Don't just spend -- give

There is something unspeakably immoral about the orgy of spending which Bernard R. Sarchet proposes as a cure for the nation's economic malaise (''Consumers, arise - and spend,'' Jan. 26). We are bid to ''dig into our paychecks, our interest income, our piggy banks, and our savings'' and buy, buy, buy.

If spend we must, to revitalize the economy, we have a moral obligation to do so respectfully, in ways that meet a genuine need - and such needs are legion. America is a country of incredible individual affluence and of appalling collective poverty. The litter-strewn streets of our cities shock visitors from other developed countries. The utter shabbiness of it all!

Thousands of jobs could be generated by keeping our public places up to the level of cleanliness which the rest of the developed world takes for granted. We let our railway system disintegrate in a five-year span, between 1955 and 1960, spilling heavy haulage onto our highways. So many jobs could be generated by rebuilding our transportation.

Our streets are often not safe for peaceful pedestrians: Why not spend to hire enough police to assure the safety of our homes and persons? Our urban slums house human misery unimaginable except in the third world: Where is the urban Civilian Conservation Corps to tackle the job of rebuilding our cities? We could move out of recession and eliminate unemployment simply by committing ourselves to meeting our public needs on a level comparable with our individual affluence.

Admittedly, that would require digging ''into our paychecks, our interest income,'' etc. to transfer some 10 additional percent of our gross national income from the private to the public purse, and the men and women charged with that task, our representatives in Congress, have proved loath to undertake it. Not without reason: A history of pork barrels and boondoggles has convinced many electors that taxation transfers monies from one private purse to another rather than to the public purse.

Still, the task must be done. If we are to break out of the syndrome of recession and unemployment, major resources must move from the private purse into the economy. Since we do not trust the government to do it, we must do it ourselves, as citizen Sarchet clearly notes. But ''to go out and buy,'' to ''spend with abandon,'' is not the way to do it. ''Sacrificial spending'' is a contradiction in terms.

There is a better way - sacrificial giving. There are a great many worthy objects of such activity. Most communities have some form of a United Fund. Our colleges and hospitals welcome and badly need freewill offerings. For that matter, for those who agree with the government's spending priorities, there is no reason why the Internal Revenue Service could not serve as a vehicle - though an income tax return including a voluntary surcharge for the public good might make its computer spill its registers.

The Bible enjoins us to set aside a tenth part, as the Lord has prospered us. If citizen Sarchet's figures are accurate, it would take a good bit less. Perhaps 2.85 percent of every after-tax dollar devoted to the public good would narrow the gap between private affluence and public poverty and spend our way out of the recession in short order.

A society whose prosperity is based on waste and greed does not deserve to prosper. Perhaps now is the time to build a society based on generosity - and gratitude.

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