The pain of decline

Anthony Lewis

September 25, 1990|By Anthony Lewis

BOSTON — MASSACHUSETTS voters turned angrily against incumbents in primaries last week, and many other states report a mood of hostility toward politicians. Why? The experts talk of high state taxes, corruption, cynicism. But a far more profound phenomenon may underlie the discontent.

I believe we may be seeing an early sign of the process that Professor Paul Kennedy described in his book: "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers." That is the economic decline of a great power even as it continues to exercise its military might in the world.

The United States right now is marshaling large military forces in the Persian Gulf. But in order to pay for that effort it has had to hold a tin cup out to allies and friends. There could hardly be a clearer demonstration of the gap between the ambitions of our policy abroad and the weakness of its economic base at home.

The same fiscal bankruptcy that makes us ask for help on gulf costs has had devastating domestic effects. In particular, it has put a heavy strain on state and local governments.

During the Reagan years the federal government taxed less and spent more on weapons. The Reagan administration's non-answer to the resulting deficit was to cut, indeed virtually to eliminate, all kinds of federal aid to the states. The money saved was piddling compared with the deficit, but the local pain inflicted was great.

Some things just have to be done. When the federal government reduces payments for hospital care of the indigent, cities and states must somehow find the money.

Massachusetts and New York and New Jersey and other states are now feeling the responsibilities dumped on them by Washington. In boom times the burden could be borne. Now it demands higher taxes or bloody budget cuts. The states cannot run deficits. The voters have to pay, and they are angry.

A curious result of our federal system is that the anger is misdirected. The politicians close at hand are the targets. They have done plenty of things wrong, but those really responsible are in Washington and somehow hardly anyone associates them with the pain.

Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York has called attention to this political curiosity. President Reagan's "new federalism" amounted to making state and local taxpayers bear new burdens, but they did not notice who had done it.

Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts made a similar point when I asked him about the reasons for voter discontent. "It's a combination," he said, "of 10 years of Washington kidding the public about paying the bills, and the steady dropping of more and more burdens on the states."

Of course it is not economic folly alone that has put the United States into an economic decline and made it a country with bad schools, inadequate health care, uncompetitive technology. It is failed political leadership.

Vested interests scream at any proposal that would touch them, and the politicians draw back. Steps obviously needed right now such as higher gasoline taxes and realistic pricing of Medicare for the well-off elderly are dismissed. All President Bush suggests to balance the budget is more tax cuts for the rich.

The challenges to reviving the American economic base obviously could be met. But so far there is no sign that they will be. The political will is just not there. Perhaps the greed and folly of Reaganism did too much damage. But that was the political leadership we wanted.

That is why Kennedy's historical warnings are so troubling. For what we are experiencing in the United States may be more than a mistake here and there. It may be a leadership failure that reflects a people's unwillingness to meet the responsibilities of a dynamic society.

In a piece written for New Perspectives Quarterly, Kennedy said of the American commitment in the Persian Gulf that "the cause may be just, the deployment impressive." But in the 17th century, he said, Spain was impressive in deploying armies abroad, while at home it was sagging in ways that proved decisive: "Massive debts, inefficient industries, reliance on foreign manufacturers, vested interests. . . .

"The emperors, kings, prime ministers and presidents of great powers have always preferred the heady world of diplomacy, war and international affairs to the unglamorous realm of fiscal reform, educational change and domestic renewal. It is left to later generations to pay the price."

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