The LBJ syndrome

Financial experts and economists seem to be in general agreement that much of America's economic trouble stems from the refusal of former President Lyndon Johnson to pay for the Vietnam war out of current income.

His financial advisers urged him to raise taxes and to put the war to some extent on a pay-as-you-go basis. He refused. The public debt piled up at a faster than normal rate. This fed inflationary tendencies in the economy. We all know the end of the story.

President Reagan is committed to the biggest military program in peacetime American history. He has been cutting taxes while placing contracts for more and bigger weapons. The big cost years are ahead - beginning probably in 1984.

If the guns program goes ahead according to present planning, the annual federal deficit will soar out of all precedent for 1984, 1985 and beyond. There is talk of the deficit reaching such figures as $300 billion in a single year.

Is that why the ''recovery'' which was so widely expected by this time has not yet arrived, and why Reaganomics is not yet working as intended and promised? And is it also the reason why some of the top people on the White House staff and Republican leaders in the Senate are increasing the pressure on President Reagan to negotiate with the Soviets, trim back on his military program and find ways to increase revenue?

Biggest question of all, can the incubus of those huge future deficits be lifted from the minds of Americans and thus allow economic recovery to emerge?

So long as American bankers must expect those huge deficits ahead they will be loath to cut interest rates lower than they are now. The chances are they will begin to go up again unless there is a dispelling of that assumption about the deficits.

And so long as interest rates stay where they are or again go up American industrialists and businessmen will be reluctant to borrow money for building new factories or new stores. The fear of the future deficits is paralyzing American business and industry and denying Americans the recovery they were promised by now.

Can the prospect of the deficits be dispelled? Yes, of course - in theory.

In theory three things could do it. First, trim back hard on the arms program. Second, harness social security. Third, raise more revenue. Those three measures would reverse the prospect from huge deficits to a balanced or near balanced budget from 1985 on. If the bankers saw the prospect of balanced budgets ahead, they could lower interest rates. With the prospect of lower interest rates, industry and business would borrow money for new plants and activities.

Add a bonus. Every time the interest rates come down by one point the prospective federal deficit drops by $10 billion - because the Treasury would have to pay less for borrowed money. A drop of 3 percent in interest rates would trim the prospective deficit by $30 billion - a big saving.

If business and industry began to revive, unemployment would decline thereby reducing the welfare load.

The Congress is taking a cautious look at the social security problem. The steady rise in costs must be checked. Everyone in Washington knows that. But is it politically possible? Only by bipartisan action. Neither party would dare do it alone. Both parties must agree to abstain from any effort to exploit restraint on social security. Abstention of that kind does not come naturally to a politician. It will not come easily, or tomorrow.

The problem of raising taxes may be easier. The informal group of White House aides and Senate Republican leaders have already persuaded Mr. Reagan to two rounds of tax rises - one was the so-called tax ''reform'' program of last year, the other was the 5-cents-a-gallon tax on gasoline. Next goal of the revenue raisers will be to try to eliminate Mr. Reagan's third round of income tax cuts for this year. Other devices are under consideration. Everyone but Mr. Reagan agrees that more federal revenue must be found.

Mr. Reagan is himself the main obstacle to cutting the arms budget. But recent word from the White House is that he is coming round toward willingness to negotiate seriously with the Soviets over arms limitations. Also, there is talk of a Reagan-Andropov ''summit.'' Progress along those lines could give Mr. Reagan a reason to take another look at the arms program. Congress is doing it already.

Mr. Reagan is as reluctant as once was LBJ to buy his guns on a pay-as-you-go basis. But those around him remember the consequences of letting LBJ have his way. The pressures on Mr. Reagan are mounting. There is still a chance that the incubus of the future deficits will be lifted from the American economy.

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