Four views -- How Reagan can corral the economy; WHICH WOULD YOU PICK IF YOU STOOD IN HIS BOOTS?

The United States economy remains, I believe, strong, even resilient. The Cassandras of academia aside, the economy is simply not as bad off as they say. Let's begin with real income. Real family income -- a opposed to workers' earnings -- rose modestly in the 1970s, an increase that came about because a larger proportion of all families now have two working members.

Employment in this country increased by almost 20 million during the last decade. No matter what data one looks at, no matter what allowances one makes for the fact that many of the new jobs are less than full time and at the lower end of the wage scale, the employment record is still outstanding.

The naysayers call attention to the precipitous drop in productivity since the latter 1960s. Yet, those who have looked most carefully at the figures -- people such as economic growth expert Edward Denison -- are far from certain about what has happened.

Probably this country's productivity is down; but I for one continue to have doubts. The situation may not be as easy to explain or as bad as it seems. Consider, for instance, the following:

* The unreported underground economy is surely not less than 7 percent and possibly as high as 10 percent of the GNP and is growing.

* Though the service sector now accounts for around 70 percent of the GNP [ gross national product] and employment, we simply cannot and do no take proper account of quality changes overtime in this sector.

But surely, economists argue, our industrial plant is in serious trouble. Such basic industries as steel, autos, and rubber are foundering.

True, Detroit is reeling because it remained intransigently committed to big gas-guzzling cars long after repeated warnings that OPEC was here to stay. But the Japanese have been careful not to underestimate GM, which is more than can be said for many self-styled US experts.

Clearly we need to reindustrialize. But we should invest in plant and equipment in U.S. industries that have maintained their competitive edge or are in a good position to reestablish it. We should not invest capital simply to keep our current manufacturing sector intact.

The critics worry, too, about research and development. Clearly we have been slipping for some time -- first, because of a slowing of the rate of expenditures (as if any curve could advance indefinitely), and second, because of our focus on defense and space rather than on goods produced for the market.

Still, we should not overemphasize the case. While the West Germans and the Japanese appear to be spending a higher proportion of their GNP on civilian research and development, the United States is still outspending them by a considerable margin in total dollars invested in R&D. Most Japanese officials believe that the US will retain its technological leadership.

Of course, it would be a mistake to assume that the US economy is poised to take off for new heights; but it is also a mistake to assume the worst. for if we assume the worst, we will act rashly, perhaps recklessly.

Rather, we must act with caution. And much like the human body, the economy has great recuperative powers. To moderate inflation, then, the federal government -- together with business and labor -- must draw a little of the poison out of the system every few months over a period of years.

It can be done, but only if the principal actors work together -- only if the economy is not put into shock and not disrupted by reckless interventions.

The strength of the US has long resided in its commitment to freedom, democracy, and equality of opportunity. We have always fallen short of our ideals but less so than most nations. With blacks and Hispanics likely to account for one-quarter of the US population by the end of the century, we have no alternative, if only in our own self-interest, but to open the gates of opportunity to all who will make the effort.

Finding the optimal balance between government and the individual is less important than assuring that all who live in the US will be treated equitably and humanely. A government that contributes to this end will find that the economy can solve most of its problems on its own.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.