A lesson in economics

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''Plain living and high thinking are no more,'' declared William Wordsworth in a somber mood. He also suggested that men and women passed too much time ''getting and spending.'' Wordsworth was probably right about his own age and he is certainly right about ours - at least so far as the great majority of us are concerned. I am not inclined, however, to deliver a moralistic sermon on this text, but rather to use his words as a means of examining our current economic problems.

What can ''plain living'' have to do with inflation and unemployment? In what conceivable way, it may be asked even more dubiously, can ''high thinking'' be related to them? Let the professor explain. Wordsworth was writing at the beginning of a period that witnessed a huge industrial expansion, with the manufacture of an irrepressible stream of goods requiring consumption without reprieve or rest. Prophet though he was, he could not imagine some of the later developments in this process, such as large-scale advertising and installment-plan buying. But he did know in the deep instinctive way of a poet that if this new kind of civilization was to work, people would have to start ''getting and spending'' on a massive scale. ''Plain living and high thinking'' would have to go out the window and be no more.

Everything went along much as foreseen. Rich people got richer under the new dispensation, and it seemed that the sacrifice of obsolete standards was a small price to pay for their success. Gradually the circle of material prosperity spread outward, until most of those on whom poverty had imposed an old-fashioned austerity began to get into the dance. With occasional disastrous setbacks, things continued thus until our own day, with ''getting and spending'' being the key to economic progress.

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The Western world, however, is now facing the consequences of too much ''getting.'' Inflationary trends have been planted at the core of our economic system, as people frantically bid against each other for every conceivable kind of goods and services. Inevitably the prices of things rise. At some point we can no longer afford the goods we desire, while those who produce the goods find suddenly that their jobs are threatened.

At such a time, it seems to me, a return to a certain degree of ''plain living and high thinking'' would provide a highly effective remedy to our economic ills. If one can picture a very large number of people sitting quietly in living quarters free of gadgetry and luxurious furbishments, if one can further conceive them to be reading books or meditating on the purpose of life, one has a clue to a true economic and social recovery. These people would not be driving up prices and causing interest rates to rise, and they might, at the same time, be finding some attractive answers to the riddles of war and peace, of success and failure, divorce, delinquency, and other modern problems. In the course of time these good people might well want to go out on a buying spree, but that would be all right, too, for the economic system would, by then, be in need of some healthy stimulation.

My economic lesson is oversimplistic, but it does have a serious point. The point, as I see it, is that a truly well-educated population, and a truly moral one, is the basis of a sound economy. To tinker with budgets and with the monetary supply will in the long run avail us little unless we are a people knowing something of the good life as poets and philosophers have defined it throughout history.

To the extent this is true, more education both in the liberal arts and in the sciences is what we need now, and yet in these very fields national cutbacks are falling heavily. The assumption that all federal expenses are equally unaffordable is a fallacy. Some expenditures, especially those for arms, are almost certain to have inflationary effects; others, such as those for education and the arts, will dampen rather than inflame the illness. Whatever contributes to wisdom, to moderation in our tastes and innovation and creativity in our spirits, is beneficial. Far from being unable to afford the cost, we are greatly unable to afford a misconceived economy in regard to them. A truly mature people would understand this, as Wordsworth in the gloomy judgment on his own time understood it a century and a half ago.

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