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The US Could Use Some Perestroika, Too

THE Unites States approaches the last decade of the 20th century as much in need of perestroika as the Soviet Union. And nowhere is this shown more clearly than in the federal budget at the beginning of fiscal year 1990. The budget has become the subject of so many arcane calculations and irrelevant arguments that we tend to lose sight of the reason we have a budget in the first place: allocation of scarce resources. We measure resources in dollars, but what the budget is really about is people (many of them with scarce skills and talents) and materials (many of them also scarce). The budget simply states the dollar cost of people and materials.

When the budget is examined from this perspective, its most striking feature is what little relationship it bears to national needs and therefore the gross waste of resources it represents. This reflects distorted national priorities, indicating that not only the budget, but the direction the country is going in, is out of whack.

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The principal reason for US budget woes is the failure to relate the defense budget to national security. The revolution which is shaking the communist world clearly changes these needs in fundamental and radical ways, but one would never know it from listening to the debates in Congress about which weapons systems to buy. The defense budget is driven at least as much by pork-barrel politics - how many jobs defense spending generates in various congressional districts - as by strategic planning.

Although foreign aid is not nearly as large as defense, it is another glaring example of misplaced priorities, especially in view of the new situation in Eastern Europe. Foreign aid was started more than 40 years ago as a program designed to help other countries become self-supporting. This goal has long since gone by the boards, and the program has become one of supporting friendly governments. It runs on the inertia generated by a self-perpetuating bureaucracy more than on rational planning and assessment of the national interest.

In the meantime, consider the needs that are going unmet - the drugs effort, education, the environment, transportation, infrastructure (highways, railroads, air traffic), and the opportunities for creative leadership in Eastern Europe.

Reordering the defense and foreign aid programs is more complicated than simply moving numbers around in the budget. It would, in fact, meet enormous political resistance, and this is one reason so few talk seriously about it.

The purpose of the defense program is not to provide jobs. But the people who have defense-related jobs, and their representatives in Congress, feel strongly about them and will defend them tenaciously. The foreign aid program has no sense of direction, but an attempt to propel it one way or another would adversely affect a large constituency - bureaucrats, government contractors, foreign governments, and their friends in the US.

The debate about the budget ought not to be about dollars; it ought to be about how to shift resources from old, outmoded purposes to new, more urgent ones. The debate should be about perestroika, or restructuring, in its most basic and fundamental sense. And we need to get on with it.

It is not easy to redirect a country's priorities. A great many people will resist for what seem to them good reasons. As Gorbachev has learned, and as is apparent in any US congressional hearing on appropriations, people acquire vested interests in what they do and how they do it. Manpower skills are adaptable and transferable, but change cannot be made overnight and the process will inevitably cause some friction and hardship.

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Spending constraints make budget decisions a complicated exercise. In an ideal world, this would be as it should be. But in the political milieu of Capitol Hill, the choices are likely to be fudged, resulting in something for everything and not enough for anything. Though the US can usually get by with that, it might not be good enough in times of drastic change - such as present times call for.

American perestroika would be difficult in the best of circumstances. Budget rigidity makes it even more difficult. That may be the worst legacy of Ronald Reagan. It may, as a matter of fact, be the way in which the Reagan revolution will survive longer than it would otherwise. How ironic that the great enemy of government spending would have prolonged his reforms and initiatives by increasing the deficit.