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Actual State of the Union

TUESDAY night we'll hear the constitutionally mandated presidential report on how our great, sometimes sputtery joint enterprise, the United States of America, is doing.

The truth is it's doing far better than anyone but visionaries could have imagined in the 1930s, '40s, '60s, or even '70s. More people live with more creature comforts, safety-net cushions, retirement benefits, longevity, fairer treatment, and access to information than ever before. But, polls regularly tell us, it doesn't feel that way to many Americans.

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Perhaps the main reason is that, unlike blithe flappers in the Roaring '20s, thinking Americans today know that the great economic growth spurt of the past half-century will not automatically roll on. They know that we must collectively do something to avert a declining standard of living brought on by actuarial certainties. Specifically, people know that the costs of major entitlement programs, already accelerating faster than the growth of the economy, are about to go into overdrive - when the baby-boomer population bulge hits retirement, and the thinner ranks of the next generation bear the main tax burden to support them.

But suspecting the need for belt-tightening and acting don't always go together. There's little proof that a Churchillian call for "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" works without Nazis at the gates.

So President Clinton has chosen small steps and procrastination instead of structurally fixing entitlements, even though the economist wonk in him must know better. His liberal advisers hope the bad news will go away if they regain power. It won't - not without new growth policies.

Reality-avoidance also shows in the GOP drive for an immediate tax cut. That ought to take second place to other growth-stimulus plans. And both sides (particularly the White House) leave the toughest belt-tightening till the last two or three years of their budget-balancing plans.

After decades of watching politicians get credit for popular programs funded by the high-growth tax cornucopia, today's politicians don't want to be tarred for cutting back. But they, like lawmakers in Europe and Japan, have to face the music - soon.

Just as important, they have to force themselves to think about encouraging more saving, productivity, trade, and economic growth. We'll discuss the fairest, most productive ways of going about that later this week.

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Now, let us simply urge the president to return to the real deficit-cutting that marked his early presidency. And let us suggest that voters reward politicians who take seriously the job of changing the structure of entitlements to bring them into line with population and economic growth.

Clinton should return to the real deficit-cutting that marked his early presidency.

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