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Unaffordable arms

For every country there is a level of armaments which it cannot afford. For a Paraguay this might be jet aircraft. For the United States it might be the MX missile. For the Soviet Union it might be other nuclear missiles.

This truth counsels restraint - restraint in arms sales to the third world (don't burden them with weapons they cannot afford) and restraint in our own defense buildup.

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The argument against restraint in the third world is that if a government is determined to buy unneeded sophisticated weapons, it will find somebody to sell them to it, and this somebody might as well be American. The Carter administration made a half-hearted effort to negotiate a multilateral agreement restraining arms sales. It failed, but the circumstances do not suggest that the failure was inevitable.

Given massive third-world debts and inability to pay, circumstances are now rather more propitious. Indeed, the dangerous condition of third-world debt and the increased involvement of the International Monetary Fund in third-world economies lend added urgency to renewing the effort.

The argument against restraint in our own defense budget is more complicated. The heart of it is in two parts. First, the defense budget has to be increased to make up for years of neglect. Second, it has to be increased to keep up with the Soviets who are busily engaged in a defense buildup of their own.

The Reagan administration is fond of pointing out that as a percentage of gross national product, the defense budget has actually decreased. That is true but irrelevant. There is no magic percentage of the GNP that ought to be allocated to defense. Anyway, the GNP itself is swollen not only by inflation but also by higher defense spending.

It has only been six years since Jimmy Carter arrived in Washington vowing to get the defense budget under $100 billion. For fiscal year 1983, Congress is considering $248 billion. To say this is not responsible for the budget deficit, as the President did the other day, is to take leave from reality and retreat into the Alice-in-Wonderland fiscal policy.

It is precisely this deficit which suggests that there are some things, for example the MX, that even the US cannot afford. The deficit for the current fiscal year, which ends next Sept. 30., may be $200 billion. That is more than the whole budget was not very long ago. It is imperative that the deficit be reduced. Otherwise interest rates will go back up, inflation will be regenerated , and the prospects for economic recovery will become even dimmer than they already are.

The budget deficit is only symptomatic of a general weakening of the economy and its ability to support defense outlays at the levels projected by the Reagan-Weinberger Pentagon. The economy is also becoming unable to support some social outlays at the levels required by current entitlement programs. Some hard decisions about these, as well as about defense, need to be made. The point is that defense ought not to be a sacred cow. Indeed, defense is so big that little progress can be made if it is a sacred cow.

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Interestingly, the US finds itself entrapped in these myriad difficulties at the same time the Soviet Union is wrestling with comparable problems that are seemingly insoluble.

Foremost among these, perhaps, is agriculture, which in the Soviet Union is one vast disaster area. Regardless of what its armed forces and weapons might be like, no nation is really secure if it cannot feed itself - and the Soviet Union has to import millions of tons of grain every year. The performance of Soviet agriculture, furthermore, is getting worse instead of better.

Soviet industry, particularly that which produces consumer goods, is also a problem area. Neither the quality nor the quantity of its output is acceptable. The situation is the same for housing. There are reports of increasing demands on the part of Soviet citizens for a few more of the good things of life, of increasing dissatisfaction that these things are not available, and of increasing resort to vodka to get from one day to the next.

Yet the Soviet government, like the American government, temporizes with its basic economic and social problems while continuing its defense buildup. The rationale for this on the part of both governments is remarkably similar. So is both governments' rhetoric of arms control. Each says it is ready for improved relations but demands that the other take the first positive step.

Surely there is an opportunity here. It would not seem to be beyond human ingenuity to find a way out of this impasse. Especially in view of the fact that we already have enough nuclear bombs to blow up the Soviet Union several times over, why cannot we be bold enough to take the first step ourselves and see what response we get?