Calling on Carter
President Carter has set his political strategy: Atack Ronald Reagan as living in a dream world. Will tht be enough? It is doubtful. It is aloso disappointing. What the American people deserve to know is more precisely where the President would take the country in the next four years -- what his vision and purpose for America's future are. That was the perspective he talked about in his nomination speech. Now we need detail.
The future, n fact, is what the 1980 election campaign is about. For before the voters will be this central issue: How does the United States in the next 20 years meet the challenge posed by the world's expanding population and limited physical resources, and which candidate best has the intellectual grasp, political sagacity, and skill of leadership to confront that challenge?
A useful framework for the issue was presented recently in the US government's massive Global 2000 report. If present trends continue, the study projected, by the turn of the century the world will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to strife than it is today. "Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be mor precarious in 2000 than it is now -- unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends," it concluded.
In other words, the competition for resources could grow desperate. Even while the nations of the third world strive to better themselves, the industrialized countries seek to maintain and increase their already high standards. Yet the pie to be sliced seems to be limited. The Internaional Energy Agency estimates that, on the basis of current usage, world demand for oil by 1985 will probably outstrip production by two million barrels a day -- a situation which could exacerbate conflict between East and West as well as North and South.
Today we see a wide range of responses to the somewhat apocalytic prospects outlined by the government's report and similar studies. The pessimistic futurist believe the only way to deal with the problem is to start conserving and husbanding resources -- holding back, in other words, and limiting people's expectations. At the other end of the scale are the optimists like Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute who argue that technological advances combined with better government policies will keep economic growth going. In between are futurists like Willis Harman at the California consulting firm SRI International who, without beign pessimistic, nonetheless believe that we in the industrial world will have to organize ourselves differently, adopting new values that stress ecological harmony, individual responsibility, and a self-interest in future generations.
Among America's political figures there likewise are differences of approach to the whole question of economic growth. Edward Kennedy made an emotionally effective appeal in calling for a return to the idealism of past decades and in effect for s redistribution of wealth. Ronald Reagan, undaunted by the complexities of te challenge, believes one has only to turn the business world loose and the US will recover the dynamic growth of bygone years.
Jimmy Carter is less given to a clear-cut alternative. As an engineer and problemsolver, he knows the task is too complicated for "easy answers" and he kept saying so in his somewhat prosaic speech to the Democratic convention. To the extend that such a posture, based on three years of hard schooling, does not raise false hopes, it can be counted an honest position. But something more needs to be explored an articulated for the public.
The PResident touched on the matter when he said the nation is at a "turning point in its economic history." He spoke of "economic renewal" and of Americans sharing "in the exciting enterprise of making the 1980s a time of growth for America." But how does Mr. carter intend to accomplish this? Certainly he stands to gain more politically from a positive thrust than a negative anti-Reagan one.
Many questions could be addressed. If American industry needs revitalizing, for instance, will tax incentives and faster depreciation, will tax incentives and faster depreciation schedules suffice?Or do there need to be deeper reforms reaching to the core of relations between management and labor and between the private sector and government? Mr. Carter hinted at this in a recent New York Times interview when he suggested a "closer partnership" between government and business to assure full employment and enable industry to be competitive in world markets -- an idea that may sound ominous to some but which has accounted for extraordinary success in Japan and West Germany.
What about ailing US industries and the role of government? Is there a danger America will follow Britain's unhappy experience in taking over weak industries at the price of sapping initiative and dragging down the economy?
And what will be demanded of individual Americans in terms of conservation and restraint in order to "reindustrialize"? Should such restraint in fact be regarded as a step back -- or, as many futurists see it, does today's world call for a concept of growth and progress incorporation the moral and spiritual as well as the economic? Surely Americans should not have to abandon their expectations for steadily improving standards of living, but perhaps they -- and humankind generally -- need to reevaluate what precisely constitutes the "good life." This would be salutary.
Mr. Carter is right in saying there are no facile answers. But the American people yearn for some sense of direction. Resentful of the economic and political pressures crowding in on them from the rest of the world, afraid that the US is falling behind the Russians in military strength and behind Japan, West Germany, and others in the economic competition, they need a clearer perception of the world and of America's role in it. They want to know where the country is headed and how it intends to get there. They want to be able to look ahead with confidence.It is this dimension of the future which President Carter has yet to spell out in a meaningful, convincing way.