Don't let deficits threaten the recovery

Amid all the heady talk these days about economic recovery, Americans need to remain alert to how fragile that upswing is - and to how absolutely vital it is that the White House and Congress take all possible steps to reduce the soaring federal deficits projected for the next few years. Indeed, warnings about the recovery are now coming from some of the most authoritative economic observers in Washington, inluding Martin Feldstein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Paul Volcker, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Mr. Feldstein says that he still believes the economy will grow about five percent between the fourth quarter of 1982 and the fourth quarter of 1983 - compared to the administration's forecast of 3.1 percent. But he cautions that the optimistic January economic data ''may have contributed to an unwarranted euphoria'' about the recovery now under way. Mr. Volcker, for his part, warns that there has been ''a certain amount of wishful thinking'' about the economy in recent weeks and that the problem of looming deficits remains a threat to sustained recovery.

There have been some positive signs of late that recovery has begun, including an apparent end to inventory reductions, a substantial hike in new factory orders, a firming of car sales, good gains in new housing construction, and increased turnover of existing homes. At the same time there are still many obstacles to recovery, including continuing high unemployment and public fear about unemployment; languid consumer spending in recent months; worsening trade relations and the dangers of protectionism; and, above all, a possible crunch as the federal government enters credit markets to finance massive deficits. The latter could boost interest rates and thus wipe out gains in the housing, auto, and consumer markets.

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The White House and Congress are moving swiftly to ensure that the recovery proves long-lasting. Thus, in seeking to enact a modest jobs program, lawmakers are sending a signal to all Americans that action can be taken to reduce unemployment. And in acting on social security reform, they are saying that the nation's basic federal income-transfer program - a ''safety net'' in the most fundamental sense - will be protected.

However, neither the White House nor Congress has yet taken strong steps to reduce the deficits. Paring back those deficits will require tough decisions. A number of top Democrats, interestingly enough, now concede that spending for entitlement programs will either have to be held at current levels or reduced. Yet the White House, while willing to cut social programs, remains adamant about its defense buildup.

Compromises will have to be made. Unless the President and Congress face up to those widening deficits, they risk endangering the current incipient recovery. There is little doubt the American people are looking for firm bipartisan leadership - now.

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