WHEN George Bush held up his purchase of socks to spur on American consumers at Christmas, he signaled his anxious recognition that if he cannot turn the economy around, he may join the ranks of the unemployed on election day. But the fate of the economy is not just an election issue. It is a test of whether the United States is still a vibrant society with the special capacity to rebound, discover new goals, and move on to fresh achievements.
That is why those forlorn socks can seem dismaying in a broader sense. Ever since World War II, cold-war defense procurement and a boom in consumer spending have helped keep the American economy vigorous. The "consumer culture" relied on the supposedly boundless urge of Americans to buy the toys as well as the necessities of the post-technological era.
Now it is accepted that the cold war has ended and the military-industrial complex is never going to be what it was during the Reagan-inspired armaments buildup of the '80s. Witness Mr. Bush's proposal to cut $50 billion in Pentagon spending over the next five years. But the perception persists that the way to jump-start the stalling economy is to wave a pair of socks and set off another consumer binge.
Is it possible that the consumer culture, like the military-industrial complex, no longer exists as it once did? Even if it should revive, are there not products and services to be produced in the broad public interest that should take priority over more TVs and VCRs, more microwaves, and more cars from Detroit?
Investments in repairing the infrastructure, expanding public transportation, or raising standards of public education would not only create new jobs but attack directly the eroding quality of life that establishes the present decline as more than a matter of dollars and cents.
If the 1992 election is to be won or lost on pocketbook issues, the candidate who can think of a more original plan for restoring the economy than another Stealth contract or one more markdown sale will deserve to win.