Polar alternatives and dramatic extremes are always more likely to attract public attention. The federal budget is no exception. On the one hand, there are many economists and others who contend that deficits do not matter at all. They cite as evidence the current robust recovery in the face of an estimated $200 billion of annual Treasury borrowing.
On the other hand, there is no shortage of financial and economic authorities who point to the same deficit as the fundamental source of high interest rates, the large foreign trade deficit, and sluggish business investment. They expect the recovery to wind down next year.
The more likely result - as is so frequently the case in economic disputations - falls in that unattractive and somewhat dull middle area. When the government runs a deficit, that does make a difference. But surely deficits are not the only thing that matters. The underlying strength of the private sector is a far more basic determinant.
A strong recovery in the economy is under way. According to my foggy crystal ball, this recovery will last at least until the polls close that Tuesday in November in George Orwell's year. But the current expansion may not be as long-lasting as we would like. There are two major clouds on the economic horizon - the possibility that monetary policy will stay too easy too long, and the danger that fiscal or budget policy will continue to generate large deficits even as the economy continues to recover.
My standard analysis of the Federal Reserve Board's actions may, unfortunately, be appropriate once more: too much, too late. Having waited until the recession was deeper and longer than generally anticipated to shift to a stimulative policy, the Fed may now keep its foot on the monetary accelerator too long. At least in the past, that has usually led to subsequently jamming on the brakes when a new round of inflationary pressures became visible. Combined with the budget deficits, we seem to be witnessing a version of conventional Keynesian stop-and-go policies, but without that pejorative label.
Let us turn to the genesis of the budget quandary facing the United States. The administration's original tax proposal was to reduce the personal income tax by 10 percent a year for three consecutive years and to liberalize depreciation allowances. That, in itself, was an ambitious but limited set of tax reductions. But in the subsequent negotiations with the Congress on the tax bill, a ''bidding'' war occurred.
The upshot was to add a variety of expensive and extended provisions which ranged from the temporary All-Savers certificates to the permanent introduction of indexing, effective in 1985. Other add-ons included increasing the desirability of individual retirement accounts and reducing the marriage tax penalty. The financial markets interpreted all this, correctly, as meaning an extended period of deficit financing. The resulting rise in interest rates directly increased the budget deficit.
But what about all the spending cuts? On the surface, the growth in federal spending has been slowed down. But the slowdown has been almost entirely the result of lower inflation. Recasting the analysis in real terms is an eye-opener. When we compare the projections of spending for 1982-86 in President Carter's swan-song budget with President Reagan's current numbers, the differences are very small in real terms. It depends on which price index or deflator is used whether the Carter or the Reagan real spending numbers are lower.
This finding may come as a surprise to those who read so much about all those budget cuts. Many individual cuts were made. But they were offset by the continued rapid rise in ''entitlements,'' farm subsidies, interest payments, and military procurement - areas that were exempt from serious budget cutting.
There is plenty of blame to go around. It is the President who submitted the it. Yet, it is the average citizen who generates the pressure for more government spending - when he or she says, ''I'm all for economy in government . . . but don't cut the special project in my area or the one benefiting my industry, because that is different.'' I vividly recall my meeting with an interest group pleading for a bailout from the government. When I said, ''That's just a form of welfare,'' the group protested vehemently: ''Welfare is for poor people.''
The American economy would be a lot healthier if the deficits were half their size. Expansive monetary policy can overcome for a while much of the depressing effect of sustained deficit financing. But only for a while. We are going to pay the price for those deficits - in terms of higher interest rates, larger balance-of-trade deficits, and lower economic growth than we would otherwise have.
Yet this is no forecast of doom and gloom. With an expanding economy and rising pool of saving, those deficits will, over time, shrink in importance. But to the extent that they force the Fed to maintain excessive monetary stimulus, the deficits contribute to another round of inflation. Meanwhile, housing and business investment will increase more slowly than would otherwise be the case. Thus, economic growth and the rise in living standards will be more modest - unless we take the unlikely course of engaging in another round of comprehensive budget cuts.
We should become truly bipartisan on this matter. When the conservatives want to cut the social programs in the budget, we should support them. The public must understand the realities of the entitlement programs: The beneficiaries are receiving far more than they are ''entitled'' to under any insurance concept that links benefit payments to contributions (including both employee and employer contributions and earnings on such contributions). These programs contain a major component of subsidy - from working people to retirees.
When the liberals want to limit the rapid defense buildup to the rate that candidate Reagan campaigned on (5 percent a year in real terms), we should support them, too. But we should part company with both groups when each tries to use its budget savings to restore the budget cuts made by the other.
The budget quandary is no arcane matter. It simply represents our unwillingness as a nation to make hard choices. We can earn the 1981 tax cuts by matching them with spending cuts - or continue to suffer the consequences.