The real deficit comes from what we aren't spending U.S. taxes are still lower than those in 20 industrial nations

Tom Wicker

November 08, 1990|By Tom Wicker

ARE YOU one of those many Americans who regard driving your car as an inalienable right?

Then you should know that the nation needs to double, from $13 billion to $26 billion, its current annual spending to maintain just those highways already existing and bring them up to minimum standards.

That doesn't include the $50 billion needed, and soon, to repair or replace 240,000 bridges that might come tumbling down any time now.

Or maybe you prefer to travel in the friendly skies. If so, be warned that about $1 billion a year, over and above another $1 billion of aviation trust fund expenditures, will be needed in each of the next 10 years just to maintain existing flying conditions -- which, despite glitzy airline advertising, are mostly grim to ghastly -- and only minimally relieve airport congestion.

Even if you are one of the above, chances are good that you're also one of the many who believe the recent "budget deal" was necessary -- although President Bush and Congress proposed in that shotgun wedding to reduce federal spending by $40 billion in this fiscal year and by $500 billion over the next five.

The hard truth is that you can't have it both ways. If you think federal spending has to be cut, transportation and a lot of other genuine national necessities -- such as housing and toxic waste disposal -- will suffer too.

If you want safe bridges, a decent environment and a host of other desirable physical and social effects -- a better educated work force, for instance, and a lower child mortality rate -- then the government needs to invest more, not less, in American society.

In fact, the Center for Community Change reports that additional federal spending of at least $130 billion annually is needed to cope with what it cogently calls "America's third deficit" -- the shortfall in the nation's investments to solve or lessen some of its most grievous problems.

The center's cost estimate totaled those of numerous earlier reports by reliable authorities (both private and governmental) on national requirements in various fields. The figures cited for transportation are from the Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office and the Federal Aviation Administration.

A precise price tag on national needs was not the purpose; rather the report seeks to concentrate the national mind on national neglect rather than on the spurious but widespread belief -- enshrined in the misguided budget deal -- that the federal government taxes too much, spends too much and borrows too much.

The opposite of the first proposition is true, despite popular myth. The second raises the wrong question -- how much? -- rather than making the right point -- what for? National debt, meanwhile, is growing at about the same pace as gross national product; that's not only reasonable but permits an annual deficit of about 3 percent of GNP.

Here are just a few of the yearly unmet needs reported by various reputable studies:

Head Start and early education, $2 billion (Ford Foundation); repair existing public housing, $4 billion (Housing Department and private studies); subsidies for very low income families, $11.1 billion (CBO); education for "at-risk" youth, $5 billion (W.T. Grant Foundation); subsidies for long-term health care insurance, $7.2 billion (Ford).

If all that's too "social" for your hard nose, how about these additional annual costs for neglected physical needs:

Clean up nuclear and nonnuclear military waste, $11 billion (GAO and Energy Department); compliance with Clean Water Act, $2.4 billion (Environmental Protection Agency); clean up non-military hazardous waste sites, $3 billion (EPA).

The report of the Center for Community Change disposes of numerous familiar excuses for these failures. This rich nation isn't taxed too much, for example; total federal taxes as a percentage of GNP are lower than in 20 other industrialized nations.

Nor is all social spending "money down a rathole." Head Start saves an estimated $4.75 in welfare and prison costs for every tax dollar spent, while funded to reach only 18 percent of eligible children; the WIC supplemental food program saves, in reduced health charges, about three times its cost.

That's why meeting these and other needs reflected in America's real deficit would not be "wasteful spending" but useful investment. Nor is it the wallet that's lacking; it's the will.

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