And Assess the Rhetorical Spendthrift


September 20, 1990|By TRB

WASHINGTON — Washington. FOR AMERICA, the Persian Gulf crisis is still in its euphoric stage. Hey, whaddaya know, we're not declining after all. Lesser nations still look to us. But the euphoria will not last. However the Gulf affair is resolved, it represents large chickens of the 1980s coming home to roost.

Two in particular. First, the economic myth of the free lunch: that we can live beyond our means indefinitely without paying a price. Second, militarily, the Rambo illusion: We can play superpower in the world at no risk of blood or treasure. Now we face an economic emergency with a federal deficit already over $200 billion, a ''core'' rate of inflation (excluding food and energy) over 6 percent and a trade deficit heading up again even apart from oil. And we face a military emergency unequipped to weigh sensibly the cost of war against the benefit.

What unites the two myths is the unwillingness of our leaders, throughout the 1980s, to ask citizens for any sacrifice, however small, for any national purpose, however large. Or the citizenry's unwillingness -- proven at the voting booth -- to make any such sacrifice. We thought we could ''have it all,'' as the glossy magazines of the 1980s put it.

President George Bush is the culmination of the 1980s mythology. He is a rhetorical spendthrift. He seems to have no sense of the absurdity of declaring that Iraq's invasion of Kuwait threatens our freedom and way of life, sending 150,000 troops to the desert, then interrupting the crisis to insist that drugs are still America's No. 1 problem. The notion of trade-offs -- that more of this means less of that; that if one thing is more important, other things are less important -- is foreign to him.

It was characteristic of Mr. Bush, in his Sept. 11 speech to the joint session of Congress, to say Americans must never again enter any crisis, economic or military, with . . . ''an excessive burden of Federal Debt,'' then go on without blushing to propose a series of new tax cuts, mostly for the well-to-do.

Some Republicans, such as Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, argue that the threat of recession, heightened by the oil-price increase, makes serious deficit cutting unwise right now. Saved by the bell! But our looming economic troubles don't make the long-term dangers of the deficit any less dangerous; they simply make these dangers more costly to avoid. The party poopers have been saying for a decade that the deficit should be dealt with in good times so as not to have to deal with it in bad times. Now it's too late.

America is tired of phony deficit reduction, or ''promise-now, save-later plans,'' says Mr. Bush, which are the right words, even if there is no real evidence America is tired of being fooled about the deficit. Yet the president utters these fine sentiments having never produced an honest, concrete, public deficit reduction plan of his own, with or without a tax increase.

As I write, the budget summit remains stalled. ''The president is pushing hard for a budget agreement from Congress,'' explains a typical news report, as if it doesn't take two to tango. The White House is skillfully preparing to blame the Democratic Congress for either the failure to reach agreement or the tax increases any agreement might contain. Yet by all reports, the biggest hang-up is Republican insistence on a capital-gains tax cut.

It is classic Bush-think to declare that nothing is more important than cutting the deficit and then let the process stall over a side issue. The capital-gains break and the other tax goodies Mr. Bush proposes -- such as renewed tax subsidies for oil exploration -- are essentially a Republican version of industrial policy: government interference in the allocation of capital and the workings of the free market; Uncle Sam knows best.

The tax burden has been shifting from rich to poor throughout the past decade. Yet every time economic trouble looms, we're told that the only solution is more tax breaks for the better off. We weren't informed when the process started that this is a drug that requires an ever-higher dosage to keep working.

The Rambo illusion that playing superpower is easy was born in Grenada, a country we invaded and captured before most of us knew it even existed. The illusion flowered in Nicaragua, where it was given intellectual clothing in the Reagan Doctrine: We would short-circuit the Vietnam syndrome, and yet have our way in the world anyway, by supporting indigenous local movements. The illusion survived to liberate Panama.

Mr. Bush clings to the illusion in Iraq: We can rid the world of Saddam Hussein without major loss of life (at least American life). Maybe he and we will luck out. But both sides in the debate over what to do if the economic embargo doesn't work need to fear that the Rambo illusion will now backfire. Those who want war must worry that Americans won't fight real wars anymore. Those who think it is not worth the price must worry that a decade of Grenadas and Panamas has misled Americans about how awful the price might be.

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