Straight talk on deficits, recession

With the 1984 election only one week away, it may seem somewhat churlish to ask the two presidential candidates for some final, bottom-of-the-last-inning frankness on budget deficits and the direction of the American economy. But plain talk on the deficits remains crucial, now that the economy is slowing from its pell-mell growth earlier this year.

Granted, complex issues tend to become simplified in the United States political process. That is not unexpected, and goes back to the earliest days of the American Republic, when banners, parades, bonfires, and catchy slogans became established parts of the political setting.

But what is unfortunate about the current election is that neither candidate is really getting at the crux of the nation's economic challenge, namely, massive budget deficits that are expected to continue - and grow - throughout the rest of the 1980s. The deficits, in turn, put upward pressure on interest rates and could actually work against the sustained economic recovery sought by all Americans.

President Reagan, for his part, has all but ignored the deficit issue during the campaign. Indeed, even if he wins, as polls are now implying, it will be difficult to call such a victory a ''mandate,'' since the President has yet to spell out his plans for dealing with the economy in 1985 or beyond.

Mr. Mondale, meanwhile, although presenting a tax-increase plan that is aimed at helping to reduce the deficit, has also gotten off base on the deficit-economic issue by suggesting darkly, as he did, for example, in the first debate at Louisville, that ''the economy is tapering off and (there) may be a recession.''

Most economists seem in agreement that there is no recession on the immediate economic horizon. Unexpected events, of course, could change that conclusion. But for now, at least, most analysts seem to believe that the economy is entering a period of slow, although steady, growth in the range of 2 to 3 percent.

There are optimists. Alan Greenspan, for example, talks about real growth of up to 4.3 percent next year. But perhaps most economists of late seem to be in agreement with Data Resources Inc., which envisions growth in the range of 2.5 percent during 1985, as contrasted with growth of around 6.8 percent this year.

Such slow but steady growth would not by itself be enough to bring down the unemployment rate. In fact, joblessness would probably inch upward again under such conditions. Unemployment has been falling and is now at 7.4 percent. But many experts believe it could reach around 7.5 percent by the end of next year in an economy growing at around 2 to 3 percent annually.

What such slow growth would also do - barring any serious effort by Congress and the next president to enact a significant budget-reduction, tax-hike plan - would be to ensure that the deficits would be with us for many years. Such modest growth, by itself, will not be enough to reduce the deficits substantially.

It is essential that Congress and the White House move swifty on the deficit issue come next January. That is particularly true if Mr. Reagan is reelected. The White House will have a relatively brief ''window of opportunity'' on the deficit issue of about one year at best, before lawmakers get ready for the midterm 1986 elections.

Dealing with the deficit will not be easy - and will require statesmanship of the highest order. But the next president must exercise that statesmanship. Many federal programs - popular programs in part touching the middle class - will have to be either cut or at least held at current levels. Some new taxes will surely be necessary, but collected in such a way as not to work against recovery. The rate of increase in defense spending will have to be slowed.

With one week left in the 1984 campaign, there is still time for some honest talk on deficits.

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