What do you want?

Much of the public focus these days is on the presidential campaign and on who will lead the country in the next four years. More basic, however -- and more urgent for the future of the United States -- is the question of what direction the American people want to be led in. What vision do they have of their society? What national purpose, if any, do they want to fulfill? What choices do they have and what choices are they willing to make if the country is to emerge from under the weight of its multiple problems?

We were reminded of the need for a thinking through of these questions by a public affairs conference held recently at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Sponsored by the university and the Providence Journal, the forum raised some vital issues deserving public reflection. The topic was "The American Political System: Is It Coping with the Problems of Our Society?" We wish all Americans could have been eavesdropping on the discussions, and, to widen the audience, we would like to share some of the thought-provoking ideas we heard there. Our hope is that these will stimulate debate and comment from our own readers.

To begin with, the conference speakers were in general agreement that America is living through a troubling, worrisome time. It has come to the end of a quarter of a century of extraordinary economic growth. People can no longer count on rising affluence but are struggling to hang on to what they hve. Political institutions, assaulted by the growing diversity and fragmentation of society, are often stymied. Special-interest groups, with their conflicting interests and demands, are tugging at the whole more than usual. Consensus has broken down.

At the same time there have been dramatic changes in people's values and attitudes. They are not ready to abandon the old expectations of a steady rise in standard of living and trust in hard work. but they have added the new dimensions of quality of life, social justice, self-fulfillment, leisure, and concern about the environment. The result is that they have reached a point where they want more of everything -- both goods and quality of life -- but find that circumstances do not permit this. "Our conditions have changed in one direction," said psychologist and pollster Daniel Yankelovich in summing up things, "and we the people have changed in another -- and we are out of joint."

What choices does the nation then have? Some difficult ones, according to Amitai Etzioni, a leading sociologist and a policy adviser in the White House. Collectively the American people, he suggests, will have to choose between two incompatible goals: restoring the nation's economic vigor by rebuilding its productive capacity, or pursuing a new quality-of-life society in which priority is placed on self, introspection, nature. If they choose the first, this will entail personal sacrifices: conserving more, working harder, saving more, paying more for energy, accepting smaller wage increases, putting off new social and environmental programs. If they choose the latter, they can expect a continuing erosion of the economy until the US "joins one of the banana republics."

Why can society not have both goals? Dr. Etzioni's argument is that a period of austerity is necessary because the economic machine has been allowed to run down and cannot accommodate the growing demands on it. The infrastructure and industrial base are weakened. Railroads, highways, and bridges are in ill repair. To reduce energy consumption, enormous amounts of "hardware" will be needed -- General Motors, for instance, will spend more on retooling in the next three years than it has in the last 10 years.

Yet, in Dr. Etzioni's analysis, the counterculture movement of the 1960s has left Americans in a state of ambivalence. They no longer feel as strongly about economic goals, a trend reflected in the large numbers of people who retire early or who choose second careers that pay less but afford more free time.

Other social critics, it must be added, are concerned by such a statement of the problem. they see it as an elitist view, and fear it can be used as an excuse to jettison essential social programs for blacks and other minorities. We ourselves are uncomfortable with the idea that one must abandon quality-of-life aspirations for the sake of industrial vitality. Certain trade-offs may be demanded in the short term -- more pollution in order to switch to coal, for instance. But surely it is possible to move along both tracks, in the direction of a rejuvenation of the industrial base but with more discriminating allocation of resources and greater investment in some areas that do enhance quality of life and create jobs (solar technology, for instance).

In the process of belt-tightening, moreover, it is just possible people will find their quality of life improving -- with less obsession with the piling up of goods, more efficient use of energy, less waste of resources of all kinds, more concern about others. In any case, we cite Dr. Etzioni's thesis as a helpful prod to rethinking just where Americans do want to be headed.

On some things a consensus does seem to be evolving. Inasmuch as redoing the Constitution would be nigh impossible, it is becoming clear society will have to work with existing institutions to overcome what often seems a paralysis of government. This will require revitalizing the political parties, finding ways to mediate among competing interests and lessen what Common Cause founder John Gardner calls "group egocentrism." divisiveness, selfishness, fragmentation -- these must give way to a concern about the overall public weal. How do you do it? That is the tall- order question. Mr. Gardner looks for help to such measures as further reform of congressional financing, conflict-of-interest laws , and "sunset laws" requiring the periodic review of federal programs. Ultimately perhaps, the answer must lie in the reinvigoration of America's moral and religious spirit -- a subject which is strangely and conspicuously absent from most public discussion.

With respect to the central message of the Brown get-together, we agree wholeheartedly: Americans must start thinking, realistically and basically, about what changes have to be made in their society if the nation is not to slide backwards. They, the people,m alone can develop through discourse and debate the consensus needed to guide their future leaders. These issues, moreover, are not meant to arouse pessimism or gloom. As the conference participants commented, the American people have enormous strengths to help them as they seek to pick themselves up: resilience, an innovative bent, a capacity for problem solving, a preference for working with shared goals, a strong patriotism. Not to mention their free and democratic institutions.

While the problems of the '80s loom large, therefore, Americans ought to be able to tackle them with what one participant called "a spirit of adventure." The times are indeed serious. They need not be overwhelming if honestly and thoughtfully faced up to.

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