WASHINGTON — Both major presidential candidates agree that there is a huge difference between them over the general direction the country ought to take, but neither has clearly defined what that difference is.
George W. Bush says it is small government versus big government, with Gov. Bush pro-small and Vice President Al Gore pro-big. Given that choice, most Americans would vote for small - and Bush. Mr. Gore says the difference is helping the little man versus helping the rich. Since more Americans are not rich, more would vote to help the working class - and Gore.
Both candidates exaggerate their own positions and those of their opponent; Bush more than Gore. Both of these formulations are phony. Both rely on tired shibboleths that are part of the tradition of American demagoguery.
The real issues are over how the government allocates its resources. Thanks to huge surpluses generated by a prosperous economy, the government - that is to say, the American people taken as a whole - now has more resources to allocate than ever before.
There are three broad options: reduce taxes (give the surplus back to the people, in Bush's phrase), pay off the national debt, or make investments that were postponed in earlier, stringent years.
Politicians, naturally, try to do something for everyone; so Gore and Bush each endorse, in part, all three options. Consistent with Republican predilections, Bush is heavier on tax reduction; following Democratic tendencies, Gore emphasizes social spending.
Gore has the better of the arguments over resource allocation, but he has failed to articulate it. Because the government is flush with money, there will never be a better time to refurbish our grievously neglected social infrastructure. School districts across the country need massive investment in new buildings to eliminate overcrowding, refurbish run-down schools, and upgrade libraries and laboratories. We also need massive spending to raise teachers' salaries. Strictly speaking, this is not investment in infrastructure, but without it, the infrastructure will not pay off.
Also in need of large investments is our overburdened, gridlocked transportation system. We need less to build new roads than to improve and expand mass transit. Railroads - tracks, stations, equipment - also require attention, as do airports. These are public needs that only the government can meet. The private sector cannot; there is no pay-off on the bottom line, only a long-term social gain.
If the surplus is returned to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts, some of it will likely be invested in private industrial facilities through stock purchases; but most of it is more likely to be dissipated on consumer goods. And we will have lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to atone for our earlier neglect.
In one of the Gore-Bush debates, a questioner asked what could be done to encourage more parental involvement in education. Bush flubbed the answer in an incoherent ramble. Gore at least nibbled around the edges of the problem when he referred to political resistance to school bond issues. He should have gone on to pinpoint this resistance as coming mainly from people who do not have children in school, who have no sense of civic responsibility, and who have not made the connection between an educated populace and a prosperous economy.
We cannot maintain the good times we now enjoy without constant replenishment and upgrading of our skilled labor force and educated citizenry. Nor, the vice president might have added, will we have a really good school system until teachers are accorded the same social standing - and comparable compensation - as doctors, lawyers, and accountants.
The British offer an interesting parallel. The United Kingdom, like the United States, is enjoying record surpluses.
The Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair recently presented a three-year plan for sharp increases in spending on education, mass transit, and health, among other things. The opposition Conservative Party rejected this and announced that it will fight the next election (probably next year) on the issue of lower taxes.
Pat Holt is the former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society