That Vision Thing

POLITICAL commentators, candidates opposing incumbents, and minority party office holders all decry the lack of vision shown by those in control. George Bush is an ideal target for such complaints. He is addicted to the mundane; his rhetoric, whatever the subject matter, is numbing. But even an articulate, imaginative leader would be hemmed in by circumstances. The American people demonstrate not the slightest inclination to support national political initiatives. We are digging an ever deeper hole by failing to commit sufficient money and effort to deal with problems such as a deteriorating environment, an under-educated work force, health care, an outmoded infrastructure, rampant crime and drug use, a growing underclass, and rising inequality.

Americans know this, but continue to support candidates who, in effect, promise that no significant sacrifice is required. Why do they do so?

First, with great justification they distrust the federal government's ability to function effectively. Its defense procurement, banking oversight, management of nuclear plants, conduct of HUD, and administration of a variety of credit activities like student and farm loans inspire little confidence. In programs like health care, costs are skyrocketing out of control. Since 1930, federal spending as a share of GNP has risen from under 10 to over 30 percent. Whether benefits to taxpayers match added expenditures is in serious doubt.

Second, those who cause domestic problems - e.g. crime and drug use - or, more importantly, who will be recipients of added federal aid - e.g. housing, health care, or child tending - are members of the underclass or the working poor. The broad middle class and the rich, which constitute a majority of 60 or 70 percent and have disproportionately greater political clout, are rebelling against higher expenditures for the welfare of their poorer fellow citizens.

The recent revolt against the progressive tax provided in catastrophic health care legislation is a dramatic case in point. If relatively well-off Americans are going to support spending money on the poor, it appears they will do it only to punish by putting criminals in jail, or welfare recipients to work. Improving the environment is more acceptable because pollution hurts everyone. In fact, the affluent may succeed in legislating environmental regulations which impose a heavy burden on workers.

Third, although recent events in Russia and Central Europe may undercut its raison d'^etre, an American ``empire'' held intact largely by expensive maintenance of troops and arms abroad and military aid to satellite countries, is immensely popular at home. Disraeli discovered imperialism's potential to distract and entice voters. Even his arch rival Gladstone, an avowed ``little Englander,'' succumbed to empire's charms.

From Lincoln to McKinley to Wilson to FDR to Kennedy to Reagan, American presidents were glad to cast themselves and their nation as the leader of the ``free world.'' The collapse of communism undercuts Bush's hope to continue in this tradition, but he and many members of Congress will continue to seek a grand American international role.

Their constituents, they know, are not anxious to abandon the imperial drive McKinley initiated almost a century ago when he intervened in Cuba, took title to Caribbean islands, and, suspiciously, stole the Philippines from native rebels who thought, incorrectly, the United States would encourage self-determination.

In the end, nationalism will undercut our empire just as it has the Russians', but, as we look back on the glorious triumph of capitalism and democracy, we shall give up ours grudgingly. Those who yearn for a liberation of massive amounts spent on a military establishment abroad for domestic use at home may be sorely disappointed.

Reductions in expenditures for weapons will also be resisted for the obvious reason that their production employs people and generates profits.

Failure to attend to mounting domestic deficiencies is bound to limit rises in living standards in the short run and may even lead to absolute decline later on, especially with international competition so acute. ``Given this reality,'' many may contend, ``the American public will come to its senses and bite the bullet. What we need and will get is another FDR to provide the vision and lead us out of the crisis.''

But there is no crisis. Adverse consequences will be gradual and affect citizens unevenly. The well-off will, as described above, shift a portion of their burden to the poor. The latter will lack the political leverage to resist.

America has much going for it - particularly a strong entrepreneurial spirit, rekindled by immigrants - but its asset/liability balance may be moving negatively. In a Darwinian world such a trend is not inconceivable. While the course of world living standards is not necessarily a zero sum game, global growth does not mandate that the player who has ridden high on the hog for more than half a century, arguably since its birth, is in for more prosperity.

Clausewitz called war diplomacy by other means. The Germans and Japanese may be fighting and winning a war they started 60 years ago by substituting economic and political for military means. Our fixation on the cold war may have cost us much more than we realize. A visionary leader would tell us the sacrifice that is required to make us once more the premier global player. But he, or she, will not appear when most Americans do not wish to hear that message.

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