Deficit furor grows faster and more intense than most expected
America is living beyond its means. Rising voices are heard here warning of dire consequences. The US budget deficit has raised the exchange level of the dollar to other coinages and affected the world trade markets, increasing United States imports and reducing exports. It has roused partisan political dissension here, as party leaders blame each other. It has caused disagreement between the White House and the President's Council of Economic Advisers. It is also beginning to cause anxiety on Wall Street, where a long upward rise in the value of stocks has wavered into a decline.
Some observers are beginning to believe that the problem won't wait until after the November election to be tackled, as the White hopes, but that drastic curtailment of government expenditure must come before then.
Martin Feldstein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, continued what amounted to a running debate with the White House in testimony before the House Budget Committee Monday. He dealt with one technical aspect of the problem: how the government's big annual Treasury deficit of roughly $180 billion finds expression in world trade by ''strengthening'' the dollar (making its exchange rate abnormally higher to other currencies). The problem in making corrections to get the dollar back to normal, he said, was that the process might produce a shock to the world economy.
''In the future, the exchange value of the dollar must fall,'' Mr. Feldstein said flatly. ''If the current strength of the dollar were to persist, the large current account deficit would also persist and grow. This is not possible, because the world's financial investors would not be willing to go on absorbing the ever-growing volume of US public and private securities.''
The battle of the budget has developed more rapidly than expected. It may dominate the developing presidential election. Everybody agrees that the country needs higher taxes or smaller expenditures or both, but Congress doesn't want to tighten the belt just before an election. The economy on the whole is making a good recovery from a sharp recession. Within the administration, some economic advisers have issued warnings. Feldstein's grew so strong that the White House ordered him to stay off the ABC news show ''This Week with David Brinkley'' on Sunday. His testimony before the House Budget Committee the next day covered only one phase of the problem; his manner was mild and restrained.
Prominent investment banker Felix G. Rohatyn, who helped New York City extricate itself from threatened bankruptcy, charged Sunday that ''we are living in a very high-risk environment at this point.'' He pointed to the 1984 Economic Report of the President, which Mr. Feldstein's agency has just sent to Congress with a seven-page introduction from President Reagan. Mr. Reagan takes a calm view of the economy; some outside experts, however, warn that the new report itself summarizes all the dangers of the situation.
There is a ''level of dissension among the people making this country's financial policy that is at a level that I have never seen before,'' Mr. Rohatyn told the same ABC show from which Feldstein had been withdrawn by the White House.
A crucial part of the situation is that the country is making a brisk recovery from one of the sharpest recessions in history. Reagan's argument is that he is willing to go part way in reducing the deficit but won't make a major slash in defense expenditures or approve big new taxes at least till next year. Many economists say that budget sacrifices, if they are now to be made, must come from the middle classes, perhaps by curtailing entitlement programs such as social security.