourse doubled yet again this month. In virtually the same breath during the first week of July, the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, Michael Boskin, proclaimed an "official end" to the year-long recession while out of the other side of its official mouth, the Bush administration whispered the discomfiting news that the United States budget deficit had been revised upward once again, a full 25 percent or $60 billion since its last, already upwardly revised estimate of just a few months ago. Is there any relationship between these two pieces of information? Can we be getting better and worse at the same time? By the administration's newly revised estimate, the 1992 federal deficit will reach $348.5 billion, 10 percent of a staggering national debt of $3.5 trillion, which itself is three and a half times the size it was just 10 years ago. This may still be an optimistic estimate, since the costs of the widening savings and loan debacle are continuing to grow. The causes of this catastrophic increase in debt are legion, springing from fundamental policy mistakes that date as far back as the Vietnam War. But the '80s saw an enormous acceleration of insidious negative trends - huge tax cuts matched by immense increases in military spending with no compensating reductions elsewhere, a major recession in 1982, and more recently the S&L bailout, the concealed costs of the Persian Gulf war, and declining tax revenues caused by the recession. So what? We're a rich nation. We can afford it. Some economists have argued that even these very large deficits amount to just a modest percentage of this country's gargantuan gross national product. They argue that this economy is so innately robust that debts and deficits like these are perfectly bearable, an inevitable cost of doing business in the modern global marketplace. Maybe, but then again maybe not. Nearly two-thirds ($210 billion) of the projected deficit is composed of interest on previous deficits and debt servicing, a figure that will rise simultaneously (perhaps exponentially) with rising deficits in the future. Meanwhile, other forms of debt and deficit - national, state, municipal, corporate, and personal - all continue to accumulate to unprecedented levels. From Maine to California, New York to Bridgeport, budgets are turning deep red. MORE troubling still are reports that major banks are themselves nearly bankrupt, with insurance firms following close behind. Wells Fargo reports a 94 percent drop in earnings. Security Pacific more than 70 percent, citing the recession, bad loans for corporate takeovers, and plummeting real estate values. Soft-pedaling the crisis, Bush administration officials deny a second savings and loan debacle is imminent in the banking industry but admit that the reserve fund of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp oration (FDIC), insurer of last resort for all bank deposits, will soon run out of money. Finally, we witness the flagship industries of this country, those few in which the US has retained its unchallengeable advantage, themselves quaking under the strain of foreign competition. IBM, touchstone of American leadership in computers, reports a more than 90 percent decline in profits this year, plummeting from more than $1 billion to little more than $100 million. Pan Am bargains for its own demise while the few remaining titans in the US airline industry shop for foreign investors to buy up to 49 percent of their assets in order to keep them aloft. The damage incurred by debts and deficits accrues slowly, shaving a few tenths of a percent off the growth rate each year. Not until 20 or 30 years have elapsed will we realize we have come to live in an utterly different society than that which we know today. For a majority it means we will live in a poorer society, one likely to be more desperate, violent, repressive, angry and embittered. Unlike those born poor who long ago resigned them selves to that fate, this nation was born rich and may come to f iercely regret the loss of its once unparalleled wealth and good fortune. The kind of threat that debts and deficits represent, says Charles Schultze, former chairman of the president's Council on Economic Advisers, is not the wolf at the door but the termites in the woodwork - an insidious, imperceptible process of internal decay, a gradual hollowing-out of an economy that triggers none of a healthy society's defense mechanisms and so leaves it vulnerable to collapse at some unpredictable moment in the future. A great many Americans intuitively realize that something is quite wrong with the American economy despite everything they are told by the financial prognosticators of this administration. They know that while the recession may soon end for the 20 percent of the population for whom the '80s was an unparalleled bonanza, it will likely not end for the rest of us, the 80 percent who have watched our relative incomes steadily decline over the past 15 years. Beyond all statistics, these people can feel in 10, 000 intimate ways the subtle but unrelenting pressures of living with diminished prospects in a foreshortened future. The recession that won't go away with a royal sweep of the president's wand is the one that deepens with each day that we ignore it. Only when we cease being distracted by video conquests of artificial enemies and comforting but misleading pronouncements of economic revival will we become capable of summoning the collective will and personal responsibility to conquer the mortal diseases now silently ravaging our economy and ultimately our very destiny.

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