The United States is now down to three candidates for its presidency -- President Carter, Ronald Reagan, and John Anderson. Between now and November those who have not already made up their minds among the three will be trying to do so. Each voter may have his or her own special reason for making a choice. For those still undecided and groping the following is offered as a basis for thinking about the choice.
The United States today is at a difficult phase is its march from a know past into an unknown future. Its economic growth rate has been declining for nearly 20 years. In 1979 it sank to a mere 2.7 percent, which is virtual stagnation. The current rate is an appalling 0.6 percent, which is stagnation. The only possible consolation is that the one other superpower in the world, the Soviet Union, is also in an economic slump.
The Soviet economy has been declining in productivity for nearly as long. In 1979 it reached its lowest point since World War II with a growth rate of 0.7 percent. But the Soviet Union's problem derives from a top-heavy and aging bureaucracy and from inefficient use of labor. It is actually suffering from labor shortage. These are so different from US conditions that Moscow's troubles are of no help to Americans.
The Soviets have been slowed down from being tangled up in their own highly inefficient ways of doing things. Americans have been slowed down by inertia and lack of stimulus. This is not surprising considering that in human affairs a phase of enormous achievement and success does tend to be followed by a period of rest and relaxation.
The US went through a tremendous phase of effort, expansion, modernization, and success during the buildup to World War II and during its fighting. At the end of that war the United States was the most modern and most productive country in the world and probably, in a relative sense, in all history.It was so productive and modern that it could just continue to meet its current needs out of sheer momentum -- for some 30 years.
But while the US was running on momemtum, others were recovering from the ravages of war. Starting out 10 or 20 years behind the United States they had the advantage of the latest technology. The countries which were smashed or strangled during the war and the new countries in Asia which were starting from scratch all had an advantage over the US.
That advantage, of having the latest technology, began to tell during the last half of the decade of the '70s. The United States became a net importing country. It began buying more than it could sell. Its dollar reflected the decline in trade. And since Americans had acquired the habit of high and easy living, they began paying for it out of inflation.
The serious question is: When will the American people be ready and willing to launch themselves into a new cycle by buckling downagain and doing the hard things? Neither Mr. Carter nor Mr. Reagan nor Mr. Anderson can get the US moving again. The most any one of the three could do effectively would be to explain the real condition and point the way down which Americans must fo if they are to get back into the forefront of economic health, the economic recovery must come first before much can be done about the fact that the US has also tended to stagnate in military power.
This condition of US stagnation was not caused by Mr. Carter or by his predecessors. It is a logical result of the fact that nations do not grow in a straight line, but in cyclical curves. There is a natural period of sluglishness following a period of enormous expenditure of energy in modernization and in use of resources. Somewhere along the line the American people will again be stimulated by some event or by some change in mass perception to begin a new cycle of growth.
There is little a man in the White House can do about the condition. Mostly, he is under pressure to do those things which would only smooth over the surface and delay the beginning of a new cycle. The pressures on Mr. Carter today to aid failing industries is far greater than the pressure on him to scrap obsolete factories and build new ones, employing fewer poople, which could make the US again competitive.
Americans ought to be thankful that there are three men vying for about as thankless a job as one can imagine. What they ought to want in making their choice is whichever one is the more likely to be willing to do unpopular things and survive the abuse and recrimination which inevitably follow.