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America flunks for the 'same reason' Russia does

Witness has fluffy blond hair worn down the back to his collar. He is Lester C. Thurow, professor of economics and management at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), with a new book coming out this spring called ''Dangerous Currents: the State of Economics.'' What he is telling the House Labor Committee is how silly people are.

Take the Russians. Anybody can see (that is, except the Russians) that if they would drop some of their Marxist ideology they would get more crops. They need more crops; they have stopped being an exporter and become an importer. Just a whiff of competitive capitalism on the huge expanses would explode production. As it is even now on the 4 percent of the country's arable land in private production they produce about a third of all their meat, milk, and vegetables. Overcentralization, overregulation, overplanning keep production down in the government-run acreage. When the farmer stops working for the state and starts working for himself on private land the extraordinary production shoots up.

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Why don't the Russians see it? They do see it, says witness, some of them; but they also wear ''ideological blinkers.'' As he writes in the current Atlantic Monthly the decentralization of planning would be to retreat from Marxism. Goodness sakes, they couldn't do that . . . .

Dr. Thurow is testifying in a big room with a high ceiling that looks like a basketball court, and the congressmen are seated in a couple of tiers looking down on him. The figured carpet is a delicate blue with designs that look like lines of laurel wreaths . . . . So, he is saying, look at the United States.

Something is the matter with the free world economy; something should be done about it. Here at home interest rates are high; maybe 12 million Americans are unemployed; plant equipment and infrastructure are falling behind. That's true of the whole industrial world, he says.

So what needs to be done? From one point of view it is as obvious as the problem in Russia: There is a crying need for growth. One thing you need for growth is investment capital - savings. Japan saves 22 percent of its income a year, and the money is available for investment; the US saves only 6 percent; people buy their homes, refrigerators, automobiles, on the installment plan. The public's borrowings and the government's borrowings send interest rates up.

Then we are neglecting our human capital, witness maintains, as we are the infrastructure and our cities. The world is going through the computer revolution, he says. Private firms, he complains, are not training enough technical people to handle the shift. Compared to Europe and Japan, he says, ''we are five years behind.''

''A real disaster is coming along in our technical training,'' witness says. ''If I had to find one thing that would destroy a country it would be a low-quality labor force.''

Dr. Thurow says that schools are not giving enough training in mathematics and natural science and that we are neglecting our human capital: ''It's like the Russians' failure to do the obvious in agriculture,'' he says. He declares that ''it takes longer to become a proficient tool and diemaker than it does to get a PhD degree.'' The deficit in math teachers is more dangerous than the Treasury deficit, he argues, and cites a high school that can't hire a science teacher because the factories around it pay $25,000 for the same work.

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''We are not solving our problems for the same reason that the Soviets are not solving theirs,'' Dr. Thurow argues briefly. ''The 'American way' has just as powerful a grip on us as the 'Russian way' has on them.''